Author Archives: Brian Porter-Szucs

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Final Results

The votes have been counted, and the picture hasn’t changed much from last night. In percentage terms, the exit polls turned out to be reliable:

If we look at the raw numbers, we see that the three parties supporting the basic norms of constitutional democracy got more votes than PiS, but fewer than PiS and KWN together.

Under different rules for apportioning the parliamentary delegates (for example, the Webster/Sainte-Laguë method used in Poland in the 1990s, as opposed to the d’Hondt method used today), PiS would not have been able to form a government without entering into a coalition with KWN – something that might have been impossible because of the latter’s close ties with Putin. As it is, however, PiS did just barely pass the 231 seats needed to govern without any coalition partners.

At first glance it might seem that little has changed. In the previous parliament, PiS also had 235 votes, and Civic Platform (the main party within the Civic Coalition) had 138. But in reality, quite a lot has changed. The social democrats were entirely shut out in 2015, and PSL only had 16 seats. In their place was a large liberal party known as Nowoczesna (literally “Modern”), ideologically similar to Civic Platform but with a slightly stronger emphasis on free market economics and secular politics. That party is now gone, having re-merged with Civic Platform to create (along with the Greens) the Civic Coalition. Meanwhile, on the right, the previous parliament had 42 members belonging to a strange party called Kukiz 15, an eponymous creation of the rock star Paweł Kukiz that drew upon nationalist and far-right imagery, but concentrated mostly on countercultural opposition to “the system” in general. Kukiz himself has joined with PSL, and in his party’s place is a more ideologically committed extremist party, KWN, which combines radical libertarianism, misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, and open hostility to the EU (and a corresponding fondness for Russia). In other words, Jarosław Kaczyński now faces a genuine (albeit small) challenge on his right flank, and a liberal-democratic opposition that has moved significantly to the left. Previously, PiS could position itself as the populist defender of the welfare state against free-market liberals. That will no longer be the case.

None of this matters if Kaczyński continues to follow the take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth politics that he has used over the past four years. Previously, he just rammed through his legislative agenda with no regard to the opposition, abolishing the process of developing new laws through public parliamentary committees. He went so far as to limit debate to absurdly short sessions, allowing the opposition no time to offer more than brief soundbites leading up to a ritualistic vote. Parliament itself became irrelevant, because everyone understood that the real decisions were made in the PiS party headquarters.

Real power will remain in Kaczyński’s office, but the deployment of that power is going to be much more difficult than it has been so far, thanks to the results of yesterday’s election to the senate, Poland’s upper legislative house. Here the entire center and center-left opposition agreed to a slate of candidates—not quite a coalition, but a promise not to compete against each other. As a result, the outcome more closely matched the overall distribution of popular support, and PiS lost control of the upper chamber.

I’ve included in the chart above one nominally independent candidate who is supported by PiS, and three independent candidates who are supported by KO.

With 51 votes, the opposition will be able to control the senate, which could have huge consequences. In the past, the senate has received little attention, because it has few powers. It cannot originate legislation, and its veto power over the lower house could be overridden with ease, requiring only an absolute majority. With the seats in the lower house as closely divided as they now are, Kaczyński is going to have to pay close attention managing the legislative process, and there is suddenly space for maneuvering that he thought he had closed down. Just as important, a veto from the Senate blocks implementation of any new legislation for 30 days, so the whole system will now move with a deliberate pace, giving the opposition time to mobilize when necessary. Finally, the approval of the senate is needed for any referenda, as well as for the appointment of several vital government positions: the National Ombudsman, the chair of the Institute for National Memory, and above all the “Rzecznik Praw Obywatelskich” (Civil Rights Advocate). The latter official is charged with monitoring the government’s adherence to the constitution, and is empowered to bring the government to court in cases of violation. This has been an irritant to PiS for the past four years, though because of their control over the judiciary they have been able to neutralize the office’s power. Nonetheless, the existence of such a figure, along with the anti-corruption monitoring of the National Ombudsman, offers at least some independent monitoring.

All of this helps us understand the mood among Polish politicians today. The expectation before last weekend had been that PiS would win decisively—in fact, Kaczyński was openly hoping for a so-called “constitutional majority” (enough votes to revise the constitution). Now, his party lacks even enough votes to override a presidential veto. Of course, for the time being that’s a moot point because President Andrzej Duda is a loyal soldier in Kaczyński’s army. But his term expires in less than a year, and if today’s results are any indication, his reelection is far from certain. The presidency in Poland is decided in a two-round voting system, with the top two candidates from the first round proceeding to the second. Even if we assume that PiS can maintain its 43% support (a high point for that party), will it be able to get the additional 7+ points needed in a head-to-head matchup with the opposition? That’s a very open question.

This is why the mood at PiS headquarters today was subdued, even angry. The body language of Kaczyński over the past 24 hours has been unmistakable, and his speeches have been far from triumphant. He told his audience yesterday that “it is time for reflection;…a time to improve how we are seen by society; a time to eliminate all those things which hinder our possibilities. We have to remember that we are a formation that deserves more. We got a lot, but we deserve more.”

