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Trump and Kaczyński

The impossible has happened: an issue has emerged on which nearly the entire American political spectrum can agree. During a time when it seems that the left and the right in the US live in completely different realities, so that arguments are usually about disputed facts as much as about differing values or ideals, a point of consensus has been found. In the wake of the evisceration of the constitutional tribunal and the transformation of the public media into a government propaganda agency, the PiS government has been denounced by both The Nation and The Wall Street Journal (and everyone in between). The justifications for these condemnations differ, but both clearly see that the Polish government is dismantling democracy and undermining a quarter century of Polish accomplishments. To be sure, if we read the comments section to the Wall Street Journal article we are reminded that there are American parallels to Kaczyński, but the comparison is illuminating. Donald Trump has risen to fame by tapping into the same sort of constituency that votes for PiS, but the nature of the US electoral system makes his path to power extraordinarily difficult. Though popular within the Republican base, Trump evokes loathing in everyone else, and is mistrusted by about the same number of people as mistrust Kaczyński. It would require an extremely convoluted and unlikely series of events to bring Trump to the White House: the Democrats would have to nominate someone as far to the left as Trump is to the right (and no, even Bernie Sanders isn’t far enough out there–not by a long shot), and a third-party candidate would have to siphon votes from mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans alike. Then a fragmented electoral college would send the election to the House of Representatives, and the Republic establishment would have to decide to put Trump in office. It is true that both Hitler and Mussolini rose to power because of key enabling decisions by the center-right, so I wouldn’t rule out that nightmare scenario for the US either. But it is, to say the least, unlikely. The Polish political system, in contrast, is structured in a way that allowed a party with 38% of the votes to take just over half the delegates in the Sejm. Even that result was only possible because of the self-induced implosion of SLD, and even that wouldn’t have happened had SLD constituted itself as a party (with a 5% electoral minimum) instead of a coalition (with 8%). Anyway, the bottom line is that the social phenomenon driving the movements behind Trump and Kaczyński are comparable, but for the time being, we can take some comfort in the fact that (at least for now) even the mainstream right in the US finds this horrifying.

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Are Poles Xenophobic?

I confess, the title of this post classifies as “click bait,” because it isn’t a question that can be answered.  A few years ago I wrote an article with the deliberately provocative title, “Why Do Polish Catholics Hate the Jews,” and the gist of the argument was in the subtitle: “Making sense of a Bad Question.”  It is always a fool’s errand to ask “are the [label of identity] [judgmental adjective],” because even the best answer will only identify a hegemonic norm. More commonly the response will point to a majority opinion, and sometimes only the feelings or traits of a loud or powerful minority.  Obviously it can be helpful to describe a dominant ideology or a wide-spread belief, but if we aren’t extraordinarily careful with our phrasing, we will contribute to stereotypes. Formulations like the one in the title are for the historian what nuclear technology is for the physicist: usually benign in our hands, but open to so much misuse that we have an ethical obligation to proceed with the utmost caution. If I answered “yes” to the question in my title, I would be strengthening West European and American prejudices against Poles.  If I answered “no,” I would be echoing Polish nationalists who want to sell a self-portrait of virtuous victims.

So instead, let’s re-frame the question: how successful have the proponents of xenophobia been in spreading their ideology in Poland?  Now it is clear that we are talking about a worldview with identifiable adherents, an observable strategy of persuasion, and measurable results.  We are talking about a group of people defined by the ideology we are studying, not a diverse community in which that ideology is more or less prevalent.

It turns out that for now the answer to my reformulated question is “not as much as you probably expected.” Today CBOS, one of Poland’s leading survey firms, released a study carried out in October, in which they asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “I am afraid that with increased immigration, we will lose our culture.” Making this survey even more interesting, it was carried out in partnership with firms in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.  In this group, Poland was an outlier: 73% of Czechs, 68% of Slovaks, 65% of Hungarians, but only 44% of Poles agreed, while 21% of Czechs, 28% of Slovaks, 31% of Hungarians, and 50% of Poles disagreed.  One might be attempted to say that this is because Poland is much larger, so immigration is much less likely to have a noticeable impact.  But Poland looks very good even compared to Germany, where 51% of respondents in October reported that they were “afraid” of immigration. That high figure is clearly in response to the most recent refugee crisis, but an earlier survey taken just as the emergency was starting to make headlines put the German figure at 39%.  Another measure of comparison is the massive World Values Survey, which asks people whether they would be upset if an immigrant moved in next door.  A mere 7% of Poles said that they would, compared to 19% of Ukrainians and 21% of Germans (for a valuable discussion of this data, see this excellent Atlantic article by Heather Horn).  I suspect that this figure would be higher in Poland now (that data was published in 2014), but even so, the Polish figure would have to go way up to match its neighbors.

I could also show statistics showing disturbing levels of intolerance in Poland; for issues like these, the specific question can change the result.  Vague questions about “foreigners” can resonate differently in different contexts, whereas specific queries about North Africans in France, Turks in Germany, African-Americans in the United States, or Jews in Poland might result in very different responses. But I feel confident saying that xenophobia is not more pervasive in Poland than elsewhere in Europe, and it might even be less pervasive.

