The recent parliamentary elections in Poland were historic, although unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. For the first time since 1989 a political party in Poland has won an overall majority in parliament, with the conservative nationalist Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) winning over 37% of the vote. Also for the first time in history, the left will have no representatives in parliament, meaning that Poland is presently the only country inside the European Union where there are no left MPs.
The ruling centre-right Citizens’ Platform (Platorma Obywatelska – PO), which gained 24% of the vote, had been in government for eight years after defeating PiS in 2007. It was unable to take advantage of the large inflow of EU funds to ensure that the economy continued to grow throughout the period of the economic crisis. Nevertheless, large sections of society have not felt the benefit of this growth, with living standards stagnating, public services declining and huge numbers of young people moving abroad to seek a better life.
PiS were able to capitalise on this dissatisfaction by focusing their campaign on social issues. They have promised such things as providing new state benefits for families, reducing the retirement age, introducing a minimum wage and investing in job creation. However, it remains to be seen whether PiS will implement these reforms, or whether they were simply a populist cover for their more conservative agenda.
A conservative revolution
PiS now holds total political power, after its candidate Andrzej Duda won the Presidential elections earlier this year. Although, Beata Szydło is likely to hold the post of Prime Minister, the party continues to be led by Jarosław Kaczyński who wishes to construct a government similar to Viktor Orban’s in Hungary. Therefore, in the run-up to the elections, Kaczyński replicated Orban’s anti-refugee rhetoric, arguing that these refugees would seek to create a caliphate in Poland and that they would spread diseases in the country. PiS are also strongly Eurosceptic and are extremely hostile to Russia, with many of the party’s supporters continuing to believe that the Smoleńsk tragedy in 2010 (in which nearly 100 prominent politicians and public figures were killed, amongst them President Lech Kaczyński) was a deliberate attack organised by Russia. PiS is close to the Catholic Church and supports policies such as introducing a complete ban on abortion (including when a pregnancy threatens the health of a woman or is the result of rape) and in-vitro treatment. It is likely that the government will attempt to carry out a conservative revolution in areas such as education, culture, the media and the state. It is possible that PiS will even seek to reform the constitution and move Poland in a more authoritarian direction.
Forces of the far-right
PiS are joined in parliament by a new political force of the far-right – Kukiz15 – which won nearly 9% of the vote. This movement is organised around the former rock star Paweł Kukiz (who won 20% in the first round of Presidential elections) and it combines anti-systemic rhetoric with nationalist and conservative-Catholic values, including members of the fascist National Movement on its electoral slate. Another far-right party Korwin (an extreme neo-liberal party which ran an Islamophobic election campaign) narrowly failed to cross the 5% threshold needed for political parties to enter parliament. One of the most worrying aspects of these elections was that young people overwhelmingly voted for the parties of the conservative right.
The only other parties to enter parliament are the Peasants’ Party (Polskie Stronictwo Ludowe –PSL), who were in coalition with PO, and the new neo-liberal party Modern (Nowoczesna) which gained the support from some disaffected PO voters.
The biggest losers in these elections were the left
The coalition United Left (Zjednoczona Lewica – ZL) gained just 7.55% of the vote, meaning that it did not gain any seats in parliament (the threshold for coalitions is 8%). This coalition was organised around the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej – SLD) and smaller left/liberal parties such as the Greens, Palikot Movement and Polish Socialist Party. Although the election campaign was led by new younger members of these different parties, ZL failed to distance itself from the past failures of the left, particularly when the SLD governed in the early 2000s. A new left party Together (Razem) also took part in these elections for the first time, winning over 3% of the vote, meaning it will now have access state funding for parties. Although this party sometimes presents itself as Poland’s new Syriza/Podemos, it puts forward a mainstream social democratic programme focused on introducing a progressive taxation system. The party refused to enter the ZL coalition and heavily criticized the SLD leadership during the election campaign, claiming it wished to build a new non ‘post-communist’ left. This division on the left, in face of a strong conservative right, contributed to its defeat in these elections.
PiS will now try to create a new political and cultural hegemony, which if successful could dominate Polish politics in the same manner that Orban does in Hungary. Whatever the differences that exist between the various sections of the left, it is now essential that it faces up to the seriousness of the present situation in Poland and acts together to counter the policies of the new right-wing administration. Razem were relatively successful in appealing to sections of young people and the so-called precariat that faces difficulties on the labour market. Meanwhile ZL continued to gain the support of the SLD’s loyal electoral base, particularly amongst elderly voters. Both of these electoral groups are needed if the left is to launch a counteroffensive against the right and challenge for power in the next elections. The left needs to offer a coherent and progressive alternative that unites a range of social groups against the right’s divisive and reactionary agenda.