Poland: Populism Strikes Back

The seventh democratic presidential elections in Poland since 1990 have ended on 12 July 2020. Official statistics show the highest ever turnout, with a record-breaking 68.18% of the entitled electorate choosing to cast a vote in the second round. The result – a close victory for Andrzej Duda, the president previously elected in 2015, with 51.03% of votes.(1) Although Duda ran as an independent candidate, his campaign was of course wholly endorsed and funded by Jarosław Kaczyński’s conservative Catholic right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. While the opposition tries to put a positive spin on their defeat by noting the surprisingly high turnout (at least for Poland since the fall of the Berlin Wall(2)), as it shows increasing frustration with PiS’ authoritarian ways and continued oppression of women and the LGBT+ community in the country, this in fact is anything but a victory. Many of those voting for the Civic Platform (PO) candidate Rafał Trzaskowski did so as a last resort and a necessary “lesser evil” – anything to dethrone the religious zealots currently in power and stop the consolidation of power in Kaczyński’s hands. In reality PO won nothing here, and this election shows yet another failure of the liberal opposition and the weakness of the parliamentary anti-PiS bloc.

However, the results themselves, especially given the wider geopolitical context, show nothing particularly surprising; the east/west split has been a historical truth in Poland for decades. The border changes, genocides and forced resettlements of Poles and other nations after World War II reshaped Eastern Europe. The new post-war imperialist order saw the creation of ethnically homogeneous states like the Polish People’s Republic. The so-called “rootless” re-settlers of the west and their “progressive” views as opposed to the more conservative population in the east who still have more historical and cultural ties to the lands they live on and did not see as much forceful migration westward after the war. And so it is, that the west parts of the country keep voting for the more pro-EU, slightly more socially progressive and more economically liberal, centre-right PO party; whereas the east votes for PiS, the more conservative and even more right-wing, as well as more Eurosceptic party. PiS has recently seen plenty of criticism in Western media for their treatment and planned continued discrimination against Poland's LGBT+ community (previously the declaration of “LGBT-free zones” was met with much opposition in certain circles both outside of and within the country, but more recently in June the comments Duda made describing the LGBT+ movement as “a foreign ideology” and declaring that he would not allow for gay couples to marry or adopt children saw even more outrage).

But Poland’s east versus west split runs deeper than just each region’s political preferences, with its economic and infrastructural divergences going even further back than the Second World War. While the lands of present-day north and west Poland did start as Slavonic settlements over a thousand years ago, due to wars and competing nation-building efforts these lands came under German control for centuries – many areas eventually gathering a majority German-speaking population. When the Polish Commonwealth was partitioned between its three neighbouring empires in the late 18th century, it was the north and west that went to Prussia for most of the 123 years that followed(3), whereas the south and southwest was incorporated into the Austrian Empire. Left under the jurisdiction of the more economically advanced superpowers, these territories saw some development of industry and railways. The more rural and poorer lands in the east were taken over by the still primarily agricultural and feudal Imperial Russia. While Prussia and then Germany were not too kind to their Polish subjects either, the Austrian-controlled sections of present-day Poland saw much more progressive and benevolent treatment than the territories under Russian tsarist rule that were submitted to strict Russification.

Even to this day the Polish state has struggled to get its southeast and eastern lands to reach the same kind of economic development that the west and northwest enjoy. Thus, not only is the east perceived by the Polish population to be the more religious, traditional, ethnically Slavic, reactionary, and poorer region but disparities in wealth continue to exist in reality and not just in the public’s eye. The exception to the rule is of course Mazovia, pushed up in the statistics considerably due to the capital being located there – however, the more rural and less industrialised areas outside of Warsaw continue to lag behind their counterparts in the Pomeranian voivodeship up north or the Lower Silesia province in the southwest. It should come as no surprise then that it is exactly these regions of the country where the nationalist populism of Duda and PiS finds the most support. In past elections, many of these zones have been bastions of the PiS electorate and – unsurprisingly – many of them overlap with the map of Poland that shows which areas legally declared themselves zones “free of LGBT ideology”.