In my opinion, the most important variable here is one that is very difficult to measure with a pollster’s precision: to what degree does the political culture in a particular country openly play to xenophobic or racist fears, or (instead) push such attitudes under the rug as an embarrassment that one doesn’t discuss in polite company.  There can be a great value in having difficult conversations about deeply routed stereotypes and concerns, but it is equally true that (as the saying goes) hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.  Until the last few months, Polish leaders have been terrified about their country’s “image” abroad, and this has made them walk on rhetorical eggshells.  That delicacy has filtered throughout society, and nowadays one is much less likely to hear (for example) openly antisemitic attitudes than was common when I first started traveling to Poland almost 30 years ago.  Back then, even well-educated and seemingly “cultured” people would casually blurt out the most unseemly prejudices, both in private conversation and in public.  During the 1990s one increasingly heard the phrase “nie wypada” [loosely translated, “that’s not appropriate”].  For as much as I criticized the late President Lech Kaczyński, I credit him for teaching those in his ideological circle how to avoid sounding like racists. Many would scoff at this as merely papering over pernicious attitudes, but if a rhetorical constraint is maintained long enough it can begin to have a real impact. Would anyone seriously argue that America is better off now that Donald Trump has turned over the rock and revealed the ugliness that has been hiding under the rhetorical constraints of US public life?

So the question isn’t “are the Poles xenophobic”?  The question is rather, “to what degree are public figures, cultural elites, and trend-setters of all sorts in Poland working to maintain the rhetorical constraints that keep hatred taboo, and then striving to transform those inhibitions into a more genuine tolerance?” The second development, I think, can only follow if the first is well established.  Up until recently I was optimistic that all the trend lines were going in the right direction, but now I’m not so sure. The last time PiS won an election, what I call “the antipathy index” spiked upwards, but it almost immediately began to fall once again. I want to believe that this pattern will repeat itself.

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Kaczyński is not Poland

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Democracy is a great principle for governing a country, but a lousy tool for understanding one.

Consider this syllogism:

  • The Poles selected a new parliament through a free and fair election
  • A majority of the new parliamentarians are from PiS (the Law and Justice Party)
  • PiS was therefore able to form a government through legitimate, constitutional means
  • PiS has now provoked a constitutional crisis by ignoring the constraints of parliamentary democracy
  • Therefore, the Poles have abandoned their faith in parliamentary democracy.

If we read accounts of recent events in Poland in the international press (particularly from Western Europe), we frequently encounter a form of this argument. “The Poles” have given up on democracy; “the Poles” are turning away from European values; “the Poles” are returning to familiar patterns of xenophobia, authoritarianism, and “backwardness.” Let’s set aside for a moment the lamentable pattern of orientalist stereotyping, and overlook the hypocrisy of any implication that Poland is in some way different from Western Europe or the US (need I even mention Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump?). My point today is different: regardless of the results of the October election, the current government’s unconstitutional and antidemocratic power grab reflects the preferences of a small minority of the Polish population.

Small changes in electoral results can have huge consequences, and that makes it easy to overestimate actual shifts in popular attitudes, values, and norms. On October 25, just under 51% of the Polish electorate voted, which is actually a percentage point better than last time (2011). This is typical: the turnout over the past 25 years has always been poor, never going much past 53%Voter_Turnout

Out of the 38.5 million Poles, 30.6 million are eligible to vote, but it seems safe to say that the politically engaged population consists of around 15 million people. Of these, 5.7 million voted for PiS last October, compared to 4.2 in 2011. If we group together all the right-wing parties that oppose liberal democracy, we get about 7.8 million in 2015 and 7.3 million in 2011.

Bottom line: the political earthquake that gave PiS the largest parliamentary majority in Polish history (yes, even if we go way back to the interwar years) was caused by a shift in about 3% of the population (if we just count the PiS votes) or about 1% of the population (if we count all the votes going to the various parties of the far right).

Poland has not really changed, even though Polish politics has been frighteningly transformed. In 1992, 52% of Poles surveyed by CBOS agreed that democracy was superior to all other forms of governance; today 64% feel that way. Although CBOS does not report the margin of error for their surveys—which is inexcusable, but that’s another matter—I suspect that much of the fluctuation in this statistic over the years would be accounted for by statistical noise.Attitudes_towards_Democracy

All this makes the events of the past month even more unsettling. Currently a majority of Poles feel that their democracy is threatened, and I share their concerns. The president and the prime minister, acting under the direction of their behind-the-scenes leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, have refused to acknowledge the rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal, Poland’s supreme court. I took some comfort after the elections when PiS fell short of the 2/3 majority needed to revise the constitution, but I now see that I was naïve: Kaczyński intends to simply ignore the constitution and proceed with his plan to transform the Polish political system.

In 1832, US President Andrew Jackson is reported (perhaps apocryphally) to have responded to a supreme court ruling against his administration by declaring, “the court has made its decision; now let them enforce it.” This episode is presented to Americans today as a dangerous challenge to our constitutional order, and the fact that the judicial branch recovered from that moment is held up as a testament to the strength of our system. That story gives some reason for hope, because it reminds us that liberal democracies can survive even a concerted populist attacks. But frankly, that hope weakens when set alongside the many counterexamples of countries that have recently failed to withstand attempts by the far right to seize total power. With Orbán, Putin, Erdoğan, and others blazing the trail, Kaczyński’s political project appears all too realistic.

