The ‘good shift’ – new authoritarianism and beyond

What are we to call the political project that emerges from the drama directed by Kaczyński? Maciej Gdula calls it “new authoritarianism”. It is “new” because, contrary to traditional dictatorships, it harnesses the democratic imaginary, and the practice of democracy.

Two years after their election victory, the Law and Justice party (PiS) is still enjoying the support of many in Poland. Opinion polls regularly show that Jarosław Kaczyński and his political party could count on more votes today than they received back in 2015, when they won the election. This is the case, despite waves of mass social protests (i.e. marches organized by ‘The Committee for the Defense of Democracy’ against violations of the constitutional law, the ‘black protest’ against stricter abortion laws, and demonstrations against the reform of the judiciary), sharp criticism by influential liberal media and the alarmed voices coming from the international community, including the EU. As we reach the end of the first half of the parliamentary term, we may ask – is Poland a democracy in which the silent majority agrees with the PiS stance against “the street and the international community”? Has the voice of “everyone” now triumphed over the fears and arrogance of the elites? The situation is far more complex than the PiS popularity would suggest.

Law and Justice are still enjoying the support of many in Poland.

Society supports Law and Justice, but not necessarily its policies

A questionnaire carried out in December 2015 for the liberal weekly Polityka indicates that far more respondents are willing to vote for PiS than agree with their program,or specific actions such as threatening judicial independence, violating the constitutional law or considering whether to ban abortion without exceptions. Some of the PiS supporters also disagree with the public financing of the Catholic church , the centralization of power, and the belligerent attitude towards the EU. The only policy of the current government that inspires an overwhelming support is its social policy. Can we then say that Poles resigned to Kaczyński’s power grab because of his generous family-oriented policy, the lowering of the retirement age and the rise of the minimum pay?

The book is available in Polish at the Publishing House of Krytyka Polityczna

The liberal commentators argue that the Poles let themselves be bought for a “500 zloty child benefit” and traded freedom for social security. Interestingly, pro-left commentators are seeing similar causes behind the enduring support for the party. They say that the right-wing party reached out to the excluded, “the losers of post-communist transformation”, whose personal experience had been marginalized in the previous neoliberal public discourse.

Such diagnoses are mistaken at worst and incomplete at best. An increasing number of studies and analyses shows the complexity of the current political moment. The most insightful study comes from a team of sociologists led by Dr Maciej Gdula. The study was commissioned by the Advanced Studies Institute in Warsaw (led by people connected to Krytyka Polityczna – Political Critique) and funded by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

All Poles’ Party?

The authors interviewed voters in a provincial but well-off town in the Mazovia region, where PiS got nearly 50% of the votes in the last election. The researchers talked to the representatives of the working class (people doing manual work and providing simple services) and the middle class (white-collar workers in the private and public sector). It was important to include both groups in the study as the ruling party does not appeal solely to the poor and poorly educated voters. The study shows that “Kaczyński’s party got the biggest support among farmers and workers with 53.3% and 46.8% of the vote respectively. We should remember, though, that these groups vote less frequently than other groups (…).PiS would have never received so many votes were it not for the support from the middle class formed by the employees of public administration and the service sector. Their victory with the middle class was not overwhelming, but they managed to collect the most votes compared to other parties – 35.4%. The Civic Platform (PO) won within only one of the professional groups listed in the questionnaire – among the CEOs and managerial staff (…). PiS was also the winner with businessmen reaching 29.1% and people with higher education at 30.4%”.

The ruling party does not appeal solely to poor and poorly educated voters.

The fact that the PiS voters are a non-homogenous group is clear looking at the polling day results. However, the study by Maciej Gdula points to specific reasons for PiS success. The different social groups support PiS for different reasons, and their political identification is backed by different reasons, which are not always linked to personal experience or tangible material gains. The study shows that “supporting PiS gives the gratifying possibility of participating in the political drama directed by PiS leader.”

The director of this drama, Jarosław Kaczyński, the unchallenged leader of the ruling camp, assigns different roles to his supporters: they are the victims of the 3rd Polish Republic (for whom politics provides a chance to get back at the perpetrators) and proud members of the national community in which solidarity is directed inwards; or people who can advance their aspirations for control and power.

Something nice for everyone

These three roles correspond to the three pillars of what PiS has to offer, making it possible for different groups of voters to identify with Kaczyński’s project. First of all, it is “settling accounts with the elites”, where the elites include politicians of liberal parties, public servants and the cultural milieu of the Third Polish Republic. Secondly, it is about the inclusion into the national community that allows other aspirations and aesthetics than those of the middle class. Thirdly, it is about morally justified domination over those that are more vulnerable.

It is about morally justified domination over those that are more vulnerable.

The belief that the new authorities will deal with the corrupt, immoral and alienated elites reflects the stereotype of PiS voters as seeking revenge for their personal (real or imagined) losses. But we should remember that many voters, and not only supporters of PiS, share such negative opinions of the previous ruling party, and see any attack on the former rulers as bringing back order and justice. Hence, some voters approve of the overhaul of the Constitutional Tribunal and agree with bringing the courts under governmental control.

It is worth noting some subtle differences. Dominant among the working class is the image of the Third Republic’s elites, especially political, as being out of touch with common people and defaulting on their electoral promises. The middle class’ hard feelings, on the other hand, focus on the elite’s corruption and immoral approach to public life.