Those words captured Kaczyński’s frustration, but they also constitute a clear threat. In the coming months we can expect a concerted campaign to “eliminate” everything that stands in his way, everything that (in his view) prevented the Polish people from appreciating his greatness. He has itemized these hindrances many times: the cultural “elites,” the judiciary, any independent officials or agencies within Poland (including local self-government), EU oversight, and above all the independent media.

PiS still has power, and it would be naïve to imagine that they won’t use it to the utmost. The opposition is a bit stronger than it was last week, but it still lacks the means to block Kaczyński’s plans. We can expect the regime to become more openly repressive than before, as it attempts to shut down or marginalize the opposition media and strip city and provincial governments of their autonomous power. Kaczyński does indeed believe that his party “deserves more,” and he will do whatever he can to get more. But he is now in a bind: if he pushes his authoritarian measures vigorously, he will risk alienating centrist voters in the run-up to the presidential elections.  If he moderates his ambitions, he will leave the opposition with significant platforms from which to challenge his authority. Moreover, PiS has been able to capitalize so far on an unprecedentedly strong economy, but most signs point to a recession on the horizon. Can the party retain support in the mid-40s in the face of an economic downturn?  Finally, the EU has indicated that it is henceforth going to take a much harder line on the erosion of liberal democracy among members states.

Kaczyński might think he deserves more, but it is more likely that he is on a path to eventually get what he truly deserves.   

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According to the exit polls, the results are as follows:

  • PiS: 43.6%
  • KO: 27.4%
  • Lewica: 11.9%
  • PSL: 9.6%
  • Konfederacja: 6.4%

If these numbers hold, the Sejm will be divided as follows:

  • PiS – 239
  • KO – 130
  • Lewica – 43
  • PSL – 34
  • Konfederacja – 13

There is a 2 percent margin of error in the exit poll, so things could still change. The window of hope is tiny, though. Even if PiS were to fall below 231, the presence of Konfederacja gives them an easy coalition partner.

Even though this is a very narrow victory, Kaczyński will seize the opportunity to push forward his vision without regard to the opposition. In the months ahead, we can expect:

  • The continued purging of the judiciary.
  • The loss of local government authority, replaced by officials appointed by PiS.
  • The subordination of the media to a so-called “media ethics board,” which will be used to harrass and close down opposition TV, radio, and print journalism.
  • A campaign to purge or discipline teachers, who up until now had been largely opposed to PiS’s plans.
  • New restrictions on public assembly, and a few narrowly targeted arrests to ensure that protest is understood to carry risks. Protests will continue, but they will be small and ineffectual.
  • Increased marginalization of Poland within the EU. Poland can expect a reduction in payments from EU transfer programs, and probably administrative sanctions as the aforementioned measures are taken. Support for EU membership will likely decline, as PiS supporters come to see Brussels as an enemy.
  • Economic troubles as sanctions combine with the inevitable recession (all signs point to a downturn soon). This is probably the only remaining threat to Kaczyński’s power.
  • Large scale emigration of Poland’s educated professionals, which will weaken the economy but facilitate the progress of the PiS revolution.

Poland has enjoyed almost three decades of unprecedented economic growth, cultural openness, and strong civil liberties. It is hard to see how any of that can be sustained after today.

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Election Update

The 17:00 turnout numbers are in, and the picture has changed dramatically. The highest figures are coming from Poland’s urban areas, and the overall figure (45.94% turnout) is almost 7 points higher than at the same time in 2015.The map is from Polls close at 21:00 (3 pm EST).

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Early Voter Turnout

As of noon Polish time, voter turnout is at a record high of 18.14%. That’s almost two points higher than the figure for noon on election day in 2015. Unfortunately, the regional pattern is grim: the biggest numbers are coming from the regions in the south and east where PiS enjoys overwhelming support (see the map below from If this pattern holds, it will be a dark day for those who care about the future of liberal democracy in Poland. But it isn’t quite time for despair yet, because it could be that this pattern reflects the custom in many rural areas of going directly from mass to the polling stations. Urban voters might simply be more likely to sleep in. Very soon we will have the figures for turnout as of 17:00, and that will tell us more.

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What is at Stake?

The following appeared in The Global Post on October 12, 2019.

As a historian, I am inclined to take the long view on political developments, and I usually cringe when people describe an upcoming election as a choice between the apocalypse and salvation. But this weekend’s Polish election deserves all the hyperbole we can muster.

In 2015, the far-right Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) of Jarosław Kaczyński managed to take power after winning 38 percent of the vote, thanks to the peculiarities of Polish election law and the fragmentation of the parties of the left. The new government quickly transformed the state-run media into a propaganda mouthpiece, purged the civil service, strengthened partisan political control over state-run businesses, and above all, eliminated the independence of the judiciary.

Kaczyński himself has recently re-iterated that this last point was always the most important because his broader goals could not be achieved if judges retained the power to block his measures. The courts, he said, were (and to a small extent remain) the “last barricade” that PiS must remove from its path.

PiS’ Popularity

Despite all this, it must be acknowledged that millions of Poles have seen their lives improve since 2015. Kaczyński’s disdain for intellectuals and experts has allowed him to ignore the economists who would urge frugality or austerity. Instead, he has taken advantage of a period of global economic growth to stimulate consumption and slightly reduce income inequality.