A sturdier hope comes from the bird’s-eye-view of the Polish population that I’ve offered here. PiS might succeed in dismantling multiparty democracy, and they are certain to do a lot of damage to Poland even if they ultimately fail (and I continue to believe that they will fail). But Poles today are still the same people who have achieved such stunning success over the past few decades, with roughly the same values and norms. Kaczyński must resort to such heavy-handed, anti-democratic methods precisely because he does not embody the will of the Polish people, if we take that phrase to refer to a hegemonic worldview shared by all or nearly all Poles. A few years ago most observers were writing him off as a failed fringe politician, and his rapid return to power has shown us how seriously we underestimated him. But support for his nationalistic project is roughly the same today as it has always been: marginal and extreme.

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Polish Youth and Nationalism

Well, that didn’t take long.

Next week (November 12) the EU will be holding an important summit on the migration crisis, and Poland won’t be represented. President Andrzej Duda has selected that day for the official ceremonies handing over power to the new far-right government of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS). Duda has suggested that the outgoing prime minister could attend the event, or Poland could send someone at the ambassadorial level, since the summit is likely to be merely consultative and not make any real decisions. However, since all the other participants will be represented by high-ranking leaders, sending an ambassador (not to mention a politician who has just been removed from power) would convey the same signal as an empty chair.

Part of this is just a reflection of diplomatic ineptitude, but that’s not the whole story. PiS leaders have argued that international influence stems from assertiveness and power, not the give-and-take of collaborative diplomacy. One of the party’s complaints about the previous government was that they failed to stand up to German hegemony, using the excuse of international cooperation to disguise their weakness. So for the coming years we can expect many diplomatic squabbles as Poland loses its reputation as a team player. Domestically PiS will defend this position by characterizing it as a sign that Poland is finally standing up for its own interests instead of compromising with foreigners.

There’s a deeper issue at play here as well. As I wrote about in an earlier blog post, over the past few decades there has been a dramatic transformation in Polish attitudes towards cultural diversity, and towards specific nations and nationalities. A survey taken every year since the fall of communism showed steadily improving sentiments regarding Germans, Jews, Russians, even Roma. At least, things seemed to be trending in that direction, until a few years ago.


Even worse, a just-released survey about migrants suggests two disturbing trends. First, surveys carried out on the internet show intense and unremitting hostility towards foreigners (specifically, refugees), while paper surveys suggest a lot more tolerance. Both surveys were anonymous, so this isn’t a reflection of the puerile posturing and trolling of on-line discussion boards. Still, such a disparity could have something to do with the internet itself as a survey platform.


More concerning is the second phenomenon: openness to migrants is highest among older Poles, and hostility is focused among young people. This would seem counterintuitive to Americans, where we expect to see idealistic, progressive young people and more conservative, prejudiced older people. In Poland, too, there has long been an assumption that PiS drew its support from the elderly, rural, and religiously devout, while the youth were embracing a new cosmopolitan identity that would eventually overturn all the old stereotypes of Poles as xenophobic, antisemitic, and “backward.” I confess to making these predictions myself, and up until recently most data backed up this happy story.  Unfortunately, recent signs are ominous.

It is possible (and I really want to be wrong about this) that what appeared to be the start of Poland’s golden age of growing prosperity and internationalization will turn out, in hindsight, to have been the entirety of that golden age. The country famously avoided the Great Recession of 2008, but amidst the encouraging aggregate statistics there were always some unsettling qualifications. One of these was the youth unemployment rate, and (even worse) the fact that many of the jobs young people did get were freelance positions without many benefits and with no job security.  Some young Poles have embraced this new world with enthusiasm, relishing a sense of agency and responsibility for their own fate.  These are the constituents of the new and unambiguously named libertarian party of Ryszard Petru, Nowoczesna (Modern).  Many other young Poles consider this new world of uncertainty and atomizing individualism to be a danger, a step backward from the ideals of Solidarity (with both an upper and lower-case S) heralded by their parents. In theory such people could be drawn to leftist alternatives, and this probably explains the last-minute surge of the new party Razem (Together), which models itself after Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece.  But unfortunately, that group may have emerged a bit too late, because another alternative for more communitarian-minded young people was already on the scene: the far right.  PiS, of course, is the main representative of this trend, but they have a reputation as a party of the elderly and part of the “establishment.”  Thus a significant share of the youth vote in the recent elections went to even more extreme nationalist elements in the movement led by the rock musician Paweł Kukiz. These are truly dangerous people—to use the Hungarian comparison, they are Jobbik to PiS’ Fidesz.

Nothing is foreordained, of course. This is a turning point in Polish history, and two paths are equally possible right now.  If the economy worsens (particularly the employment situation for young people) and if the new PiS government effectively cultivates nationalist sentiments of resentment and a siege mentality towards the wider world, then this trend towards xenophobic attitudes among the young could mark the start of a broader slide towards the sort of Poland that so many West Europeans imagine in their own orientalist stereotypes.  On the other hand, if movements like Razem (and yes, even the libertarians in Nowoczesna) are successful, and if the Polish economy continues to thrive, nationalism, racism, and neo-fascism could once again recede to the margins.  Even five years ago, belonging to a far-right group or expressing openly racist views was seen among most young people as a sign of “backwardness”—something characteristic of “peasants” or the infamous “moherowe berety” that Jessica Robbins has described with such insight. Those dismissive attitudes were themselves problematic, but at least they kept the skin-heads at bay among the 20-somethings. That doesn’t seem to be the case right now, but there is still reason to hope that the tide will recede.

