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The Polish Elections: One Month to Go

With exactly one month to go before the Polish elections, the odds still favor a victory for the far-right Law and Justice party (PiS). But there are still lots of variables. Setting aside all the substantive policy issues or ideological battles, one of the biggest question marks involves the math.  The Poles use the so-called d’Hondt method, modified to require a minimum of 5% of the votes (for individual parties) or 8% (for coalitions). The calculations are complex, and if you are really interested click here for a full explanation.

The upshot is that even a small shift in the votes cast for a small party can make a huge difference. For example, currently the Polish People’s Party (PSL) is hovering around the 5% barrier.  If they win 5.1% of the vote they will remain in the sejm and likely form an alliance with Civic Platform (PO).  But if they win 4.9% of the vote they will not enter the sejm at all, significantly reducing the probability that PO could form a coalition government.  The same goes for several parties: the libertarian (a likely coalition partner with PO), the nationalist Kukiz15 (a likely coalition partner with PiS), the leftist Lewica coalition (which therefore needs 8%), and the libertarian/nationalist/antifeminist/anti-EU/anti-immigrant KORWiN party (a likely coalition partner with PiS).

There are many possible constellations of power, and each would create a slightly different political dynamic.  As I mentioned, the most likely result is a PiS-led coalition, but it matters a great deal whether they govern alone, or whether they need Kukiz15 and/or KORWiN to reach a majority.  The last time PiS held power (2005-2007) they had to join with two small extremist parties, and the ensuing chaos paralyzed the government and led to its collapse. Similarly, it is possible for PO to retain power if all its potential coalition partners make the cut, but such a government would have to reconcile social democrats and libertarians, whose only shared cause would be keeping PiS out of power.

Anyway, here’s what the most recent surveys predict.  They are all relatively close in terms of the overall percentages, but the balance of power in the sejm in each case would vary significantly.






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The Polish Election: Too Close to Call?

With one month to go before the Polish election, the sense of impending triumph among PiS (Law and Justice) supporters is palpable.  But if the newest poll by Millward Brown (for Gazeta Wyborcza) is to be believed, it might be closer than we think.  The “Zjodnoczona Prawica” (The United Right), as the PiS-led coalition is known, currently has 33% support to only 22% for PO (Civic Platform).  But if we consider the most likely coalitions, the gap narrows considerably.  Assuming that PiS would join with KORWiN and Kukiz 15, they would get 45%.  It is hard to imagine any of the other parties joining such a government, which leaves a PO-led opposition with 42%.  Since Kukiz is currently sitting precariously on the line needed to win any delegates, we could easily imagine his group not making it to the new Sejm.  That would leave a PiS/KORWiN coalition with only 40%, thus keeping them in the opposition (albeit with a much tighter balance of power).  Remember that the votes cast for parties that don’t make the 5% cut-off are distributed proportionally among the parties that do make it in, so a small lead gets magnified. This isn’t over….

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From Emigration to Immigration

There are countries that people try to escape from, and there are countries that these people try to escape to. In which category does Poland belong?

For well over a century Poland has been one of those countries that people wanted to leave, whether to escape political oppression, war, or poverty. Approximately two million Polish speakers settled in the United States in the decades leading up to the First World War, and that doesn’t even count the Jews who left territories that would later become part of independent Poland. By 1930 almost half a million Poles lived in the Chicago, and today 821,000 residents of that city identify as Polish-Americans. More recently, Poles have migrated in massive numbers to Great Britain and other EU countries, to the point where Polish is now the second most commonly spoken language in England (after English, of course).

But times have changed, and Poland is rapidly transforming from a poor country that generates emigration into a relatively wealthy country that attracts immigration. Since 1989 the country’s GDP per capita has doubled, and in the midst of the world-wide recession after 2008 Poland was the only European country whose economy continued to grow. Comparing levels of prosperity in different countries is complicated and imprecise, but a good estimate is captured by the United Nation’s “Human Development Index” (HDI), which combines a range of statistics to create a rough measure of overall well-being. Using those figures, it is immediately clear that Poland is not a poor country; quite the contrary, the Poles are better off than 85% of the world’s population.