PiS has designed their social spending programs carefully, with generous social welfare targeted at specific communities, social groups, and institutions. Their so-called “500+” program of cash payouts for children rewards large families, their investments in coal win them support from an important segment of organized labor, and their campaign promises for ongoing social-transfer programs are precisely aimed at key constituencies.

Understandably, many Poles will cast their votes based on these accomplishments, and that’s the main reason why surveys suggest that PiS will increase their percentage of the vote from the high 30s to the low 40s.

But a review of PiS documents, particularly the unusually comprehensive party platform, makes it crystal clear that all these economic and social policies are a means to an end. In a revealing passage, the platform acknowledges that PiS’s first objective is the “repair of the state, beginning with the creation and strengthening of its historical, axiological, and pragmatic legitimacy, and ending with the repair of its structure.”

However, the authors conclude, these plans could not be carried out during the first term, “because of the need to achieve enduring social support, and, as follows, the stability of the government against constant attacks.” There was, in other words, “a tight bond between particular initiatives in various areas, including an obvious bond between the policies about the development and repair of the state on the one side, and an increase in the purchasing power of social groups not heretofore acknowledged by the authorities.”

‘Repairing’ Poland

What, then, would this fundamental “repair” of the state entail? The answer lies in PiS’ understanding of what has happened in Poland over the past 30 years. Back in 1989, most of the world thought that communism had been overthrown, but contrary to appearances, PiS tells us, “the elements of continuation decisively outweighed the elements of change.”

Above all, there was no relaxation of an alleged leftist cultural project to “expand liberal values” and “violate social norms.” The authors of the PiS platform claim that the “abandonment of loyalty to the Polish state by a considerable part of the elite is without a doubt a major characteristic of the system created after 1989.” This traitorous elite then employed a “massive system of manipulation” aimed at concealing their true aims, which involved things like the undermining of Polish patriotism and the “active realization in Poland of a German historical policy.”

In political terms, this anti-Polish conspiracy promoted a perverse understanding of the state as “essentially a collection of independent institutions” without the power to defend the nation with unity and determination. Those institutional divisions of authority made it nearly impossible for “democratic control mechanisms” to institute desired reforms, punish corrupt and disloyal opponents, and override the resistance of entrenched institutions of the local authority.

The only way to repair the damage inflicted by the treasonous communist and post-communist elites, the PiS program insists, is to ensure that those who truly represent the Polish nation pursue a coherent, determined, and above all unified policy. In addition to establishing control over the judiciary, the platform identifies a few other areas that will require concerted effort in the next term of PiS rule.

Local Governments and Education

First, local self-government threatens to place obstacles on PiS’ path because every city in the country with more than 100,000 people is controlled by the opposition. Therefore, the party platform outlines plans to strengthen the position of an office known as the “wojewoda.” This person represents the central government in each of Poland’s 16 provinces (województwa), serving as an unelected state or provincial governor.

In the past, this problematic office has had limited powers, but the plan for PiS’ second term entails making “the office of the wojewoda the key organ of government administration” on the local level, giving it “real supervisory authority” as the executive branch of government with a “significantly increased role.”

Parallel to this, the PiS program states that the authority of local school boards to manage education will be curtailed. There has long existed a figure known as the “curator of education,” appointed to each district by the wojewoda as a representative of the national Ministry of Education. This official will gain enhanced authority to manage local schools: “We will not allow the state to be deprived of the possibility of shaping educational policy,” promise the authors of the PiS platform, “and we will provide the necessary tools (financial and otherwise) to make this possible.”

Freedom of Media

Perhaps the most unsettling of PiS’s election promises, however, involves the media. Kaczyński long ago transformed the state-run broadcast services into propaganda mouthpieces, but Poland retains a robust independent media infrastructure. PiS has long discussed “re-Polonizing” the media by eliminating foreign ownership, but this is a battle that they cannot win: the largest opposition news channel is owned by the U.S.-based Discovery Network, and the combined opposition of the Americans and the E.U. would be too much even for PiS.

Instead, the party platform proposes the creation of a new media ethics board that will function as a licensing body, akin to those that already exist for doctors and lawyers. Despite assurances that “this will not in any way limit the principle of openness in the journalistic profession,” we learn that the new board will allow authorities to “care for ethical and professional standards, carry out self-regulation, and assert responsibility for the process of educating future journalists.”

It is left unstated who will appoint the leadership of this media ethics board, but PiS has already created a judicial ethics board, with political appointees in charge, to purge the legal profession.

There is still a chance to prevent all this. If Kaczyński is denied a majority of parliamentary seats this Sunday – and it is going to be very close – Poles can begin the arduous task of re-assembling the safeguards of liberal democracy. The coming years would involve a lot of hard work and many difficult decisions, but repairs are still possible. If PiS gets another four years to advance to the next stage of its agenda, incomparably more damage will have been done.

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This is going to be close.

The majority of the commentariat in Poland has reconciled itself to a victory for Jarosław Kaczyński’s “Law and Justice party in Poland’s parliamentary elections next week. With a nearly 16 point lead in an average of recent polls (since October 1), that triumph seems a foregone conclusion.

