Temporary blog of the CWI

Poland: What is behind the success of Law and Justice?

Poland’s ruling right-wing populist party Law and Justice (PIS) has won a second term of office in the general election on Sunday 13th of September, with 43.6% of the vote and a majority of seats in parliament. The neoliberal Civic Platform came second, with 27.4% of the vote, and Lewica, an electoral alliance of liberal and left parties, won 12.6%.

By Paul Smith, Alternatywa Socjalistyczna (CWI in Poland)

However, Law and Justice was unable to win a majority in the Senate and fell far short of its aim of winning a two-thirds majority in the lower house, which would have allowed it to change the constitution.

Law and Justice came to power four years ago on a wave of discontent against the neoliberal policies and austerity of the previous Civic Platform government. It offered a mixture of nationalist and conservative rhetoric and social reforms benefitting the poorer sections of society, including a promise to lower the retirement age.

Soon after coming to power, Law and Justice attempted to gain direct control over the Polish courts, provoking mass protests around the country involving mainly the middle class. But the government’s attempt to introduce a total ban on abortion provoked a much more significant response – a mass movement of angry young women, culminating in Black Monday – the women’s strike in November 2016, which forced the government to back down with its plans.

The party has established a total grip on state media, blatantly using TV and radio as a biased party mouthpiece. Recently, Law and Justice has been whipping up fear of an LGBT invasion that they claim will destroy the Polish way of life and the family. Gender is another favourite bogeyman for the ruling party.

Besides authoritarian and reactionary measures, Law and Justice has carried out many of its election promises. It immediately introduced a new child benefit, which has improved the living standards of many poor families, and it lowered the retirement age as promised. It has also restricted Sunday trading, which has benefitted shop workers. Many of the poor, the working class and the socially excluded feel that finally there is a party that represents their interests. This is a damning indictment on the left and shows the desperate need for a workers’ party.

Nevertheless, some sections of the working class, such as teachers, health workers, and employees of the state airline have already come under attack from and experienced the more vicious side of Law and Justice. Despite the increased social spending, the government’s market-oriented housing incentives have also failed to solve the housing crisis, and the country’s health service is in a tragic condition.

Earlier this year Law and Justice introduced a fiscal stimulus of around 10 billion euro (2% of GDP), consisting of an extension of the child benefit and additional pension payments. The government has also announced plans to gradually raise the minimum wage, with the aim of reaching roughly 900 euros by 2023. It is thanks to these policies that, despite the slowdown in the eurozone and falling exports, the Polish economy is still relatively buoyant. So far, this has been paid for mainly by improved tax collection as a result of cracking down on VAT tax fraud by fictitious companies, the liquidation of the Open Pension Funds and the transfer of their assets to the state social insurance system, some creative accounting, and a small expansion of government debt. However, in the long-term this will be unsustainable and will lead to a public finance crisis. 

As a result of these social transfers and, despite the numerous corruption scandals, blatant nepotism and cronyism, continued economic growth the ruling party still enjoys strong support among a large part of the population. 

In contrast, the main opposition party, Civic Platform, failed to convince workers that it would not reverse these economic reforms. The memory of the austerity and anti-working class policies of the last Civic Platform government from 2007-2015 is still strong.

A new electoral alliance, Lewica, came third, with 12.6% of the vote. This is an electoral alliance formed shortly before the election by SLD, Wiosna and Razem. SLD are the post-Stalinist social democrats, who carried out neoliberal policies when in power at the beginning of the century. After one term in power they were decisively rejected by Polish workers and suffered electoral meltdown. Wiosna is a new liberal anti-clerical party led by Poland’s first openly gay mayor, who styles himself on Macron. On the other hand, Razem, is a new left-reformist formation established 4 years ago, which draws inspiration from Podemos, Syriza and Scandinavian “socialism”.

Unfortunately, over the last four years Razem has been unable to achieve progress on the electoral front and also failed to make any breakthrough among the working class. This is partly because Law and Justice is implementing some of the policies that are traditionally policies of the left, such as raising the minimum wage, lowering the retirement age, expanding public transport in the countryside, introducing new social benefits, but also because Rażem attempted to present itself as a moderate party that would work within the framework of capitalism. While it was able to attract some support among the radical middle class in larger cities (it’s leader, Adrian Zandberg, won an impressive 141,000 votes in Warsaw), it was unable to build a base among the working class and in the smaller towns.

Four years ago when SLD and Razem contested the election separately, both failed to cross the threshold needed to get into parliament, despite a combined vote of 11.2%. As a result, both parties increasingly felt the pressure to join forces. Now, on a joint slate together with Wiosna they have managed to win 48 seats, but only gained around 1.5% more of the vote.

Undoubtedly, it is positive that there will be MPs in parliament to the left of Civic Platform, especially since Konfederacja, an alliance of far right parties, won 6.8% of the vote and 11 seats. However, of the 48 Lewica MPs elected, only 6 are from Razem. Most are from the liberal parties, who benefitted from Razem’s electoral support. 

The question now is whether these 6 MPs from Razem will be able to use their position to give the organised working class an effective voice, both inside and outside parliament, and present a left alternative to the crisis of capitalism. Will they fight energetically in support of striking teachers and health workers? Will they provide a clear alternative to the social injustices of capitalism and a way forward for workers in struggle? Or will they succumb to the pressure to be “respectable” and “electable” and drift further to the centre ground (i.e. to the right)? Unfortunately, the remarks of the newly elected Razem MP, Marcelina Zawisza, suggest the latter will be the case. Instead of declaring her intention of being a champion for the working class in parliament, she wrote that it is now time to put quarrels with other political parties aside and that she is even considering cooperation with the neoliberals from Civic Platform and the conservative-nationalist grouping PSL-Kukiz.

Despite the fiscal stimulus, the Polish economy is slowing down and is unlikely to survive the coming global and European economic crisis unscathed. Law and Justice will have a rougher ride during its second term in office, with new attacks on the working class and mass struggles looming on the horizon. This is why the need for an independent, working class and socialist alternative is all the more crucial.