If the HDI were a skyscraper, the Poles would be living just below the penthouse suites.


This is not to say that there aren’t problems in Poland. With an average monthly income of 865 euros, Poles lags far behind Germans (2,995 euros) and they are even a bit behind the Czechs (970 euros). Around 17% of Poles live in poverty, a figure that has remained stubbornly consistent even as the overall economy has boomed. And although the residents of Warsaw now enjoy a standard of living similar to their peers in Berlin, some parts of the country rank among the poorest regions in the entire European Union.

Nonetheless, if we step back and look at Poland in a global context, it’s clear that the vast majority of people on Earth would have better lives in Poland than they currently do at home. So far that hasn’t translated into a massive wave of migration to Poland, but if current trends continue it is unavoidable that the Poles will have to contend with the same debates about immigration that their own emigration has sparked elsewhere in the past.

In recent days the first signs have appeared that this moment might arrive more quickly than anyone anticipated. Faced with a refugee crisis sparked mainly by violence in the Middle East, many in the EU support a broad distribution of these new arrivals across all member countries. The response from Hungary was particularly vehement: the far-right government of Viktor Orbán has been trying to close its borders and has used ugly rhetoric to justify its actions. Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of Poland has been more restrained and has agreed to accept some refugees, but not nearly as many as the original EU plan proposed. Her government is trying to distinguish between an openness to housing refugees and an unwillingness to take in economic migrants, though in practice this distinction has been notoriously hard to sustain. Her reluctance might be due in part to the fact that she is in the midst of an uphill election battle, with a vote scheduled for October 25. Her center-right party currently trails the far-right opposition, which promises to prevent any foreigners from settling in Poland. Recent surveys show that more than a third of Poles would refuse to accept any refugees, with another third offering to welcome no more than 2,000 (in a country of 38 million). All this despite recent instructions from Pope Frances for every parish in Europe to prepare to house and feed refugees. Suddenly the famously Catholic Poles don’t seem so loyal to the Holy Father after all.

Some might be tempted to link the Polish reluctance to accept refugees to longstanding traditions of xenophobia and bigotry—indeed, some commentators have made just this connection. There is no doubt that a nationalist resistance to diversity is an important factor, but there is no reason to believe that the racism or islamophobia of the far right is a much bigger factor in Poland than it is in France, Austria, Switzerland, or anywhere else on the continent. When it comes to xenophobia, Poles are certainly no better than their European neighbors, but neither are they significantly worse.

What is different in Poland is the novelty of being in a position to give aid to others rather than receiving aid from others. Accepting their role as citizens of a successful first-world country (albeit among the poorer members of that club) is a big adjustment for Poles, and the older position of noble suffering and martyrdom is much more comfortable and familiar. Poles are understandably more inclined to stress the remaining gaps between their standard of living and that enjoyed by the Germans or the English, and less likely to recognize how far they have come over the past decade or so, or to see their own relative position vis-à-vis the rest of the world. I am not really criticizing this lack of perspective; in fact, I’d be surprised if it were otherwise. The right in Poland wants to remember their national history of victimization, and the left wants to focus everyone’s attention on the profound social inequities that continue to plague their country. But in the globalized context of the 21st century, Poland is now securely in the club of the privileged. The consequences of this unfamiliar condition can’t be avoided forever.




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The Ghost of Referendum Past

What if you held a referendum and no one came?

That’s what happened in Poland last weekend. The story is almost comically bizarre, but it exemplifies some very serious problems with the current political atmosphere in Poland.

During last May’s presidential elections a rock musician with no political experience named Paweł Kukiz stunned everyone by getting 21% in the first round of voting.  His supporters were an ideological mishmash, united only by a disgust of the political establishment and a somewhat nihilistic desire to pull down the current system. But the only clear and consistent policy recommendation Kukiz made was oddly wonkish: a shift from proportional representation to single-mandate voting districts.  Then-incumbent President Bronsiław Komorowski, in a transparent but misguided attempt to win over Kukiz’ electorate before the second round of voting, announced a referendum on this issue.  He also tagged on a couple other seemingly popular proposals: a reform in the system of public campaign financing and a taxpayer-friendly revision of how disputes with the state revenue collection system get resolved. Since very few people ever truly cared about any of these questions, that ploy failed to boost Komorowski’s support and he lost the election to his far-right opponent, Andrzej Duda.  But the referendum was already scheduled, so last Sunday it went ahead as planned.  The results are irrelevant, because a mere 7.8% of the electorate turned out to vote (no, that it not a typo).  Since 51% of eligible voters must show up for a referendum to be binding, the proposals failed.

