The 12 things to note about Sunday’s parliamentary election in Poland:
1. It’s status quo, with the populist/nationalist/conservative PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, or Law and Justice) government getting reelected.
2. The turn-out was the highest since the first semi-democratic election in 1989: 55.31 per cent, which is still pretty low by European standards. So much for the supposedly very politicised Poles, who in that regard seem to be much closer temperamentally to the apathetic Americans.
3. Exit polls seem to have slightly under-estimated the support for the right and overestimated the opposition:
While the counting is still going, the actual results show PiS with 44.38 per cent, the main opposition KO with 26.77 per cent, Lewica with 12.34 per cent, KP with 8.63 and Konfederacja with 6.76 (with 91 per cent of the vote counted).
By way of explanation: KO (Koalicja Obywatelska, or Citizens Coalition) is built around the pre-2015 governing party Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform), a more traditional centre-right party, which can be described as pro-EU liberals. Lewica (The Left) unites the main left-wing and social democratic parties like the post-communist SLD (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or the Democratic Left Alliance) and the new, woke Wiosna (Spring). KP (Koalicja Polska, or Polish Coalition – as you can see by now there are lots of “coalitions” in Polish politics, probably because there are more parties, factions and tendencies than there are Poles) is a mixed bag, being composed of PSL (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, which isn’t easily translatable but is essentially the small farmers’ party, the heir to the interwar’s largest political force, the Peasant Party) and Kukiz’15, led by a punk rocker and anti-establishment (but mainly anti-left) figure Jacek Kukiz, the lead singer of Piersi (Breasts). Coincidentally, both PO and PSL sit together in the European Parliament as part of the European People’s Party, which can be broadly described as Christian Democrat in outlook. Konfederacja (Confederation) is another mixed bag, which the media will no doubt portray as “far-right”; it’s made up of six small parties, ranging from the old and well established right-libertarian KORWiN to Ruch Narodowy (National Movement), the rather unsavoury nationalists.
4. The PiS government will have an absolute majority in the parliament, albeit quite thin, like the last term.
5. One interesting development is the return to parliament of the traditional left, which for years has been a marginal force in Polish politics. No doubt this is a reaction to the PiS ethos and policies. While the left largely agrees with PiS on economic policy (particularly increased welfare), it is staunchly opposed to the socially conservative agenda of the government (anti-abortion, anti-LGBT movement, etc.).
6. The Polish political scene, however, remains broadly right – or, more accurately, 50 Shades of Right, as it includes all the possible ideological tendencies associated with centre-right politics: conservatives, liberals, libertarians, populists, nationalists, anti-establishment, anti-left, clerical, reactionary. In a very Polish style they all hate each other while also hating the left, or at least some aspects of the left (and different aspects in each case). One can see an over-arching division between “conservatives” (economically left or statist, socially conservative, religious, populist, nationalist) and “liberals” (economically right, socially liberal, internationalist, moderate, centrist). This is not too dissimilar to other developed Western countries where the right is increasingly split between the establishment centrists and the populist rebels.
7. Politico provides a typical mainstream analysis of the results:
Voter turnout was on track for a record high — a sign of the deep divisions in the country after four years of a PiS government. Each party tried to galvanize its voters by warning that a victory by its rivals would be a disaster for the country. The exit polls indicated a country split almost equally in two.
“Polish society is very, very deeply divided,” former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski told Poland’s TVN24 news channel.
One could note that politics everywhere tends to be quite divided, as is the nature of politics, and reasonably evenly split (if you look at elections in countries like the United States and Australia, they rarely deviate beyond the 52:48 split). In the media world, divisions are very deep if the right wins; if the left wins by a similar margin it’s a normal situation.
8. A more charitable interpretation from Agnieszka Kolakowska, also at Politico:
So why all the alarmism about Poland? In part, it’s because Warsaw continues to resist attempts at EU bullying and insists on maintaining control over issues of national sovereignty such as migration and border management. This is frowned upon by those who have vested interests in maintaining a European kleptocracy of elites.
But the country is also something of a test case: Is it possible to have a (fairly) liberal democracy without pandering to identity politics and all the rest of it? So far, the answer is yes.
Poles are sick of being branded as unenlightened, primitive, bigoted, nationalistic, anti-Semitic, right-wing extremists just because they don’t think patriotism is a dirty word. They do not like having the “liberal” agenda currently in vogue foisted on them, their narrative usurped, their sovereignty made light of. So they fight back. And this, too, is frowned upon.
Poland, for all its faults and mistakes, is grappling with important questions. How do you foster patriotism without facing charges of nationalist xenophobia? How can you reconcile liberal democracy with historic traditions and values? How can you strike a balance between equal rights and religious freedom?
Poland is hardly the only country struggling to find a balance. But right now, it looks as if it may have the best chance of succeeding.
9. For the record, I’m not a PiS supporter myself (neither are most of my family and friends in Poland), having seen myself more on the far right of Civic Platform. There are some things I agree with PiS on, like immigration and multiculturalism (no to open borders), and some things I don’t, like the economic policy (more welfare instead of structural reforms). PiS’s control and use of the public media is ridiculous – but so is the existence of the public media in the first place. The bias is a mirror reflection of the left-wing bias of the Western (public and private) media and just as undesirable. Some obsessions, like its all consuming war with the LGBT movement, seem over the top, even if at least partly reflecting public concern (in a recent poll, males 18-39 identified the gender/LGBT ideology as the biggest threat to contemporary Poland, followed by climate change, demographic crisis and Russia; for women in the same age bracket it was climate change, followed by health care crisis, threat of leaving the EU and the rise in nationalism).
10. Democracy is not dying in Poland and the country is not slipping into some sort of dangerous authoritarianism, it’s just that the government is very anti-woke, which is why the enlightened Western opinion finds it so repulsive. There is a certain level of corruption, incompetence, nepotism and patronage politics present regardless who’s in charge. Everyone is holier than thou in opposition and the pretty much the same in government. The difference mainly revolves around the question whether you get invited to all the good cocktail parties or not.
11. Poland’s economy has been booming for some time (it was one of the very few countries not to go into a recession during the Global Financial Crisis), so much so that somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million Ukrainian and Belorussians are currently filling job vacancies. Economic growth has led to rising standards of living, albeit unevenly – which PiS has benefited from electorally – and still with some way to go to catch up to the rest of West, though it’s now comparable to lower league countries like Greece and Portugal. Growth has also allowed PiS to balance the budget and splurge on welfare for those feeling left behind by the boom. Whether the situation is sustainable is questionable; a lot of structural problems remain unaddressed and bequeathed from government to government in a too-hard basket.
12. What are the foreign policy implications? The European Union will keep hating on the government for its real and imagined failures to live up to the “European values”. With the UK likely out of the EU soon, Poland is getting closer to Germany, whose largest trading partner it has recently become. And the good relations with the US are likely to continue, as PiS and Trump very much speak each other’s language. As “The Economist” writes, “The Poles know how to handle President Trump… honing the art of speaking to him in the languages he understands best: flattery, money and loyalty.” Flattery aside (which seemed to be OK when, for example, the world simply adored Obama), the Ecommunist’s recipe for a good American ally seems to be by imputation a disloyal free-loader, which come to think of it describes quite a few supposed friends. As an added bonus, Poznan will have its very own US Army division, which certainly is a nice change in my lifetime.