At least, I want to believe that there is.

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Polonist Predictions about PiS in Power

Now that the dust has settled after one of the most momentous elections on recent Polish history, it’s time to take stock and think about what lies ahead. Over the past several days I have been gathering responses to a survey that I distributed via the academic discussion forum, H-Poland (540 individuals). This group encompasses scholars from around the world who work in the field of Polish Studies, in any discipline. I received 63 responses, of whom 77% held a doctorate (the remainder were mostly graduate students). Slightly more than half of the respondents were historians, with the other half representing anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, and the humanities.

The complete survey results can be found below. To sum up the responses: most of these scholars see difficult times ahead, but few are predicting an apocalypse. Most believe that the fears (or hopes, depending on one’s perspective) that PiS will fundamentally transform the political system in Poland towards a more authoritarian, anti-liberal regime are exaggerated. Few respondents foresee a “Budapest on the Vistula,” to quote the oft-cited allusion to the political model set by Viktor Orbán in Hungary, but most respondents do anticipate some challenges ahead. A large majority expects the state to use public media to propagate the PiS message, and to redirect academic and cultural funding in ways that will encourage their worldview, but not many envision widespread censorship or blacklisting. Although the new government has promised to exert greater political control over the judiciary, few of the surveyed scholars believe that this will fundamentally alter Poland’s legal system or facilitate the use of the courts against political foes.

Opinions are mixed about the new government’s promises to improve Poland’s economy and spread the benefits of growth to a broader share of the population. Again, few predict a disaster, but equally few accept PiS’s campaign promises at face value. If we score the responses to all the economic questions on a scale from one (signifying the most pessimistic answer) to 4 or 5 (signifying the most optimistic), we get a range of 4-18 possible points. Both the median and the mean were at 10. Most respondents believe that Poland’s economy will slowly grow, that inequality will remain roughly as it is now, that the unemployment rate will hold at its current low level, and that emigration figures will either stay the same or slightly increase.

About half the respondents believe that PiS will lose power during the next round of parliamentary elections (no later than 2019). Of those who predict a second PiS term, most think it will only be possible by forming a coalition with other right-wing parties. Very few are worried that Kaczyński will resort to extra-constitutional measures to hold on to power. If that’s true, then it is significant that he lacks the votes needed to change the constitution. Opponents of PiS often quote Kaczyński’s ambitions to restructure the Polish state, and many of his more outspoken supporters have expressed a longing for a radical renewal of Polish public life, but that can’t happen without violating the existing constitutional constraints. Orbán was able to go as far as he did only because Fidesz possessed the 2/3 majority required for constitutional amendments; Kaczyński is well short of that figure, even if we include the votes of some people outside PiS who might support such an undertaking.

During the election campaign, some of PiS’s opponents painted a frightening vision of the future. For example, the magazine Polityka warned against a looming authoritarianism, and Adam Michnik foresaw a “catastrophe” brought about by a new wave of “xenophobia.” On the other hand, the Catholic magazine Niedziela (Sunday) dismissed out of hand concerns that PiS would introduce an authoritarian theocracy, insisting that a larger problem was the “marginalization of the Church” in today’s Poland. The Catholic daily Nasz Dziennik proclaimed that the PiS victory was a triumph over a concerted propaganda campaign by the old government and “most of the leading media.” In other words, before the election the Catholic right felt excluded and oppressed, and today many on the secular left fear that the new government will violate democratic norms. I doubt many outside observers would confirm claims that Catholics were in any way “marginalized” in Poland up to now (quite the contrary!), and based on this survey, it seems that only a minority of scholars fears that the new government will seriously weaken the country’s democratic, pluralistic foundation.

Personally I am inclined to share this cautious optimism, with an emphasis on the adjective “cautious.” But recent history in Hungary, Turkey, and Russia, alongside the growing strength of groups like UKIP in Britain or the National Front in France, should remind us that vigilance is always warranted. PiS may fail to fundamentally transform Poland—indeed, they may stick to the rather mundane issues that they emphasized in the campaign and not even attempt any systematic reforms. Maybe Polityka and other left-of-center voices have been crying “wolf.” I sincerely want to believe that this is the case. But when hears the howls of the pack so clearly in the distance, it pays to stay on guard.


Survey Results





















What other predictions do you have, not covered in the questions posed here?