Meanwhile, the newly inaugurated President Duda decided to draw upon the same tactic, announcing a referendum of his own.  His issues echoed some of the policy proposals of his party’s election campaign: lowering the retirement age, blocking the privatization of some state forests, and raising the age at which children start elementary school.  All three issues would have reversed reforms instituted by the current government, which President Duda hopes to topple in parliamentary elections this coming October. Unfortunately for him, to schedule his referendum he needed the consent of the Polish senate, which was not forthcoming.

To even summarize the policy implications raised by these two referenda would take us deep into the weeds of irrelevance.  An outsider might be surprised that the heavy club of a referendum would be used for such matters, which might seem more appropriate for regular parliamentary procedures.  In fact, an insider would be equally surprised, because the Polish constitution only allows for referenda on matters of fundamental national concern. The whole episode seemed to trivialize the political process, a fact recognized by the 92.2% of the voters who opted to enjoy a late-summer Sunday and ignore the whole show.

But historians (and even ordinary Poles with long enough memories) could not help but notice a disturbing parallel from the country’s past.  In 1947 the communists used a virtually identical tactic in their successful maneuvering for power.  They selected three issues that seemed to enjoy widespread popularity—all three of which had already been passed into law—and put them before the public in a referendum.  The point was to get people to vote for issues backed by the communists, giving the party some much needed public legitimacy.  It was pure political theater, but it was also a key moment in a brutal struggle for absolute power.

The fact that Poland’s leading party’s—both of them—are employing such tactics today might be a coincidence.  And it would be hyperbolic to suggest that the stakes now are even remotely similar to those in 1947.  On the other hand, few political contests nowadays would meet that high standard, so failing to do so should not diminish the battle of fundamental importance that is currently underway.  On the one side is Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS), a radical-right populist movement which promises to reconstruct the state along the anti-liberal, nationalist lines followed by Viktor Orbán in Hungary.  On the other side is Civic Platform, which is not really a political party at all, but a broad coalition of forces stretching from the center-left to the center-right whose only shared interest is keeping PiS from power.  For the past decade this amorphous formation has successfully governed Poland by focusing on technocratic issues and a vague Euro-liberalism.  That approach clearly isn’t working any more, as demonstrated by Duda’s victory in the presidential elections.  Current political surveys suggest that PiS is likely to win in the October parliamentary elections as well.

Make no mistake: the stakes are huge. After the fiasco of the Greek crises this summer and the current refugee emergency, the European Union can ill afford another major blow.  If a radical protest movement like PiS gains power in Poland it would be (correctly) interpreted as a profound repudiation of the consensus norms of the EU elites.  Smaller countries like Hungary or Greece can be quarantined to some (limited) extent, but a similar turn in a country as large as Poland would be much more serious.  So if we see the Poles employing political methods that evoke the frightening years of struggle in the late 1940s, we shouldn’t be surprised.  Over 90% of the electorate chose to turn their backs on the theatrics of last Sunday’s referendum, and I can hardly blame them. But they need to turn around now and start paying close attention to the very real struggle for power that is underway.

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Pope Francis in the US

During Pope Francis’ visit to the United States next month, he will insist that the Church transcends partisan politics, and I’m sure he means this sincerely. But that won’t prevent his visit from having political ramifications. For several decades the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been drawing closer and closer to the Republican Party, mostly because of their shared opposition to abortion. Catholics have always bristled at the charge that their religion was subsumed by this one issue, and Pope Francis is committed to reminding the world that the Church cares about more than just sex and reproduction. He isn’t about to revise the Church’s basic teachings on these matters, but he fervently wants to change the topic of conversation. This presents a major problem for the GOP, because on nearly every other public issue they are starkly at odds with Catholic teachings.