But there is winning and there is “winning.” If we fill out the details, here is where things stand:

But let’s be careful: the variability in the survey data is considerable. In fact, in the course of writing this post I have had to update the figures in this chart, because new polls are coming in so quickly. In September, different firms registered PiS at levels from 40% (Kantar on 9/26) to 48% (Estymator on 9/19). Although it might seem reasonable to just average out the results, we aren’t necessarily comparing like with like. Companies use different methodologies in everything from data collection (phones, in-person, computer) to sample sizes and demographic weighting. So caveat emptor.

But for discussion’s sake, let’s run with the average above. Poland’s complex electoral law uses proportional representation within each of the country’s 41 electoral districts, each of which has a different number of delegates based on population size. Although Poland does not suffer from gerrymandering comparable to the United States, there are inevitable (though usually slight) deviations from a pure nation-wide proportional representation system. In a race as close as this one, that could matter.

But wait: what is close about a race with one party so far in the lead? First of all, being in first place isn’t enough to form a government. PiS (technically, the “United Right,” consisting of PiS and some small satellite parties) will have very few options for coalition partners if it fails to get 50% of the seats in parliament. The far right Konfederacja party is a coalition of groups that consider Kaczyński too soft. These include several white-supremacist, misogynist, antisemitic, ultra-nationalist, and authoritarian grouplets which are frustrated that PiS hasn’t pushed its revolution far enough. Nonetheless, they would almost certainly enter a coalition with PiS should the occasion arise.

The wild card is PSL, the Polish Peasant’s Party. This is the oldest political party in Poland, with roots in the 19th century agrarian movement. As Poland has modernized and urbanized, this party was marginalized but never eliminated. Its ideological flexibility has allowed it to enter into coalitions with governments of many ideological orientations, based on purely tactical and clientelistic grounds. In recent years it has struggled mightily to retain a constituency, because PiS has drained away nearly all its rural support with appeals to Catholic conservative identity politics and (since taking power in 2015) with an ever growing patronage system in the countryside. There are countless personal animosities between PSL and PiS activists on both the local and national level, which would make a coalition very difficult. To date, every party that Kaczyński has entered into coalitions with has either been de-facto absorbed, or eliminated. The PSL leadership is well aware of this track record. Still, the common ground between these to parties can’t be ignored: both represent culturally conservative, rural, Catholic constituencies. It is by no means out of the question that they might abandon the democratic opposition (with whom they have generally aligned since 2015) and cast their lot with the far right.

But none of this necessarily matters, because everything depends on the application of the complex mathematics of the so-called d’Hondt method, which is the foundation of the Polish election rules. Click on those links for the details, but to make a long story short, this system eliminates parties that get less than 5% of the vote and then redistributes those votes among the larger parties, with a complex system that rewards the largest parties the most. Most of the time this deviates only marginally from a simple proportional representation system, but twice since the fall of communism in 1989 it has resulted in radically distorted results when an unusual number of small parties came in just under the limit:

This year, it doesn’t look like we will see a repeat of 2015 (not to mention 1993). Only two groups, PSL and Konfederacja, are polling close to the 5% mark. PSL has only fallen below that number in 3 outlier polls since July, and Konfederacja has only passed that mark in a small handful.

With all that buildup, here’s roughly what the current survey results would produce in terms of parliamentary delegates:

With this model, PiS is several delegates short of a majority. To get a sense of how close this is, if Konfederacja gets 5% instead of the 4.4% they currently have, the result could look like this:

To get a sense of how weird this mechanism can be, here is what would happen if we just took the best survey results PiS has had in the past month, the aforementioned September result from Estymator:

And here’s the other extreme: the worst poll Kaczyński has seen recently:

Given this range of possible outcomes, and taking into account all the additional complexities mentioned above, the only thing we can predict for sure is that this is going to be very close.

That leads to two very important conclusions:

  • Whatever the result (unless all the polls have been wrong and one side or the other gains a truly decisive majority) we should be extremely cautious in making any generalizations about Polish public opinion. The country is divided roughly down the middle, with each side living in separate media ecosystems and experiencing different daily realities. That’s not going to change.
  • If PiS does gain a majority, it will continue to rule as if it has an overwhelming mandate, with confident affirmations that it alone represents the voice of that “true” Polish nation. It will push forward even more radical measures to curtail liberal democracy, to advance authoritarian centralization, and to brutally marginalize those who don’t fit into its vision of Polishness. In a future post I will describe the proposals outlined in the PiS party platform, but suffice it to say for now that they are as ambitious as they are terrifying. In other words, the stakes of these elections are unspeakably massive, and the fate of Poland is almost certain to be decided by a very small number of votes.

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Well, that didn’t last long.

A few days ago I expressed some cautious hope that PiS might, in fact, be defeated in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and that Poland could begin the difficult process of rebuilding democratic norms. I remain convinced that this possibility is very real, thought I admit that it is going to be very close.