  • An open question is the future attitude of Andrzej Duda towards the government.
  • Changes in Poland’s foreign policy. I suspect that PiS will unsuccessfully try to join the Normandy group. Polish-French bilateral relations will improve, whereas relations with Germany will cool down. If Brexit takes place emigration from Poland will drop down. I don’t think that Poland is facing the risk of Orbanization, but PiS may safely govern for 4 years. It may win the next elections, but strong opposition will continue to exist and challenge the government. Having said that, I predict the disintegration of PO and total marginalization of the left. One fact we have to account for in our predictions is that PiS of 2015 is NOT the PiS of 2005 or 2010.
  • Deterioration of relations with EU countries, especially Germany. Higher tensions w/ Russia.
  • In 4 years, voters will be sick and tired of PiS and will vote them out of power (repeat of 2007)
  • Let’s not forget about Nowoczesna and its potential to play some meaningful role in future.
  • Manifestations of xenophobia will increase
  • Nowoczesna could become a bigger player, perhaps becoming the base for a new center-right party that will succeed PO.
  • PiS will lose power but its views, as well as views represented by forces of the far right will remain permanent, “normalized” element in Polish political landscape. Also Platforma, if returns, will have to include them into the political language.
  • PiS will return to power but will not be more popular than now – 30-35%. after two stints in office, it will disappear (see trajectory of SLD and PO on this)
  • PiS’s intrusive promotion of Catholic Church’s worldview will polarize the society even more. Religious Catholic will become even more extreme and relaxed Catholics will be pushed away from the Church stronger and faster than today.
  • Poland will turn right along with so many other countries in Europe at the present, but there will be no major changes since a strong relationship with the EU remains a need. PiS does not have the votes to change the constitution (at the moment), so I do not see any major lasting effects unless that changes.
  • Popularity of PiS will fall, there will be a split in PO, new free market – conservative party based on PO and Nowoczesna will emerge
  • Rise of nationalism and increased influence of the Catholic Church e.g. religion will be tested on matura at the end of H.S.
  • some of these questions include serious mistakes. There are no state-owned media, for instance (do you think about a few among more than hundred TV stations?). Other mistakes: the PO government pressed prosecutors and judges (e.g., Stanisław Kociołek case, Korwin is not a right wing politician, Kukiz has not any political program, etc. In Poland we are very happy because of this change. Many hopes…
  • Besides, I predict that Jarosław Kaczyński will betray his wife twice a month. I think that this so-called “survey of predictions” in politically biased and posed questions are not based on real knowledge of social situation of Poland. For example: there are following answers on the question: “What will happen politically when the current government’s term expires in four years?” 1. PiS will be enormously popular and will be returned to office with an even greater majority 2. PiS will lose popularity, but forces further to the right (Kukiz, Korwin, or some not-yet-created party) will increase their strength and allow a continuation of right-wing rule in Poland 3. PiS will lose popularity but remain in power through fraud or the imposition of emergency rule 4. The far right will lose support and Platforma Obywatelska will return to power 5. The right in general will lose support and a leftist government (Zjednoczona Lewica, Razem or some not-yet-created party) will take power” Why did an author of the survey exclude an answer: “PiS will lose popularity and will lose next election” This situation already took place in Poland in 2007.
  • That Poland will be become a rather unpleasant nationalist outpost on the fringes of the EU, having alienated just about all its neighbors!
  • The Church will increase its influence; we will see the development of an array of parties on the right; Poland will play an increasing role in the East, as Putin continues to pursue an assertive foreign policy
  • The PO will make a greater effort to better articulate its policies to Polish citizens living in Easter Poland and in rural areas.
  • The question is how far Kaczyński will maintain the pro-state impulse of his dead brother, and how far it will try to instrumentalize the church that far that he himself will be its puppet, the first option results in the Hungarian path, the second in Potugalian – Salazarization.
  • The role of Catholic Church will be (even) greater.
  • There will be de facto laissez-faire economic policy with pro-business legislation, but covered by slogans and gestures of social solidarity. Polish policy towards the west will be full of nationalistic gestures, but without major breaks in continuity. Polish Ostpolitik will pursue a tough line on Russia, which might paradoxically result in a greater accommodation with Russia as Putin will search for a way to break out of diplomatic isolation.

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Exit Polls – Preliminary Results

The exit poll conducted by the Ipsos survey firm is now available, and the results show a victory for PiS even larger than any of the pre-election surveys suggested.  Exit_PollsIf these numbers stand, not only would PiS have enough votes to govern without any coalition partners, but the left would be entirely unrepresented.  Although the Zjednoczona Lewica (United Left) passed the 5% required to receive seats, they are formally a coalition rather than a party, which means that they needed 8%.  As I suggested in an earlier post, it seems that the surging popularity of the competing left-wing organization, Razem (Together) took enough votes away from ZL to keep them both out of the sejm.  When the seats are divided up among the parties that would be represented (according to this survey numbers), the new sejm would look like this:



The exit polls have a 2 point margin of error, so it is quite possible that the agrarian PSL could fall out, and that that the far-right Korwin could make it.  It is even conceivable that either Razem or ZL could still make it, since both are (barely) less than 2% away from what they would need.  All this could shift the picture one way or the other, so there’s still a lot to be decided.  It is still possible, though at this point very unlikely, that PiS won’t have quite the votes needed to govern without a coalition partner.  It probably doesn’t matter much, because a coalition with Kukiz would be quite easy.  Even a PiS-Kukiz coalition, however, would fall 20 votes short of what they would need to change the constitution.  This could turn out to be a vital limitation, because it will prevent them from going quite as far as Viktor Orban has in Hungary in weakening the institutional and legal framework of liberal democracy. Still, it is now almost certain that PiS will be able to govern for a full four year term, so a repeat of the chaos of 2005-2007 (which brought the previous period of PiS rule to a rapid end) is not likely.