The American press often characterizes Pope Francis as more “liberal” than his predecessors. This is a serious misunderstanding: of all the possible adjectives we might use to describe the Pontiff, “liberal” is definitely not one of them. We Americans tend to forget that the liberal tradition is based on a two-fold commitment to both individual liberty (for example, on questions of personal lifestyle) and free-market capitalism. After all, the Democrats want to soften the edges of capitalism with regulation, but they don’t want to overthrow capitalism altogether. The leadership of the Catholic Church, in contrast, has never reconciled itself with liberalism. As far back as 1864 Pope Pius IX denounced anyone who would even suggest that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Since then the Church has in fact softened its stance on “progress” and “modern civilization,” but liberalism remains a problem. As Popes John Paul II and Benedict XIV made clear, this rejection of liberalism entails constraints on individual liberty in the areas of sexuality, reproduction, and marriage. Now Pope Francis is reminding us of the other side of this anti-liberalism: a rejection of capitalism. Just as people are not free to conduct their sexual lives as they see fit, neither are they free to do whatever they want in the economic sphere.

In this sense Francis is a true conservative—even more conservative than the Republicans who are nervous about his upcoming visit. Catholic conservatives like Francis want to conserve harmonious social relations and a Christian understanding of economic justice, in the same way they want to conserve what the Church takes to be traditional family values. Free market capitalism, on the other hand, is all about change: the change that comes when Walmart undermines family shops, when agribusinesses destroy small farms, when financial consultants “downsize” a corporation and wipe out a community’s economic foundation. This type of conservatism will oppose financiers who place the pursuit of profit over the needs of maintaining a peaceful, stable community. And above all, this type of conservatism will condemn anyone whose private greed harms the public good. This isn’t socialism, because Catholic teaching can be easily reconciled with hierarchies and inequality—as long as justice is served and social harmony is maintained.

Catholicism is a problem for American politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike) but not because the Church offers some sort of mixture of left and right, liberalism and conservatism.  The Church is consistently conservative, and this upsets Democrats (who promote individualism, innovation, and disruption in the cultural realm) and Republicans (who favor individualism, innovation, and disruption in the economic realm).  During the Pope’s visit, therefore, he is likely to make every American politician squirm. The Democrats have grown accustomed to this over recent decades; now it’s the Republicans turn.

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Kopacz vs. Kaczyński

Things do not look good for Poland’s Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO).  As the dust has settled after the surprising presidential elections a month ago, the far-right opposition Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) seems to have a clear road to power.  The only other group with substantial support at the moment is the nationalistic but ideologically amorphous protest party of Paweł Kukiz, a rock musician who startled everyone by coming in third in the presidential elections. The rise of Kukiz is actually the main story here, because until he appeared on the scene it seemed nearly unimaginable that PiS could ever find a partner for a coalition government, and it remains highly improbably that they could ever win an absolute majority.  But a PiS-Kukiz coalition is a very real possibility.

The procession of bad news for PO seems endless. These graphics speak louder than words:


It is very hard to see a way out for PO.  In fact, very few Poles (including those who support the current government) think that Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz can retain power: a survey from June 23 revealed that 51% think PiS will form the next government after the Fall elections, compared to only 9% for PO.

The nail in Platforma’s coffin seemed to come with the PiS party convention on June 20, when Jarosław Kaczyński announced that he would not put himself forward as the party’s candidate for Prime Minister, naming instead Beata Szydło, who had far less name-recognition but (as the chart above shows) also far lower levels of mistrust than the PiS leader.  This is precisely what Kaczyński did in the presidential elections, fronting a charismatic but previously unknown candidate, Andrzej Duda.  Meanwhile, the radicals who have set the tone of the party’s message over recent years have been kept on a very tight leash.