But all that might be irrelevant. Jarosław Kaczyński and the various puppets he uses to rule the country are undoubtedly aware that if they lose power, they face a realistic risk of prosecution for all the illegal maneuvers they carried out since 2015. They must also recognize that they have transformed the Polish landscape by politicizing so many things that were previously rarely contested: the memory of WWII, the role of the Catholic Church in Polish life, the authority of local self-government, conservative access to the media, and more. The Church will never again be able to claim that it is above politics, and it will never again be able to expect support from any government not led by PiS. Discussions of historical patriotism will henceforth be forever tainted by association with PiS, and it will be a challenge to de-politicize a whole range of historical commemorations. The reactionary cultural politics of PiS may have played well in the countryside, but the urban youth are far less likely to genuflect before the patriotic platitudes that were taken as unpolitical and unnoteworthy even five years ago. And the media supporters of PiS who worked for propaganda outlets like TVP are going to have a very hard time holding onto their jobs in a post-PiS Poland.

By basing so many cultural touchstones—not to mention their own personal fate—on their continued political control, PiS has elevated the stakes of electoral life. This helps explain what happened a few days ago.

In the middle of the night on July 17-18 PiS pushed through the parliament a seemingly technical piece of legislation designating which specific court will be responsible for declaring the fall elections valid or invalid. Any bill passed at 2:00 a.m. without prior hearings or debate should always raise suspicions. Without going into the details, the bottom line is that the authority for deciding any accusations of electoral irregularity is now in the hands of a “judicial” body that is 100% under the control of PiS.

One member of the opposition, Jerzy Meysztowicz, who managed to be present during the parliamentary fiasco, summed it up perfectly: “If you win the elections, then the elections will be fine. If you lose the elections you will say that they were falsified…. And who will decide? The Bureau for Emergency Control and Public Affairs, the members of which you’ll nominate yourselves. What a brilliant solution.”

Over the coming months we will all continue to watch the surveys and evaluate the ups and downs of this or that party, the coalition agreements of this or that grouping. As we do so, however, let’s keep one thing in mind. There is only one decision that actually matters: will Jarosław Kaczyński decide to honor the results if they don’t go his way? And will we even be able to trust the results if they do go his way? Personally, I want to believe that there are some lines that even PiS won’t cross. I want to believe that even if they’ll violate the constitution, eliminate the independence of the judiciary, turn the media into a propaganda machine, use the most vulgar fear-mongering rhetoric about minorities and migrants—that even after all this, they would still continue to participate in electoral politics with some semblance of honesty. Sure, I knew we could expect the state TV to be deployed in full force in favor of the government, but maybe that could be counterbalanced by the fact that (for now) there are still independent media firms in Poland. [Which, by the way, is the “problem” that Kaczyński has promised to place on the top of his agenda upon reelection]. I was cheered by the fact that the local elections last Fall went badly for PiS, yet were recognized as legitimate. And though the elections for the EU parliament in May went very well for PiS, no one has identified any cause to challenge the legitimacy of those results. But the parliamentary election coming up in three months is the election that counts. Now it is clear that the supporters of democracy do not merely need to worry about winning those elections; they also have to worry about whether they will be legitimate.

The irony is that last Thursday’s maneuver has challenged the faith in democracy that is the core of the anti-PiS opposition. PiS itself has always treated politics as a blood-sport in which any method is acceptable. A pro-democratic opposition that cannot trust elections is no longer able to compete on a democratic playing field, and that changes everything.

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The Board is Set

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After weeks of negotiations, it is finally clear what choices the Polish electorate will face during the elections this coming fall. There will be four significant blocs:

  • Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS): the radical-right nationalist party of Jarosław Kaczyński that has ruled the country since 2015
  • Koalicja Obywatelska (Civic Coalition, or KO): led by Grzegorz Schetyna, this is basically the old Civic Platform party that has constituted the primary opposition to PiS for almost twenty years
  • Koalicja Lewicy (Left Coalition, or KL): a union of left wing parties including the old Union of the Democrat Left (the former communist party from before 1989), and several new initiatives, most importantly a new group called Wiosna (Spring), the much anticipated but ultimately disappointing entry of the charismatic LGBT politician Robert Biedroń into national politics
  • Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish People’s Party, or PSL): the oldest party in Poland, with a constituency among small farmers. Strong in a few parts of the country based on deep clientelistic relationships

An article in today’s Gazeta Wyborcza by Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz captures a very common point of view with the headline: “The lack of a broad coalition is a victory for short-sighted foolishness.” In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, a field set out in this way virtually guarantees that PiS will emerge from the elections with more votes than any other grouping. In the trivial sense of the word, they will win the election. But to govern, getting more votes than others isn’t the goal: it’s positioning oneself to establish a majority by forming a coalition with other parties. With all that’s happened these past four years, it’s hard to see how PiS could form a coalition with anyone.

It is understandable that many people think of politics in terms of persuading “the people” to support this or that vision. This is the approach represented by PiS, which claims that its legitimacy stems from “the people” (which Kaczyński refers to as “the sovereign” [suweren]), a being who speaks with a single voice during elections. Based on this approach, whoever maneuvers into power after an election should then rule with unquestioned and unqualified authority until the next elections. Constitutional constraints, divisions of power between legislative and judicial branches, devolution of authority to local governments—all these things are irrelevant when faced with the power of “the sovereign’s” mandate. In a telling comment, a PiS politician, Jan Kilian, complained recently in a parliamentary speech that there was a disturbing pattern of “local governments carrying out their own policies without taking into account the policies of the central government.” This is the PiS worldview in a nutshell.