So what does all this mean?  Here are the things we can almost definitely expect to see in the coming months (in no particular order):

  • a significant increase in social spending, mainly financed through a larger budget deficit
  • a stop to any privatization plans for state-owned firms
  • a return of the retirement age to 65 for men and 6o for women
  • a higher minimum wage
  • a monthly subsidy of 500 złoty (about $130) per child for every Polish family
  • a purge of the state-owned media and of the key positions in the state-owned cultural institutions
  • a ban on in vitro fertilization procedures
  • no legal recognition of any form of homosexual civil unions (much less gay marriage)
  • judicial reforms to place prosecutors under the authority of the (politically appointed) Minister of Justice
  • educational reforms to limit the autonomy of local schools, particularly when it comes to the teaching of history
  • a return to the previous practice of starting elementary school at age 7
  • a much more assertive foreign policy (though what this will mean exactly is unclear)
  • an end to any plans for eventually adopting the Euro

We will likely also see the following longer-term developments, either as deliberate actions or unintended consequences:

  • the withdrawal of all advertising spending from state-owned firms (or companies hoping to win state contracts) from media opposed to the government.
  • an official investigation designed to show that the 2010 plane crash that killed former President Lech Kaczynski was a murder rather than an accident, followed by attempts to bring to justice those held responsible.
  • high-profile arrests of business people with ties to the former government
  • a sharp drop in the value of the złoty (it is already at a near record high of 3.86 to the dollar, because currency markets have factored in a probable PiS victory; once markets open on Monday it is likely to break the old record of 3.95).
  • economic sanctions resulting form Poland’s failure to maintain the budgetary discipline required by Brussels.
  • harsh criticism from West European governments, mostly focusing on economic policies but also regarding any moves PiS makes to limit dissent in the media and to use the judicial system for political ends. But nothing more than words.
  • an increase in emigration to Western Europe (particularly the UK), mostly by young, educated, urban, Poles.
  • a decline of foreign investment in Poland
  • a short-term fall in the unemployment rate because of the stimulus effect of the new government’s spending plans, followed by an increase as the international consequences of PiS rule set in
  • a significant increase in the public role of the Catholic Church, accompanied by a continued decline in rates of religious observance (following a well-established pattern by which participation in religious life declines whenever the Church takes on a more obviously political role)
  • many well-funded educational and cultural programs aimed at promoting a historical narrative focused on Poland’s eternal victimization, and on the country’s collective heroism and virtue.

Some of these developments might not come to pass, particularly if the PiS parliamentary majority turns out to be a bit smaller than the exit-polls suggest.  And some might be more or less comprehensive.  But the changes to come are definitely going to major, touching the daily lives of every Pole.  The one thing just about everyone can agree on is that Poland in 2019 will look very different from Poland today, and that October 25, 2015 will be mentioned in the history books as a major turning point in Polish history.

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Final Polish Election Update

We have now reached the “cisza wyborcza” (electoral silence), which means that all campaigning has now ended and the Polish media can no longer comment on the upcoming vote.  The final surveys from the six major polling companies show as muddy a picture as ever, though only one would produce a sejm with the votes needed to keep PiS from power (assuming, of course, that a coalition including both the social democratic United Left and the libertarian would be feasible).  On the other hand, only one survey would give PiS enough votes to govern alone.  So we are back where we’ve been for several months, with the most likely outcome being a coalition between PiS, Kukiz, and perhaps Korwin.

The most interesting twist of the final week of the campaign came with the debate between representatives of all the smaller parties on Tuesday.  The leader of the leftist party Razem (Together), Adrian Zandberg, surprised everyone with a stunning performance that left even many right-wing observers impressed.  He was articulate, confident, and authentic — all features that voters seem to be craving. Since his party was polling well below the required 5% mark needed to win seats in the sejm, he had nothing to lose and spoke without any of the caution of a professional politician.  The positive buzz he got might actually be enough to win Razem a seat (at least one survey suggests this), but the danger is that the party will win 3 or 4%, votes which could have gone to one of the larger party but would then be apportioned among all the winners (and thus mainly to PiS).  In an election as close as this is likely to be, even one or two seats could be important.

But this is all speculation, and the time for that is over.

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Polish Election Update

Just a quick election update, as we reach the final stretch of this campaign.  On Monday there will be a debate between Ewa Kopacz (PO) and Beata Szydło, though I am skeptical that this will change much unless one of them has a surprisingly bad performance. Of the five most recent surveys only one has PiS winning enough seats to govern alone. Two others give them enough votes to govern in a coalition with the party of Paweł Kukiz.  The remaining pair of surveys suggest that an anti-PiS grand coalition might be possible. In other words, it’s still too close to call.  The following charts show the projected distribution of power in the sejm, not the actual electoral support.  All the data can be found here.

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An Anti-PiS Grand Coalition?