Prime Minister Kopacz, who is also the leader of PO, has taken several important steps to regain momentum.  She fired several controversial ministers, replacing them with younger and more dynamic figures.  Her message has been combative and sharp, in contrast to the muffled approach defeated president Bronisław Komorowski used in his campaign.  But let’s be honest: this isn’t going to be enough.  It would seem that the only realistic hope for PO is that Kaczyński (or some other prominent figure in PiS) make some monumental gaff that reminds everybody of the radical tiger hiding behind the friendly lambs of Duda and Szydło.  As the old saying goes, the definition of a gaff is when a public figure accidentally says what he or she really thinks.  So far in 2015, we haven’t seen those kind of gaffs from the PiS leadership.

With this in mind, I can think of one way that Kopacz could regain the initiative.  There will certainly be a series of debates between the main candidates for the office of Prime Minister, and a debate between Kopacz and Szydło would be interesting but unlikely to shift the surveys much.  However, there’s something highly unorthodox here: in parliamentary systems, election campaigns are typically led by the leaders of the respective parties.  Kaczyński is not resigning from his position as PiS party leader—in fact, Szydło has already had to face accusations from skeptical journalists that she is merely fronting for man who will be the power-behind-the-throne.  The last time PiS held power, the office of Prime Minister initially went to a lesser-known figure, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, but Kaczyński pushed him aside after 9 months and took power himself .  Given this precedent, the PO campaign should insist that any debates be between exact peers: party leader vs. party leader, Kopacz vs. Kaczyński.

This is a dangerous move: Szydło could respond that it is sexist to imply that a woman couldn’t be a genuine leader without a man exerting real power.  In the abstract such a charge would seem plausible, and under other circumstances PO would be in a real bind because of this.  But because of Kopacz’s own gender, and because of Kaczyński’s history of using front-men (with an emphasis on men), I think this risk is mitigated.  Every observer of Polish politics over the past decade knows that Kaczyński values discipline and obedience very highly, and has little tolerance for those who deviate from his line.  In fact, the club of ex-politicians in Poland is populated by a great many people who threatened Kaczyński’s position within PiS and were pushed out of the party—even if their only threat was the fact that they were more popular than their leader.

What I am proposing would be ugly.  Instead of a campaign on the merits of each party’s policy proposals, this would be a fight based on fear.  On the one side, PiS would continue to repeat that Poland is “a country in ruins” (probably their favorite mantra), while PO would play to the fact that Kaczyński remains one of the most distrusted men in Poland.  His negatives are only surpassed by Antoni Macierewicz (also of PiS), Janusz Korwin-Mikke (a libertarian fringe candidate), and Janusz Palikot (the fallen star of the moribund Polish left).  A hard-fought negative campaign would go against the instincts of the PO leadership, most of whom are policy wonks, technocrats, and well-mannered (in public, at least) liberals. And it would leave a great deal of wreckage in its wake, on all sides.  But it may be Kopacz’s only chance.

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The Pope, Poland, and Pollution

The Pope is attacking the fuel of the Poles” announced the conservative daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita last Thursday (quoting the Italian weekly Politico just to be on the safe side).  The reference was, of course, to Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato si, which calls for a renewed attention to environmental protection as part of a broader social justice agenda.  While the document was not “anti-Polish” (contrary to the claims of some on the Polish right), it did call for restriction on the use of coal, and Poland is one of the global leaders in coal production.  Worse, the type of coal mined (and burned) in Poland is particularly harmful for the environment.  Let’s face it: cutting back on the use of coal will cause a lot of suffering in Silesia, and it is easy for environmentalists in Warsaw (not to mention Brussels) to call for “necessary sacrifices” when they aren’t facing the unemployment and the apocalyptic post-industrial wasteland of huge swaths of southwestern Poland.  At a time when EU austerity policies are wreaking so much havoc across the continent, we can understand why people would be skeptical when outsiders tell them that their livelihoods must be laid upon the altar of global well-being.

So let’s not make that argument.  Let not even use the Pontiff’s approach by appealing to a Christian duty to protect the earth and to save the weak from the environmental hazards that strike them the hardest.  No, let’s keep this local: no one is harmed more by the Silesian mines than the Silesians themselves. Of the ten most polluted cities in the entire European Union, six are in Poland: Kraków, Nowy Sącz, Gliwice, Zabrze, Sosnowiec, and Katowice.  In other words, the cities clustered around Poland’s largest coal-mining region.  Is any additional argument necessary?