Ironically, it is also the implicit view of those across the political spectrum who argue that the voters need to be presented with a clear two-party alternative, PiS and Anti-PiS. Then “the sovereign” can speak with its singular voice, and the undeniable fact that PiS represents a minority of the electorate will cause them to lose their mandate to govern.

But what if there is no singular sovereign? What if the Poles are, in fact, a typical modern society with enormous differences between town and country, young and old, religious and secular, cosmopolitan and nationalist, rich and poor, etc., etc., etc. Yes, in a theoretical accounting it is obvious that “Anti-PiS” represents the majority of the population, but this includes quite a dizzying array of groups:

  • businesspeople who are opposed to PiS’s fondness for state-owned firms
  • libertarians who are opposed to PiS’s expansion of social welfare programs
  • feminists who are opposed to PiS’s restrictions on reproductive choice
  • secularists who are opposed to PiS’s clericalism
  • cosmopolitans who are opposed to PiS’s hostility towards the EU
  • intellectuals who are opposed to PiS’s heavy-handed and censorious cultural policies
  • local politicians who are opposed to PiS’s centralization
  • constitutional liberals who are opposed to PiS’s elimination of the independent judiciary

I could go on, but the point should be clear: any electoral campaign that is notionally “Anti-PiS” could not even mount a coherent negative political campaign, much less offer a coherent positive vision of how they would govern in a post-PiS world. This is what happened during the EU elections in May. A broad anti-PiS coalition did indeed take shape, but it was limited in its campaign to vague threats that Kaczyński would lead Poland out of the EU, and to abstract complaints about the constitutional violations of the past four years.

Getting a majority to agree that EU membership is a good thing and that the law should be obeyed is not hard. A Polexit referendum would never even come close to passing here, where the benefits of membership are simply too obvious. In fact, Poles are more pro-EU than people in any other EU country, and a survey in April showed support for membership hitting a record-high 91%.

But this misses the point. Let’s imagine a rural supporter of PSL who is a devout Catholic but also a believer in the rule-of-law and a supporter of EU membership. Now let’s imagine a young Varsovian who is strongly pro-choice, socialist, anticlerical, cosmopolitan, and a believer in the rule-of-law and a supporter of the EU. Finally, let’s imagine a business owner who is frustrated by PiS’s social spending and heavy-handed economic centralization—and is a believer in the rule-of-law and a supporter of the EU. If push came to shove, all three of these people might tell a survey-taker that they would vote for some notional anti-PiS. But can you even imagine an electoral campaign in which all three would be inspired to go to the trouble of voting in the first place? I know personally some of those urban leftists who would rather stay home or vote for a hopelessly small fringe-party rather than support a pro-business libertarian or pro-Catholic conservative. I also know some devout Catholics who despise PiS, but would never vote for a party that supports legalizing gay marriage.

The current political playing field may well hold just enough consolidation to ensure that all the major worldviews can find a home, without diluting the votes among parties that will fail to reach the 5% minimum needed for parliamentary representation. After all, PiS did not come to power in 2015 because it was so popular, but rather because the leftist parties failed to consolidate well enough to get any representation in parliament. It looks like that’s been resolved (knock on wood). 

Given the four major groupings that appear to be entering the fight for 2019, and aggregating the survey data from several different sources from the past month, the elections should give us a picture approximately like this:

If we distribute these votes with the smaller parties eliminated, we get a sejm that looks like this:

In other words, no PiS majority, and virtually no path to a PiS government.

For the next few months, all eyes should be on the PSL.  As of today, there is talk of them forming a coalition with a few other local organizations, which could be an incredibly risky move because of yet another quirk in Poland’s electoral law: coalitions require an 8% minimum rather than the usual 5% minimum.  If PSL falls out of the picture, then the math would give PiS exactly half of the parliamentary seats.

One way or the other, it is going to be very close. The biggest danger now, as I see it, is that the opposition politicians are dispirited because they do not see a path towards any single group overtaking PiS’s support.  No single party is going to replace PiS’s singular strength, and no coalition can possible cohere enough to challenge them.  But that does not mean that the game is lost. The fact that some politicians and commentators are acting as if it was lost could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Yet the actual balance of forces provides realistic ground for hope, and that’s what everyone should be focusing on now.   

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How to Remember 1989

The following essay was just published by The Global Post

Thirty years ago, on June 4, 1989, there were free elections in Poland – the first multiparty elections since WWII, and the beginning of a cascade of events that culminated in the collapse of all the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Two years later, the USSR itself would cease to exist, and the Cold War would come to an end. There was doubtlessly an excess of liberal triumphalism in 1989, but it can’t be denied that it was a year of genuine triumph for the forces of democracy, pluralism, and openness. And it all started in Poland.

Sadly, it seems that what goes around, comes around. Three decades after those thrilling events, we are witnessing the re-consolidation of dictatorial regimes in Poland, Hungary, and Russia, while similar anti-liberal forces rise throughout the region. The rhetoric is a bit different nowadays, with the slogans coming from the nationalist right rather than the communist left, but the methods of authoritarianism are frighteningly similar. The Polish, Hungarian, and Russian courts, media, cultural institutions, and educational systems are all under the control of each country’s ruling party, which uses this power to reshape society and stamp out liberal values of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, and respect for legal norms. When we recall that the communists of the 1970s and 1980s had themselves become increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic, even the rhetorical differences fade. Perhaps, in retrospect, the changes of 1989 weren’t as dramatic as they seemed at the time. Should we even be celebrating this year’s anniversaries?