A provocative argument has been appearing with increasing frequency on the left and center-left in Poland, claiming that a victory by the radical-right Law and Justice party (PiS) in the upcoming elections would actually be preferable to the continued rule of the center-right Civic Platform (PO). Two variants of this assertion have appeared in the last few days. On October 12 Jan Śpiewak posted this critique of Civic Platform on Krytyka Polityczna’s website. After enumerating the many errors and missed opportunities of the past years, he concluded,

Worse, however, than the Kopacz-Piechociński government would be a Kopacz-Piechociński-Miller-Petru government. The program of such a government will be an even smaller state, even lower taxes, even worse working conditions. If Civic Platform remains in power, it will not carry out the necessary changes and the emerging alliance with two neoliberals can only deepen the peripheral status of the country.

Śpiewak is referring here to the leaders of the parties that might form an anti-PiS coalition. Ewa Kopacz is the current Prime Minister and the head of PO; Janusz Piechociński is the leader of the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL), which is currently in a coalition with PO. The other two figures are Leszek Miller, who heads the United Left (a recently-formed alliance of leftist organizations), and Ryszard Petru is an economist and banker who leads a new libertarian party. We can safely assume that the final viable party, the ultra-nationalists behind Paweł Kukiz and his eponymous Kukiz15, will join with PiS. Of the four most recent polls, three suggest that a PiS-Kukiz15 coalition will win the necessary votes to form a government. But one survey from recent days (and several others if we stretch back a week or so) show the possibility that PiS and Kukiz15 will fall just a few delegates short of a majority (see the graphs below).

This leaves the door open to the sort of awkward coalition that Śpiewak has denounced. He fears that such a government would be doubly flawed. On the one hand, he assumes that “neoliberal” voices would dominate despite the presence of the United Left and PSL, and that the resulting policies would bring to Poland the sort of austerity economics that has left so much ruin elsewhere in Europe. This might be a realistic expectation, because PSL has proven to be supremely pragmatic and ideologically flexible, while most of the leaders of the United Left have (at best) very weak social democratic bona fides. But an even greater concern for Śpiewak is that PO would learn nothing from this experience. Better that the party have a few years in the wilderness of parliamentary opposition, because that would give the party a sharper ideological backbone and make it more responsive to all the social issues it has ignored during these past eight years in power.

A different critique of the grand coalition idea came from Jarosław Kurski, in an editorial from October 7 in Gazeta Wyborcza. He argues that it would be a perversion of democracy to deny PiS the chance to govern, given that it is clearly the most popular party in Poland today. True, it is far from a majority (with approximately 35% support), but that’s at least ten percentage points more than PO has at the moment. If all the anti-PiS parties join together to keep PiS from power, many voters will interpret this as a sign that the system is rigged and that some nebulous group of “elites” is once again using parliamentary tricks to silence the voice of the people. That would push even more people towards radical ideological alternatives, and probably strengthen PiS’s base considerably. Meanwhile, a grand coalition will inevitably be weak and unlikely to achieve much, setting the stage for an electoral disaster later. Right now it is unlikely that PiS will gain the 2/3 majority that it would need to change the constitution, so whatever damage it might do would be limited. The leaders of PiS have demonstrated repeatedly, Kurski argues, that they are incompetent and demagogic, and without the ability to change the constitution to fortify their hold on power, their government would fall after a few years and the far right would be discredited for many years to come. After all, this is what happened in 2005-2007, setting the stage for the most stable and productive eight years in recent Polish history.

Arguments like these are quite persuasive, though they are both grounded in a risky optimism. A few years of PiS rule would be frustrating and damaging, but it is unlikely to lead to long-term harm. And as Śpiewak has argued, the policy proposals advanced during this election campaign (carelessly planned though they might be) would entail a shift from austerity towards a more stimulative approach. But what if these authors are underestimating the political skill of Jarosław Kaczyński?  What if he has learned a few lessons since his last time in power, and is ready now to take the steps needed to hold on to power?  Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin have shown how easy it is to transform a weak system of parliamentary democracy into a dictatorship with the use of nationalist demagoguery and anti-liberal sloganeering. Poles would like to think that their country is no longer vulnerable to the siren song of authoritarian populism, and they might be right.  Perhaps the institutions of Poland’s political structure are strong enough to withstand a few years of PiS control.  But nothing in the recent history of that party suggests that it respects the niceties of parliamentary procedures, and Kaczyński’s rhetoric has long been grounded in a conspiratorial worldview in which the pursuit of national unity and strength takes precedence over “technicalities” like judicial norms, press freedoms, or parliamentary rules. He firmly believes that his brother, former president Lech Kaczyński, was murdered by a plot organized by his domestic political opponents and nefarious foreign powers.  A person who thinks that this is how the political world functions is not likely to be constrained by democratic standards or ethical inhibitions when he has the chance to rule.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can turn into a dangerous principle for someone who believes that others have been murdering and oppressing his supporters.