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A Turn to the Right in Poland?

In the coverage of last week’s Polish presidential election in the Western media—and some of the Polish media as well—the words “left” and “right” have generated a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion. Here are some headlines:

Part of the problem here is a familiar challenge: how to translate political labels. “Right” in English is not quite the same as “prawica,” “recht,” or “droite.” For that matter, “right” in American English is not quite the same as “right” in British English. Most obviously, in the United States “right” and “conservative” imply a belief in unconstrained free markets and an opposition to organized labor. It was amusing to see right-wing news outlets here in the US celebrate Andrzej Duda’s victory, because no member of PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice) would ever find a home within the Republican Party. True, they would share a common foundation of nationalism, Christianity, and hostility towards gay rights and women’s rights, but they would be polar opposites on every economic issue. American Republicans would enjoy hearing Duda condemn liberalism—until they realized what he meant by that word! Here we take “liberalism” to refer to the conviction that capitalism must be given a human face through strong government regulation and active labor unions—positions advocated by our “left wing” Democratic Party.

Although the translation problems within Europe are less extreme, they are still significant. When a French politician identifies as a “conservateur,” would his or her positions line up with someone in Poland characterized as “konserwatywny”? There would be a lot of overlap, to be sure. But just to give one example, it was the “conservative” and “right wing” government of Sarkozy that adopted harsh measures to enforce laïcité, something that would be identified with the left—even the extreme left—in Poland. And how would a member of PiS respond to the fact that the “conservative” David Cameron described the introduction of same-sex marriage as one of the accomplishments that gave him the most pride?

Even deeper than these national differences in terminology, however, is a fundamental question of interpretation about the Polish elections themselves. Did the vote mark a victory for “the right” in anyone’s sense of that word? Insofar as President Duda describes himself in those terms, obviously it did. And insofar as PiS now enjoys unexpectedly strong momentum going into next fall’s parliamentary elections, then certainly the right has triumphed.

A closer look at the peculiar dynamics of this election, however, should give us pause. Let’s break down what happened more precisely. The core support of PiS is only about 30% of the population, certainly no higher than the 35% that Duda got in the first round of the election. The most recent party preference survey by IBRIS has PiS at 29.7%. This is a party that promotes three main principles: 1) a desire for a strong interventionist state, more equal distribution of wealth, and strong labor unions; 2) a conviction that foreigners are undermining Poland’s national interest at home and abroad, and a plan to identify and bring to justice the politicians who serve those foreigners; 3) a fear that Catholic values, particularly regarding issues of sexuality, gender relations, and reproduction, are under siege and must be defended by the state. This particular trio of values is not widely shared outside the PiS core constituency; in fact, it would probably win the support of a segment of the population that’s even somewhat smaller than the PiS electorate.

If that is true, then how did Duda win? The difference consists almost entirely of those who voted for Paweł Kukiz in the first round (20.8% of the total). Kukiz is not affiliated with any political party. He was briefly with the governing PO (Platforma Obywatelska, Civic Platform), and later he shifted loyalties to some extreme nationalist organizations. His campaign, however, was entirely outside any of our familiar categories. His economic positions were what Americans would call libertarian, and what Europeans could call liberal—but he rarely talked about the economy and he dodged questions on this topic. His only big issue was advocacy for electoral reforms that would replace proportional representation with single-mandate districts.  Ironically, this stance is shared by PO and opposed by PiS (along with every smaller party, which would be entirely eliminated from contention under the new system).  Some people voted for Kukiz because of this issue, but exit surveys suggest that his biggest bloc of supporters came from those 18-29 years of age, living in large urban areas.  This demographic is the true swing vote, and what they do in the fall will determine Poland’s medium-term future.