Yes, we should – but with an eye towards the unfulfilled promise of that amazing moment thirty years ago. As we celebrate, we ought to return to the actual hopes and goals of those who brought about the fall of communism, and push aside once and for all the radical austerity ideology that was imposed upon Eastern Europe afterwards.

When the activists of the Solidarity labor movement began negotiating with the communist authorities in early 1989, they had both political and economic demands. Those political goals were achieved beyond their wildest dreams: one of their own leaders would be Prime Minister by the end of the summer, and within a few years Poland had an independent judiciary, a wide-open media landscape, and a multi-party democracy. Solidarity’s economic goals, however, were immediately and ruthlessly discarded. Revisiting those demands today is like peering into an alternative universe, one in which it seemed plausible to demand that that wages be indexed to inflation, that full employment be guaranteed by the state, and that independent unions play a large role in managing firms. Though the label wasn’t used at the time, it was a formula for democratic socialism, not neoliberal capitalism. This is what was promised in the deal that emerged from the “Round Table Talks.”

That promise was never kept. As the new post-communist government embraced a series of radical austerity measures known as “shock therapy,” Poland plunged into one of the deepest recessions every recorded. In fact, if we combine the crisis of the late-communist era with the post-communist recession, and compare that to the Great Depression of the 1930s, we see a shocking result:

That second plunge in the late 20th century recession, which came right after 1989, helps explain why so many Poles almost immediately felt an intense buyer’s remorse about abandoning the communist system. The CBOS survey firm has been asking Poles how they felt about the post-communist transformations, and until recently opinions have been divided, and subject to a lot of fluctuation:

In part, the much-delayed consensus that the overthrow the Polish People’s Republic was worthwhile comes from the fact that the country’s overall economic success has become undeniable. In the aggregate, Poles now are richer than they have ever been before—by a lot.

But note that drop in 1978 and the even deeper drop after 1989. Those who experienced the events of those years would be forgiven for wondering why so many outsiders were celebrating the fall of communism. Moreover, even as incomes eventually recovered and then rose to new heights, it came at the expense of significantly longer working hours, incomparably more stress, frayed family relations and social bonds, and massive cultural change. For all these reasons, those old enough to remember the Polish People’s Republic remain ambivalent even today about the transformations. The growing consensus that 1989 was worthwhile comes primarily from those who came of age after the 1990s, whose “memory” of communism comes from schoolbooks, novels, films, and TV shows that consistently depict the old system in uniformly dark colors.

21st century politics in Poland—and throughout Eastern Europe—has been dominated by a battle between neoliberals (who want to defend both the economic and political system established after 1989) and nationalists (who emphasize the darker sides of the new order, but blame it on a vast conspiracy of foreigners and hidden ex-communists). Now the latter are in power, and they are dismantling all the gains of the former—political and economic alike. The authoritarian regime of Jarosław Kaczyński’s “Law and Justice” party is distinctly awful, and I wouldn’t want to imply a symmetry between them and their liberal opponents. Nonetheless, today’s tragic erosion of constitutional norms is at least in part a consequence of the failures of the 1990s and early 2000s. Missing from the political scene back then was an agenda that would implement all the aspects of the Round Table Accords: an agenda that combined liberal democratic freedoms in the political and cultural realm with democratic socialism in the economic realm.

This year, as we celebrate the anniversary of 1989, let’s remember that path not taken. It’s too late to recover it now, because the living memory of the communist era has been replaced by the politics of memory, and that’s been thoroughly poisoned by the competing distortions of both liberal anticommunism and nationalist anticommunism. No one shouldwant to recover communism—there is, despite everything, something to celebrate with this year’s anniversaries. The sigh of regret that accompanies those commemorations is for the vanished and vanquished agenda of the 1980s: the program that didn’t want to throw the egalitarian baby out with the communist bathwater.

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Is Democracy Doomed in Poland?

In the aftermath of last week’s EU elections in Poland, there has been an abundance of lamentation and jeremiads by commentators on the left and center-left. Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) achieved its greatest electoral success ever, both in absolute and relative terms. Last Fall, during local and regional elections, there were signs that the opposition had won enough support in Poland’s towns and cities to make victory in the next parliamentary elections plausible. Now that objective seems further away than ever.

Matters seemed to get even worse this past weekend, as news emerged that the Polish Peasant’s Party [Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, or PSL] was considering a break from the anti-PiS, pro-democracy European Coalition [Koalicja Europejska, or KE]. For quite some time, supporters of liberal democracy have hoped for the creation of a broad front of allied parties from the center left and the center right, on the assumption that PiS could only be defeated if everyone joined together and put aside the issues that would otherwise divide them. After all, there is little sense squabbling about this or that budget priority, or this or that economic plan, when the very foundation of liberal democracy is at stake. Well, that coalition was finally created, including the PSL, the center-right Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO), the liberal Modern Party (Nowoczesna), the social democratic Alliance of the Democratic Left (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or SLD), and the Greens (Zieloni). Only the anti-clerical, left-liberal Spring Party (Wiosna) and the far-left Together Party (Razem) ran on their own. For their part, PiS had subsumed nearly the entire nationalist right, except for a small group that we might call the counter-cultural right (Kukiz 15) and an alliance of antisemitic even-further-right fringe parties calling itself The Confederation (Konfederacja). The results were unambiguously a disaster for the center and the left, even if we bring together all the various parties on the PiS and anti-PiS divide. The gap of slightly over one million votes is huge, considering that parliamentary elections tend to bring out 15-16 million voters (out of about 30 million eligible voters).