So Poland’s metropolitan centres and western reaches continue to vote for the more pro-EU and neoliberal options like PO, sometimes out of a principle of “lesser evilism”, and the more desperate they get, the more willing they become to settle for candidates they would not vote for if not for the perceived threat of more years of increasingly authoritarian PiS rule. In the same manner the country’s rural localities and eastern stretches will keep voting for PiS, whom they see as the closest option to a welfare state that could cater to their needs in the current overly privatised state of affairs. Even many of the more “moderate” voters will keep choosing the conservatives if it means they can stop a return to the “elitist” and apparently “anti-Polish” days of a PO majority government, whom they see as more interested in securing Poland’s position as an influential member of the European Union than tending to the domestic matters of unemployment and poverty at home. What upsets the “moderate” elements of both sides even further is that their candidates will not hesitate to ally themselves with even more extreme nationalist elements in order to secure more votes; even the apparently more progressive Trzaskowski was ready to declare that his views are not so different to that of the nationalists when it comes to the economy.(4)

Although frustrations with the PiS government continue to grow in Poland, with some of the largest demonstrations the country has seen in recent years coming out of its pro-choice and LGBT+ equal rights movements (though sadly these protests are mostly of a class collaborationist nature), in parliament Duda’s formula of nationalistic populism continues to bring him and his party success.(5) As long as Poland’s east/west split and its resulting material disparities continue to exist, so will a similar division of voters into these two opposing camps. In fact, comparing this year’s results to previous ones, we can see that PiS have actually made some gains in the south and north. With more years of Duda as president and a PiS majority government, the PiS consolidation of power will continue. It would not be surprising to see more legislative changes that will take the country in an even more authoritarian direction akin to that of Belarus, such as the takeover of public broadcasting and changes in the courts system that we have seen in recent years, as well as the increasing strength of the far right like in Hungary.

There were several other factors that without a doubt played a part in securing Duda’s victory in this election. One of these is certainly the aforementioned total control of state media that PiS established several years ago, which has resulted in the complete transformation of TVP (Poland’s main government-owned television channel) into a propaganda tool reminiscent of the Polish People’s Republic era in its bias, though of course entirely differing in its content besides the obvious nationalism. No longer is the fanatical religious zeal and homophobia reserved for the likes of fringe radio stations and channels such as the cult-like Radio Maryja and TV Trwam, but it has for years now been broadcast on the main programmes of Polish television. And of course any mention of politics on TVP has been clearly in favour of PiS and vehemently against all of its opposition. Another factor that helped to swing things in Duda’s favour was prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s campaign around Poland in between the two rounds of voting; Morawiecki, a member of PiS of course, intensively toured the country and assured elder voters that “the epidemic is on the retreat” and “there is nothing to be afraid of”, urging them to vote.(6) Sure enough, the age 50+ demographic saw a noticeable increase in turnout from the first to the second rounds of voting – the majority of whom voted for Duda, as PiS has consistently appealed to seniors and lowered retirement age when PO had raised it. Furthermore, individuals aged over 60 were allowed to vote without waiting in line in the second round.

The truth is that neither PO, nor the social-democrats of Razem on the margins, nor the only popular openly gay candidate Robert Biedroń, can stop Poland’s further spiral into Catholic homophobia and far-right extremism. Voting for the “lesser evil” solves nothing. In fact, many of these apparently left-wing or centre-left parties do indeed share many views with the nationalists and free market advocates on the right-wing when it comes to the economy. As long as Poland’s working class continues to fall under the illusion that voting in parliamentary and presidential elections will do anything more than choosing which master governs their life and continues to oppress and exploit them, then the situation will keep looking as hopeless (if not increasingly so) as it already does. Only a revival of class struggle from below, that rejects all the ruling class narratives of the right and the left, can chart a way out for the Polish working class and its sexual and ethnic minorities from the oppression and exploitation they will continue to face under bourgeois rule. Only independent proletarian self-organisation, conscious of its interests as the oppressed class, united with workers of the rest of the world in their fight against the global capitalist system can bring about truly meaningful and lasting change!


July 2020

(1) For our previous comments on the electoral successes of PiS, see: Elections in Poland: Don't Mourn, Organise! and Poland: The 18th Brumaire of Jarosław Kaczyński

(2) The Fall of the Berlin Wall and “The End of History”

(3) Poland: One Hundred Years of Bourgeois Dictatorship

(4) On 28 June, Trzaskowski tweeted: “Thank you Krzysztof Bosak and his voters. When it comes to economic freedom, we mostly have the same views”; Bosak is the co-founder of the National Movement (RN), a far-right nationalist party and the parliamentary outlet for many of Poland’s fascists, for whom Bosak also ran as a candidate in the 2020 presidential election. twitter.com

(5) For more on Polish nationalism, see: From the Heart of Darkness: Anatomy of a March in Poland

(6) For more on Morawiecki’s speeches (in Polish), see: wiadomosci.onet.pl

Thursday, July 16, 2020