So what do those urban young people want?  This is not a natural cohort for PiS, because they tend to be too secular and cosmopolitan for that party. They voted for Duda and a great many of them might even vote for PiS in the fall, but they will become disillusioned very quickly. On the other hand, this is not a natural cohort for PO either, because this is a population that feels no satisfaction about Poland’s recent economic successes.  The official unemployment rate among those age 15-24 currently stands at around 23%–lower than it was a couple years ago, but still very high.  This is an age group that faces a job market without adequate prospects for long-term job contracts: they are the so-called “precariat,” too often getting by with “junk jobs (umowy śmieciowe) that leave them without adequate health and retirement benefits.

Even setting aside those concrete issues, the main issue for young people in Poland today is a question of comparisons. 25-year-olds in Poland have no recollection of the hardships of the period before 1989; in fact, they don’t even remember the tumult of the 1990s.  They came into a world in which Poland was already firmly embedded in Europe, and in which the gap between their lives and the lives of their contemporaries in Germany or France was narrower than ever in history.  But that last phrase—history—is the key.  I could present statistic after statistic about how much closer Poland is to European norms (indeed, I’ve done so on this blog), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the gap remains.  And precisely because Poland is now closer, that gap is experienced as inexplicable and frustrating.  For a young Pole in the 1980s, the world of “the West” was a fantasy land, and the most typical reaction to exposure to the West was a desire to live there.  For a young Pole in the 2010s, that world is still significantly better but now it’s within a shared frame of reference, and the typical reaction to exposure to the West is a desire to make Poland the same—or anger over the fact that it isn’t.

In other words, this isn’t quite the same problem as those expressed by rebellious young voters in southern Europe, who have seen their lives get significantly worse. It is a different rebellion, and it requires a different response.  The anger of the young needs to be acknowledged, respected, and channeled productively.  If someone can do that, whatever ideological label they use, they will be politically successful. Unfortunately, the more realistic outcome for the immediate future is that these voters will be drawn to a vote against everything, not a vote for anything.  This is a group that seems to want solutions, but doesn’t trust any of the existing parties to deliver those solutions. PO can’t win them back with offers of programs to address their material concerns. PiS can win them with unrelenting attacks on PO, but that will work only if the nationalism, religiosity, and cultural conservatism of PiS is sufficiently pushed to the background (which Duda did, but which Kaczyński probably can’t do).

So the story of the week is not a Polish “turn to the right”.  It’s a story of how the right was victorious thanks to the decisions of a cohort of yet-to-be-labeled young people who aren’t likely to stay with PiS for very long.  Where they will go, and what labels we will eventually find for them, remain very open questions.

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The Polish Election – Exit Poll Data

Based on the exit poll results from IPSOS, several interesting patterns emerge from the Polish election.  Most of these results are to be expected: Duda won the rural vote, Komorowski, the urban vote; Duda won among those with little education, Komorowski won among those with university degrees; Duda won in the southeast, Komorowski in the northwest (on the map below, a darker color indicates more Duda voters).  But two of these figures do stand out: Duda won overwhelmingly among those under 30, and Komorowski lost 20% of those who voted for him last time.  Put differently this means that the difference between this election and 2010 can be brought down to two points:

1) A significant number of people who voted for Komorowski when his opponent was Kaczynski went over to the other side when the opponent was Duda. Perhaps this simply marks disillusionment with Komorowski, but perhaps it marks an openness to PiS as long as it gives a softer, less strident presentation.

2) Duda was strongest among those with no memory of the last time PiS was in power.  Or perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that the young are the most frustrated by the insecurities of today’s economy.  Either way, this is a very dangerous sign for Civic Platform.


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The Polish Election – Looking Forward

While the official results for today’s Polish election won’t be announced until tomorrow, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt at this point that Andrzej Duda of the right-wing “Law and Justice” Party (PiS) is the next President of Poland. What will this mean? The actual power of the presidency is limited, so this won’t lead to any dramatic new domestic legislation or a change in Poland’s foreign policy. But that hardly makes this result irrelevant. Quite the contrary: the ramifications of today’s events are enormous, both in Poland and more broadly in Europe.