But let’s not be too hasty to predict a PiS victory in the next elections, which must take place this coming Fall. This balance of power, if it were to carry forward, would not necessarily lead to a significant PiS majority in the next Sejm (the Polish parliament). Polish electoral law requires a party to get at least 5% of the vote, which would cause Konfederacja, Kukiz 15, and Razem to fall by the wayside. The remaining balance would be a Sejm with 232 seats for PiS, and 228 for the opposition (197 for KE, and 31 for Wiosna). That’s an even smaller majority for PiS than they currently enjoy (238 votes), and they would no longer have the cushion of the 26 seats currently held by Kukiz 15, nor the 20 seats occupied by right wing politicians who declared their partisan independence since the last elections. Put differently, if last week’s vote were repeated in the Fall, PiS would be a mere 115,000 votes away from losing power to a coalition of KE and Wiosna.

Polish politics has always been characterized by “wasted” votes—that is, ballots cast for parties that didn’t make it past the 5% bar. Typically these don’t shift the overall balance of power, because there are fringe parties scattered across the political spectrum. But twice in the history of the Third Republic there have been spikes of significant “wastage,” leading to major distortions: in 1993, when the law was first instituted and the right was almost locked out of the Sejm because it hadn’t yet coalesced into a single movement; and then again in 2015, when PiS benefited from that very system. If the results this coming Fall are close to what they were last week, it is very possible that the shoe will again be on the other foot.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is no reason to believe that the vote in the Fall will be a replication of what happened last week. Historically, votes to the EU parliament have been poor predictors of national elections. In this specific case, the dynamic could be altered significantly if PSL does indeed decide to break from the coalition. I might have to acknowledge that my own hopes for a unified opposition were mistaken, because the increase in votes that PiS got in the last election came almost entirely from areas that had once been the strongholds of PSL. That party is unique in modern Polish politics. It is the only currently active party that has a continuous existence from before WWI until the present day, and its ideological identity has been somewhat fluid over that long history. In both the Second and Third Republics, the PSL has served in governing coalitions with both left and right wing parties, and precisely because of their flexibility they have come to specialize in a distinctive form of clientelistic politics. This has made it impossible to expand beyond a narrow base in a few rural areas, but it has also allowed the party to consistently remain above (sometimes barely) the 5% cutoff. It seems that the party’s constituents were willing to accept government coalitions with various larger parties, regardless of ideological profile, because that allowed the PSL leadership to retain control over government offices that could be used to sustain patronage networks. But merging into a coalition before an election meant that the PSL name was not on the ballot, and that the rural voters who would usually vote for the party had to choose between KE (a bloc dominated by urban liberals and leftists) or PiS. Not surprisingly—in hindsight—they went for the latter or just stayed home. This alone could account for most of the increase in the size of the PiS electorate. Significantly, PiS did not gain new voters in any of the districts known for more intense nationalism or religiosity; instead, their gains were in rural areas in the north and west of the country that had up till now demonstrated a somewhat more centrist (perhaps coldly pragmatic) profile. In other words, these are not areas that are ideologically aligned with PiS, but rural areas that can be swayed to vote for Kaczyński’s party if the economy seems strong (which it does) and if all the other options are linked to the cosmopolitan sensibilities of Poland’s liberal elite. Meanwhile, the remaining parties within KE will not have to worry about the concerns of the PSL, allowing them to offer a clearer message that aligns with the priorities of their urban, liberal base. That, in turn, could help them generate some more excitement and spur higher turnout.  

But big questions remain. If PSL does run on its own, will their voters switch back in the Fall, or will they feel betrayed by their old political patrons and instead stick with PiS? Kaczyński will doubtlessly work hard over the coming months to demonstrate his party’s largesse to precisely these swing districts. Even if these voters do return to the PSL, will it be enough to keep the party about the 5% level? If not, that will just draw votes away from the anti-PiS opposition. Finally, what will happen to the other three small parties that either just missed or just passed the 5% line: Konfederacja, Kukiz 15, and Wiosna? In all three cases, a tiny shift in the vote totals one way or the other could make an enormous difference, and completely change the balance of power.

The bottom line is that the results of the parliamentary elections are by no means a foregone conclusion. Surveys have shown that among the overall population, the divide between pro-PiS and anti-PiS is well within the margin of error. No matter what happens, there won’t be an overwhelming mandate in either direction (despite the claims that the winner is sure to make). Given this context, everything will depend on the complex and tedious details of partisan maneuvering and campaign strategy. That’s the kind of politicking that rarely inspires enthusiasm, but at stake this year could be the future of liberal democracy in Poland.

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