Slovakia lost much of the 1990s to the misrule of Vladimír Mečiar, and it eventually took a grand coalition of awkward allies to push him off the political stage. Viktor Orbán has taken Hungary even further down the dark path of nationalist authoritarianism, and it’s hard to see now how he will ever be removed.  Very little stands now between Poland and that fate. An ideologically incoherent anti-PiS coalition would provide a very poor government for the country, and if the alternative is a couple years of chaos then the latter might be the inoculation needed to prevent deeper disasters. But what if the alternative is an indefinite far-right regime in Warsaw?  It is impossible to know right now which of these paths is most likely, but decisions made over the next few weeks could have consequences for decades to come. Elections_2015_12 Elections_2015_13 Elections_2015_14Elections_2015_11


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The Polish Elections: What is at Stake

As we move closer to the Polish elections on October 25, there has been some movement in the polls but no dramatic changes. Law and Justice (PiS) remains in first place, with Civic Platform (PO) trailing well outside the margin of error. The collapse of the Paweł Kukiz phenomenon continues, so now there are six parties hovering around the 5% minimum needed to win seats in parliament. As I mentioned in my last post, everything depends on which of those smaller parties make it into the sejm. It seems nearly certain now that PiS will have more votes than any other party, probably around 35%. That is more than they got during the last elections (when they came in at 30%), though their rise has not been nearly as dramatic as PO’s fall (from almost 40% last time to somewhere around 25% now). At this point, the question is not whether PiS will win, but whether they will be able to build a stable coalition. Of the five most recent surveys, only one shows PiS obtaining enough seats in the Sejm to hold a majority on their own. Two surveys show a possible majority coalition for PiS, and two show a configuration that could allow a broad center-left bloc to keep PiS out of power. See below for the detailed charts.

Stepping out of the weeds of this complicated election campaign, it is important to recognize how misleading it is to think of this in terms familiar to Anglophones. I have been calling PiS “far right” and PO “center right,” and that’s accurate in a superficial sense. But the stakes of this election are much higher, because the ideological battle now underway is not between two parties with differing policy ideas or even different long-term goals. Rather, this is a struggle between two competing visions of what sort of political system Poland should have. On the one side are a range of parties that accept the broad outlines of liberal parliamentary democracy as established in the current Polish constitution, with familiar protections for civil liberties and individual rights, and with a commitment to the norms of European politics and international relations. On the other side are those who long for another kind of Poland, one that is more cohesive domestically and more assertive internationally. They hope for a political system that will uphold what they consider traditional Catholic values and resist the incursions of “foreign” ideas and ideals. Many explicitly call for a new constitution and the declaration of a “IV Republic” (overthrowing the current state, which is known as the III Republic), though explicit calls for revolution have been muted during the campaign. They admire what Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary, though his flirtations with Vladimir Putin have silenced the one-popular slogan of creating a “Budapest on the Vistula.” Ironically, this group’s worldview is not that different than Putin’s, though their nationalist hostility towards Russia is far too strong to allow them to perceive such parallels. The leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, is convinced that the leaders of PO conspired with Russia and/or Germany in order to stage the crash of the airplane carrying his brother, then President Lech Kaczyński. He has spoken of the need to take power in order to bring those responsible for this supposed plot to justice, and called for a thorough transformation of the judicial system in order to strip prosecutors and judges of their autonomy so that the guilty can be punished without the constraints of petty legalism. He intends to reform the educational system—including higher education—so as to ensure that it promotes Polish patriotism and maintains the unity of the nation. The bond between Church and state is already quite strong in Poland, but PiS would expand it further by outlawing abortion entirely, rolling back gay rights, banning in vitro fertilization, etc. Their proposed new constitution would include affirmations of Poland’s Catholic identity and dedicate the state to God.

An observer who has been following the public statements of the rival parties during the election campaign would be forgiven for not recognizing the picture I’ve just drawn. Lech Kaczyński himself has been almost invisible, replacing himself as the party’s standard-bearer with Beata Szydło, who is designated to become Prime Minister in a future PiS government. Many others in the PiS leadership are similarly quiet, because Kaczyński understands that the vast majority of Poles are strongly opposed to the sort of regime described above. PiS has been campaigning on the slogan of the “IV Republic” for more than a decade, and aside from a brief (and disastrous—both for Poland and for PiS’s own approval rating) period between 2005-2007, the party has been in the opposition. So this year Kaczyński put forward Antoni Duda for the presidential campaign last spring and Ms. Szydło for the parliamentary campaign this month. The official party platform stresses pocketbook issues that are widely popular: increased spending for the poor, a decrease in the retirement age, laws protecting Polish businesses from foreign competition, etc. Even some on the left have suggested that they would prefer the stimulus spending promised by PiS than the continued fiscal frugality of PO. The campaign advertising of PiS has depicted a Poland plagued by poverty and corruption. Despite the enormous—indeed, unprecedented—gains made over the past decade, Poles still have incomes well below the European average, and large swaths of the country (particularly rural areas) are deeply impoverished. When these very real problems are combined with the lackluster and ideologically ambiguous governance of PO, the current survey results make sense.

If we aggregate all the surveys from all the various firms so far this year, and group together the parties who support the current Polish state and those who want to replace it, we get a disturbing picture.


This is not to suggest that the particular vision of a systemic alternative proposed by Kaczyński and PiS enjoys broad support. He remains one of the most unpopular public figures in Poland today and his party is not even close to winning a majority of the overall vote. But frustration with PO combined with a belief that PiS won’t really make the transformations I’ve described above has led a great many Poles to consider casting a vote for PiS later this month. The prospect of a decisive PiS victory is lower today than it was in mid-summer, but it is still a very real possibility. A partial victory in which PiS would depend on coalition partners remains probable, but by no means foreordained. Stay tuned.

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