Understanding Poland: Part 1
How Poland was parted for the 4th time
Poland is a gorgeous country possessing a rich culture with a very difficult, yet beautiful history and a lot of open and warm people. Polish hospitality is legendary. The people in Poland are proud, a little more conservative than the average European. They are much more critical about their country and themselves as a nation than most populations, and they don’t have the ability to make smalltalk.
Never ask a Polish person how he’s/she’s doing, if you aren’t ready to take your relationship a step further, because you won’t get “Ah, I’m fine, thanks!” as a response – What you will get is a life story, a vivid description of your friend’s contemporary issues, job- and lovewise, his or her hopes and dreams. After 2 hours and 20 interconnected topics you will find yourself invited to a family grillfest on Sunday, because that is what friends in Poland do: They include people into their close cycles rather quickly.
I was born in Poland and lived there for a little less than 10 years. Sometimes I miss the country, its fiery passion for life, independence, in fact pretty much everything. As a person who from the time when it was 10 years old has been confronted with the culture and behaviour of two nations I learned to appreciate the “Polish soul”, which was contrasted to the lovable, but rather calm and reserved German “Gelassenheit” I dealt and deal with on an almost daily basis.
Passion however can be destructive. There is a recurring literary figure in the German “Sturm und Drang” epoche, best known to the international reader from the works of the young Schiller and Goethe, e.g. the tragic story of Werther.
This person, “Der große Kerl”, or the “Kraftkerl” is a fierce individualist, who’s unable to contain his emotions and actions. He is driven by a goal and is keen to reach it, even if that means the destruction of everything around him, including himself. This person is surrounded in an atmosphere of tension and electricity palpable by any other person it encounters. The fans of cooking shows should think of Gordon Ramsay seeing a microwave and frozen fish in a restaurant kitchen. Football fans should think about Jürgen Klopp reacting to a series of controversial decisions against Liverpool.
For a very long time it has been my suspicion that “Der Große Kerl” must have been invented as a reaction to an encounter between a German writer and a Polish person talking about a topic dear to its heart.
There are many things that make us passionate, one of them is politics. Politics does influence all of us. It is hard to neglect its importance in today’s world. More important however is: Politics makes us choose teams, which is when the problems really start.
But what are the teams in Poland? Who are their key players? How does it translate to other countries? And finally: What are the prospects for the future?
Currently there are 5 formations in the Polish parliament, the two strongest being the “Law and Justice” (PiS), and the “Civic Coalition”, which effectively is the “Civic Platform” (PO) and some smaller parties.
The Civic Platform (formed in 2001) used to govern Poland in a coalition with the agrarian party, PSL between 2007 and 2015.In western, particularly German media, it is commonly described as christian-democrat, center right, or liberal-conservative. This means that in economic issues the party would lean towards (european) liberalism, while in social issues, like drugs, marriage and tradition the party would be conservative.
In the administrative area PO used to have a federalistic vision, meaning that the party favored strong, decentralized regional governments, in opposition to a centralized state.
It would not be wrong to refer to the Civic Platform as “classically republican” which would compare them to the old and sadly out-of-date understanding of the US-american Republican party, who also emphasize economic liberty, tradition and decentralization.
It is the truth that PO’s rhetoric in its opposition years from 2001-2007 was liberal-conservative as the analysis of the voting behavior inside parliament during this time reveals that this label was fairly fitting.
That description however isn’t up-to-date anymore. In fact it is hard to place PO in the political spectrum. Just like other christian-democratic parties in Europe, like the CDU, or the French republicans, the party has shifted towards the center to attract more moderate voters and voters from the bigger cities.
The German call this phenomenon a “Volkspartei”, a party of the people, the “Volk”, of the masses, appealing to wide groups of the population. A Volkspartei like the CDU, or the PO doesn’t make strong ideological statements, and doesn’t have a clear economic policy in either direction. It is the average of the public political opinion. It is designed to be flexible and appear “rational”, moderate and technocratic.
In foreign policy the civic platform can be described as euro enthusiastic. Like most parties in the polish sejm (parliament) PO has always been in favour of Poland’s membership within the EU. The party emphasizes the political cooperation with Poland’s biggest neighbor Germany and is widely described as passive and servile in its relation to both the EU and Germany by its critics.
The civic platform failed miserably to deliver the tax cuts, decentralization and debureaucratization it once proclaimed and promised. Some taxes like the VAT were increased, the amount of government officials in institutions and agencies rose and the model of the state stayed essentially the same.
Leszek Balcerowicz, the author of the Polish economic reforms from the 90s and in this time one of the critics of PO had warned, that the distancing from the liberal electorate might eventually lead to a lost election.
His words were proved to be right in 2015, when the Civic Platform lost both the presidential and the parliamentary elections.
The party has made no real efforts to transform Poland into a modern, liberal state. Seeing the governing years of the Civic Platform, a liberal learns to respect the efforts of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or Ludwig Erhard. It is very easy to be a liberal when you’re in the opposition. When you’re governing, the situation is very different: You need to give up and cut expenses, decrease your overall influence, decrease your possibility to spend money on specific popular projects, finally you have to let substantial groups of people go, to minimize the size of the bureaucratic apparatus.
After the first years of the PO government it was clear that the Civic Platform is not a liberal party anymore. The long reign can still be explained by the overall growth of the Polish economy, which happened despite the bureaucratic monster the Polish state had become since the beginning of the democratic reforms, and the fear the population had from PiS and its aggressive, centralistic agenda known to the Polish people from the time between 2005 and 2007.
The decisive voters did not vote for the Civic Platform to choose a program. They voted against PiS, they voted for the “lesser of two evils”.
The transformation of PiS is the opposite to the transformation of PO.
PiS is a socially conservative formation. In the rhetoric there is a strong nationalist emphasis. Despite never being anti EU per se (PiS has always been in favor of Poland’s participation in the project), the party and its ideological equivalents in the media (that includes the state media) remain rhetorically hostile against the european institutions.
Law and Justice are a centralistic party. Unlike the Civic Platform they never followed a federalistic model for the state. They propose a strong national government, involved in various spheres of life. In their vision, the state should take a proactive role in the economy, with strong national companies in the “strategic” sectors. Consistently with that in foreign policy they are rather sceptical towards the EU and supranational entities, emphasizing the importance of an independent national state.
In the systemic issues they propose a stronger influence of the legislative and executive powers on the judicative. Their controversial judicial reforms have been widely criticized by lawyers, constitutionalists and judges. Which led to protests in the bigger cities, as well as the intervention of the european commission and the European Court of Justice.
Economically Law and Justice is a social democratic party. They emphasize the importance of caring about the poorer parts of Poland and its population. In a very politically effective way, PiS is buying large portions of the undecided electorate. Social expenditures for families, additional payments for pensioners, help to buy school supplies and other programs have helped to establish PiS as the main social democratic force in the republic, making the leftist parties obsolete. Other projects planned are for example an increase of the minimum wage and the increase of unemployment benefits.
In addition, the social democratic revolution performed by PiS has worrying effects on the country’s economy and mentality, as well as the political climate. The expenditures have pulled many people out of the job market and made them dependable from government subsidies. The planned drastic increase of the minimum wage might also have a disastrous effect on the poorer parts of the country, especially for unskilled workers and young people looking for a first job. It is virtually impossible to propose spending cuts – it is the equivalent of a political suicide. Moreover it has created a “social arms race” between the most important political actors in Poland. The end of the revolution isn’t near.
The spending insanity makes the thought of badly needed tax cuts impossible. The more likely scenario is an intensification of the countries already existing fiscal pressure, making Poland less competitive in its region and the world.