The first consequence is political. Since 2007 it has been hard to imagine a return to power for PiS. The international mockery and domestic turmoil of the brief years when the Kaczyński brothers were in power (2005-2007) created an “anyone-but-PiS” electoral coalition stretching from the left to the center-right. The Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO) party that has governed since then has been a thin institutional structure for that coalition, generating little affection or enthusiasm for its own sake. The party didn’t stand for much other than a rejection of PiS, and their election campaigns focused on a bland message of administrative efficiency and competence. Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Platform until his rise to the EU Presidency last year, was fond of saying that Poland had entered a post-ideological era. That was probably a sincere stance, but it was also a convenient position for a political organization that couldn’t afford to have an ideology lest it alienate some part of its unwieldy anti-PiS constituency.

Given this, one of two things will happen now. It is possible that the shock of today’s vote will shatter PO, as different elements of the party seek blame for the loss. The aura of invulnerability that the party enjoyed until a couple weeks ago is gone, and it may be that that aura was the only thing holding the party together. The other possibility is that this will serve as a wake-up call, and those people who didn’t vote today, or voted for Duda because of frustration at Civic Platform’s monopoly on power, will return to their former voting patterns when the Parliamentary elections come in the Fall. After all, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz remains relatively popular, though whether she can weather the coming storm is impossible to predict.

Ironically, the PiS leadership, particularly Jarosław Kaczyński, is still deeply unpopular. As of March, his negative rating was at 47%, with a positive rating of 32%. This compared with a 12% negative for now ex-President Komorowski and a 75% positive. Back then, Duda had positives only one point higher than his party leader, though his 20% negative score was much lower. Given this, there probably won’t be a clear transferal of today’s victory to the parliamentary elections. Kaczyński himself has been very quiet during the past few months, but that won’t be possible any more. He will want to make it very clear that he, not Duda, remains the leader of PiS. In the past Kaczyński has taken great care to eliminate possible rivals from contention, something he won’t be able to do so easily with President Duda. But he will certainly assert his importance, and that is bound to reflect negatively on the popularity of PiS. Duda’s popularity going forward will depend on his ability to avoid seeming subservient to Kaczyński, while at the same time holding on to the hard-right base of PiS support. That’s going to be tricky, to say the least.

The odds will still be against a parliamentary victory for PiS next Fall, even after today’s fiasco for PO. There will undoubtedly be a swing in the polls towards PiS in the coming weeks, but it is extremely unlikely that the party as a whole will ever come close to the 53% that Duda just won for himself. Given that, the only scenario for a PiS government is a coalition, and nearly all the smaller parties are dead set against working with Kaczyński. It will only take one speech in which the PiS leader returns to his conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric to remind those outside the PiS base what sort of party it is. Duda just demonstrated that he could personally rise above that, but the party as a whole will find it a lot harder to do the same.

I said above that today’s election will reverberate outside Poland’s borders.  For those who support European integration this is very bad news, though the real disaster for them will only come if PiS somehow does rise to full power with a parliamentary victory to match today’s presidential triumph.  For the past few years Brussels has had a persistent headache thanks to Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian, far-right regime in Hungary, but that problem has been pushed to the back burner because Hungary is a relatively small country and because other crises have been more pressing.  But the creation of a “Budapest on the Vistula” (once a PiS slogan, until Orbán began cozying up to Putin) won’t be so easily ignored.  PiS combines the economic populism of the south-European left (Syriza or Podemos) with the xenophobia and authoritarian strains of the right (National Front or UKIP). Imagine the Greek defiance of austerity economics combined with the Hungarian defiance of liberal democracy, then magnify both by a factor of four because of Poland’s size: that’s what is in store for Europe if today’s election turns out to be the start of a trend.

In real terms President Duda won’t be able to accomplish much on his own.  His office is largely symbolic.  But his victory has uncovered some tendencies in Polish political life that can’t be ignored–not in Poland, and not elsewhere in Europe either.  If this can happen in the one European country not to suffer through a recession so far in the 21st century, in a country enjoying unprecedented aggregate growth and prosperity (and I emphasize “aggregate”), then it can happen anywhere.  The protest votes cast for Duda–and even more important, the protest of disengagement expressed by those who didn’t vote at all–carry a message that every European should be listening to.