The victory for the Trumpesque right in Poland is a dangerous development and the challenge for socialists is to create an opening for renewed struggle, argues Reece Goscinski
The second round of Polish presidential elections concluded on 12 July resulting in a narrow victory for Andrzej Duda from the right-wing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice Party - PiS). Duda secured 51.2% of the vote with his challenger, the mayor of Warszawa, Rafał Trzaskowkski securing 48.8% of a 69% voter turnout. Whilst PiS’ policies of white-Catholic values, populism, and attacks on the LGBT+ community have won this election the narrow victory represents a clear division as the nation shapes its contemporary values.
This election presents an opening for a renewed left in Poland allowing people before profit to cut through conservative discourse. International solidarity, support, and the sharing of experiences are crucial in assisting the resistance movements taking on Europe’s emerging right.
The Election: Policies, Campaign, and Erosion of Democracy
The mainstream politics of Poland are dominated by two differing sections of the contemporary right. On the one hand, PiS support neoliberal economics, closer ties to Trump’s America, and social-conservative policies such as the legalisation of Catholic doctrine, restrictions on the courts, and the promotion of the nuclear family through welfare spending and attacks on the LGBT+ community. These latter policies formed the forefront of Duda’s presidential bid as he promised to protect family values and children by banning LGBT+ adoption. Much of PiS’s support is being drawn from provincial towns in Poland who have benefitted from the increased welfare payments after the nation’s neoliberal turn to low wages and de-industrialisation. On the other hand, Trzaskowkski’s Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) support neoliberal economics, closer ties to the EU, and liberal social policies such as protecting constitutional rights, environmental policies, and support for LGBT+ rights but stopping short at adoption.
With both of these options present at the ballot box it’s not difficult to recall Tony Cliff’s famous quip: “If you’re selling cholera, give me syphilis any day.” According to Euronews, the prominent election issues included the post-COVID economy (57%) and healthcare (40%) whilst social and institutional issues such as Paedophilia in the Church (23% - a national scandal in recent years) and LGBT+ (9%) took a back foot. Confronted with two parties supporting continued neoliberal economics, it’s easy to see how a slim majority if Poles chose to stick with the devil they know.
The campaign also took a bizarre turn in the July televised debates. Both candidates appeared on separate channels and debated themselves after claiming they were being set up by news stations. Trzaskowski refused to appear on the state broadcaster TVP’s debate as it is controlled by PiS and Duda refused to appear on private station TVN because it is “organised under the protection of foreign media.” Duda also challenged the tabloid newspaper Fakt claiming “the Germans want to choose the president of Poland” after they released a story suggesting he pardoned a sex offender. These moves have clearly been taken out of the Trump playbook resulting in reduced accountability and making a mockery of the democratic process. Yet the case also highlights how the deep mistrust of the media is an international phenomenon which has been exploited by populists.
The Challenge for Socialists
Whilst this election was billed as traditionalism versus progressivism, the reality is both candidates were variants of the same thing. Both of the parties are champions of neoliberal economics with little sign of opposition to this dogma. Historically, the left in Poland has enjoyed victories in the post-Soviet landscape with Solidarność winning in 1990 and ex-communist Alexander Kwaśniewski securing the presidency between 1995 - 2005. Today the political left has become an inept force in the country with many considering it a retirement home for former members of the Soviet regime.
The Left coalition of Socialists and Social Democrats only secured 12% of the vote in the 2019 Sejem elections whilst the trade union movement struggles to overcome a lack of national recognition agreements, threats to the autonomy of the Social Dialogue Council, and ideological tensions resulting in uncoordinated resistance. Despite these setbacks, the 2020 election presents an opening for a renewed left in Poland. With many voters concerned about healthcare and low wages,a renewed left can cut through the neoliberal dialogue by placing people before profit. With 49% of the electorate voting for Trzaskowkski’s support of progressive social issues, the left can target the toxic economics of the ruling party and resist threats to marginalised communities.