Poland’s democracy is not a priority for many of its voters
Jaroslaw Kaczynski realised before his rivals that most voters just want to make ends meet
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has promised to use a second term to eliminate ‘all things that limit us’. Photograph: AP
A week ago, the “wrong kind of Pole” won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is the friend-foe language of Poland’s Law and Justice (Pis) party, winner of a second term in Sunday’s general election.
For her admirers, Olga Tokarczuk is a writer who brings dignity – and, now, international attention – to the lives of ordinary Poles. In PiS doctrine, Poland’s sixth Nobel literature laureate is a targowiczanin, a traitor, that the country would be better without. Why? Because in her writing and activism she questions the populist ruling party’s claim to be supreme arbiter of the Polish soul.
Because she, and other “traitors” like her, challenge the PiS campaign for absolute control of public institutions and debate. Because they warn against reshaping the Polish history as a patriotic pick and mix that ignores, obfuscates or contests everything that does not serve a Polish victim narrative – from Nazi collaboration to Polish anti-Jewish pogroms. (In the muddied waters of PiS Poland, a critic cannot be a patriot.)
Days before Tokarczuk was awarded the highest prize in the literary world, the PiS culture minister said he had never finished any of her books because they were too difficult. That was a mild criticism by PiS standards of the writer who, in the election campaign, warned of the social cost of a united church-state alliance against the LGBT community.
On the evening of the announcement from Stockholm, when other countries might air a special report about their latest Nobel prize-winner, Polish state television instead broadcast a pre-election documentary that served the PiS election campaign. Called Invasion, it warned Polish viewers about the threat to “our” civilisation posed by foreign-funded gender and LGBT “ideology”.
Displays of hatred
After a summer of violent clashes at pride parades, public displays of hatred ennobled by the church-state campaign, Poland’s LGBT community fears even worse is to come.
And many of Poland’s judges are wary of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Sunday-night promise to use a second term to eliminate “all things that limit us”.
That is likely to include a final crackdown on judges who don’t profess loyalty to the ruling party, as well as foreign-owned media – among the last critical voices in public life.
Sunday’s result – and the politics likely to result – have parallels with political realities emerging in Hungary, in the wider European Union and further afield.
This was a final protest vote by an electorate against the transformative economic chemotherapy Poland has endured in the last three decades. The shift from planned to market economy was successful in many ways – the Polish economy is powering ahead, its cities are unrecognisable – but neither Polish liberals nor the left, in power over previous years, dared take the patient off the drip.
The PiS play for power saw it retain its existing social conservative identity, popular with traditional Catholic voters, while pulling in new voters with left-wing welfare promises that promised – and delivered – a welfare payment of 500 zloty (€113) per child. This, and an additional months’ state pension, has transformed many Polish lives without, as critics predicted, hobbling the economy. Before Sunday’s vote, PiS promised to hike further pensions and double the monthly minimum wage to 2,600 zloty (€600).
But the election result was more than just an electorate being bribed with their own money. Polish sociologists Przemyslaw Sadura and Slawomir Sierakowski talk of a new “cynical voter” who has no illusions about the political class and casts their vote based on a personal cost-benefit analysis.
Surveys of voters by the two sociologists showed that, while PiS enjoys a core vote of 35 per cent, on Sunday they were able to activate only half of the 20 per cent swing vote.
This was despite support from the pulpit and TVP, the state propaganda broadcast outfit. In a telling remark, Kaczynski said on Sunday that his party “deserved more”.
Despite the proud legacy of Solidarity, many Poles tended towards passive conformity in the 1980s, and they haven’t changed
The two million swing voters PiS pulled in, analysts argue, are more political consumers than true believers. Similar to Donald Trump and Republican voters, many of these PiS voters do not like their ruling party or its politicians – but they like the results.
Also familiar to western European or US ears is the real, palpable anxiety among Poles about the complexity of modern life – and the promise of simplicity that is part of the PiS package.
But this is where things depart the mainstream, and Poland’s memory of Soviet-backed authoritarianism kicks in. Kaczynski portrays his political mission as correcting and completing what he sees as Poland’s flawed transition to democracy that preserved old privileged castes and added a new, liberal mafia at odds with Poland’s identity and interests.
But his critics see a clever, uncontrollable ideologue who is reactivating authoritarianism under the guise of benevolent paternalism.
Despite the proud legacy of Solidarity, many Poles tended towards passive conformity in the 1980s, and they haven’t changed. PiS voters don’t seem to want to be bothered with the details of democracy, Kaczynski realised before his rivals: they want to make it to the end of the month.
The PiS playbook is a Polish reboot of the Bertolt Brecht maxim: first comes grub, then come morals.
The challenge now for PiS rivals – and Poland’s EU neighbours – is to convince ordinary Poles that authoritarianism is neither an acceptable nor inevitable price for personal prosperity. And the separation of powers is not a liberal luxury but a far-sighted – and obligatory – insurance policy for all EU citizens.
Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent