Poland’s conservative turn: Where are its real origins?

Foto: Piotr DrabikJarosław Kaczyński is chairman of the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which won the 2015 parliamentary election in Poland and formed the government. Photo: Piotr Drabik (CC BY 2.0)

Is Poland’s shift to the right a sign of a broader Central and Eastern Europe backslide towards a new form of authoritarianism? An answer by Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski and Roland Benedikter (Willy Brandt Center for German and European Studies Breslau) ...

By Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski and Roland Benedikter

The victories of the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland in both the presidential elections of May 2015 and the parliamentary elections of October 2015 have been controversially debated by journalists and pundits. Many observers interpret Poland’s shift to the right as a sign of a broader Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) backslide towards a new form of authoritarianism.

In reality, the “conservative turn” can be explained to a large extent by the specific problems of CEE governance. From a realistic point of view, the most important reason for the recent electoral victory of the Polish right is structural, since it is related to the specific pathologies of CEE post-communist governance. Liberal democracy (accompanied by liberal capitalism) was introduced in CEE nations at the historical peak of the neoliberal interpretation of governance, democracy, and capitalism during the years 1989-1990. This led on the one hand to positive effects including robust economic growth and an increase of average living standards. On the other hand, the non-transparent privatization processes and lagging reforms of most crucial sectors of productivity brought about specific governance pathologies in Poland and other CEE countries.

In 2016, after 25 years, the CEE version of governance still remains pathological in many ways. It is showing serious limitations in responding to the social needs of the region’s transforming societies. Despite positive macroeconomic development, both young people and senior citizens in CEE have lived under existential pressure for many years with governments unable (and partly unwilling) to strengthen the welfare systems and balance growing social inequality.

Clientelism, mismanagement, imbalanced development

As a result, in the past ten years, more than 2.3 million young Poles have been forced to emigrate to the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Germany. Today, the majority of Polish pensioners have to live on 400 EUR per month and must pay for their medicine in full. In addition, Polish pensioners are heavily indebted; their accumulated debt burden was roughly equal to 450 million EUR in 2015. The public health system operates at a dismal level due to chronic underfunding and corruption. Consequently, the majority of Polish citizens have to use private medical services, despite the fact that the average Polish household’s net financial wealth is $10,919, while the OECD average is close to $67,000.

At the same time, numerous Polish governments after 1989 used state agencies and enterprises for cronyism and politico-economic clientelism, draining financial resources from the state budget that otherwise could have been invested into higher education, research, health, and pension systems. Foreign capital has not only been unable to substitute for many of these structural difficulties and for the chronic problem of the mismanagement of public funds, but also has produced its own problems, such as real-estate bubbles and problematic mortgages for small savers. While international corporations, banks, and consultancies have mushroomed all over the CEE area, its most important nations Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have become virtual assembly lines for foreign producers that do not hold their Research and Development departments in these nations and in many cases pay their taxes in other EU countries due to lower VAT and better legal certainty. As a result, 70 percent of the entire tax burden in Poland is carried not by European or transnational enterprises, but by small and medium-sized firms of local origin.

Most Polish political parties since 1989 have become complicit in this imbalanced development, widely independent of their leftist or rightist inclinations, dragging their feet for decades on the necessary reforms of the health care, higher education, labor market, and pension systems. Against this backdrop, in the eyes of many voters who completely adhere to democratic values, Poland’s political parties and governments have turned into guards of the numerous pathologies associated with CEE governance.

We need a new, sound and sober spirit of dialogue

The electoral victory of the right in Poland must be read against these developments by a majority of Polish voters. It was not the fruit of a sudden “conservative turn,” sparked by the cunning motives of just a few astute anti-democratic politicians, as some observers depict it. The fact is that the necessary reforms of the Polish governance system have been widely neglected both by the Polish and CEE governments, and by EU institutions and partner countries as well. It is no coincidence that, paradoxically, the conservative governments in Poland and Hungary immediately after coming into power embraced “neo-leftist” redistributive measures, common in Western welfare states such as Germany and France, that were largely omitted by previous governments in the CEE area.

Our conclusion is that if the debate between Poland, the EU and the international community about the future of governance and democracy in the CEE area and in Poland in particular wants to be productive and forward-oriented, it must concentrate to jointly and collaboratively implement balanced and reasoned reforms of the CEE governance systems in pro-positive cooperation and by using best practice examples, instead of focusing almost exclusively on the effects of the victory of the PiS. That will require a new, sound and sober spirit of dialogue and cooperation between all partners involved that will have to substitute the rhetoric of scandal and polemic that these days abound on all sides.

About the authors

Karolewski and Benedikter are Professors of Political Science at the Willy Brandt Center for German and European Studies of the University of Wroclaw-Breslau, Poland. This text is a short version of two much more detailed and more elaborate papers published previously by the authors that the readers are kindly invited to consult:

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  • We can talk about many things, but two things have to be clear:

    1: We do not have to talk about existing rules! Poland and all 27 EU-members accepted these rules written down in the EU-contract. Poland just has to follow these rules.

    2: It is not my job, to decide about Inner-Polish policy, as long as the European law is respected.

    But then we can talk about necessary reforms in the EU or else. My suggestion is a EU-construction which allows a different speed of integration.