Another part of PiS’ political offer is their vision of a national community, which is in a way inclusive and allows people, especially those of the working class, to have a sense of belonging to a group of “normal people”. You no longer have to go to university, get a mortgage and buy a flat or declare that you hold “European values”, in order to be a fully-fledged member of the Polish nation. That is how many Poles felt the nation had been defined by the Civic Platform. As an overarching unifier, Poles now have new national symbols, faith and pride in their own history. At the same time, they fence off the “elites”, “pathologies” and “strangers.” The nation, according to the story told by PiS and their voters is a community of solidarity and hence it should support its members like parents who take upon themselves the burden of raising children. That is where the overwhelming support for the famous Family 500+ program (an equivalent of the German Kindergeld) comes from. According to the middle class, the program is a “civic norm,” while the working class see the program as an expression of social justice.

The exclusive solidarity, limited to the national community, does not apply to the old elites (alienated, often for serving foreign interests), the so-called “social pathology” (people who do not observe social norms such as criminals or families affected by alcohol addiction) and all kinds of “strangers” such as refugees.

Refugees, an important topic during the electoral campaign in 2015, lead us to the third part of the PiS’ political portfolio. This part aims to provoke a feeling of might in voters or power over weaker groups, who are also considered to be morally deficient.

Ever since 2015, most of Polish society has been showing little enthusiasm towards hosting refugees. The working class gave predominantly “practical” reasons for this (i.e. the cost of aid and associated risk of terrorism at the same time recognizing that war victims were facing grave difficulties and that it was necessary to provide assistance in their countries of origin). On the other hand, middle class PiS supporters interviewed by Gdula’s team often perceived refugees as opportunist economic migrants. They felt superiority and scorn towards men from the Middle East, whom they thought of as cowards leaving behind their families instead of fighting to protect them. That is how refugees have not only been excluded from the group of solidarity beneficiaries (they do not belong to the community), but also treated as morally inferior similar to the “socially pathologic” and former Third Polish Republic elites removed from the pecking order.

Why new authoritarianism?

What are we to call the political project that emerges from the drama directed by Kaczyński? Maciej Gdula calls it “new authoritarianism”. It is “new” because, contrary to traditional dictatorships, it harnesses the democratic imaginary (independent people’s voices giving the ruling party the right to rule beyond the Constitution with “solidarity” as a prime emanation of the nation’s will and moral credence for overruling the law), and the practice of democracy that is holding elections based on competition. At the same time, and hence the “authoritarianism”, the essence of the project lies in domination over those more vulnerable, minorities and strangers, as well as a strict limitation of solidarity to the national community.

Where, then, do opportunities lie for the opposition?

Does PiS have an electoral competitor? The events of the last two years including the successful protests and poll results, indicate that Poles do not wish to restore the Third Republic as the political parties associated with it cannot challenge PiS’ hegemony. The vision of a new party being a “soft version of PiS” is also ineffective. Such a “soft” conservative and economically “pragmatic” party, which would also less confrontational in terms of European policy, is already manifested in some fractions of the Law and Justice, sometimes in the form of President Andrzej Duda. The critique of PiS as the wrecker of the political order (“defence of democracy”) by the old public opinion-shaping milieus is not persuasive enough to new groups of potential voters. Lastly, a successful mobilisation of the society that hold protests in the streets cannot replace building an alternative in the form of a political party or an electoral movement. What are the opportunities for the opposition?

What’s next?

Kaczyński’s party attracted more moderate voters by appealing not so much to the “losers” or those affected by exclusion, but by reacting to the general rise in aspirations linked with recognition of an active state as a necessary actor in their fulfilment. A decade since Poland joined the EU saw a time of modernisation and general improvement of life quality, but it also brought bigger expectations and hopes. The State, from which the Poles demanded to raise the quality of service and to become more active, found it hard to catch up.

That is where the Polish Yes, we can!version by Jarosław Kaczyński came from.

That is where the Polish Yes, we can! version by Jarosław Kaczyński stem from. The State was to show its capability and stop just explaining to the citizens why “it cannot be done”, why they cannot afford it, and why the authorities cannot fulfill their promises. A radical sign of this is the belief in an unlimited (by the Constitution) mandate of the parliamentary majority – though this is shared only by a minority of Poles.
The study by Maciej Gdula and his team, already mentioned above, does not provide recipes for transforming the political situation in Poland. The author does, however, take up this challenge in his book, which will be published less than two months after the release of the study report, entitled New Authoritarianism. According to him, a necessary condition for a new opening in Polish politics is that the opposition finds a leader capable of creating an alternative “political drama”. It would have to address the new vision of a good life, offer new answers to Poles’ growing aspirations, so as to mobilise the voters that have become disillusioned with the entire political class.

But the therapy itself is not up to sociologists, but up to political leaders.

The Warsaw-based sociologist sees the following political fields as future political battleground to decide Poland’s future: the Poles’ place in Europe of the future, the value of pluralism in the community, the limits of its solidarity (also in the context of refugee crisis), women’ rights and a social ethics project combining equal rights and social security. Such choice of topics suggests a progressive character of a new political alternative to PiS, but it won’t necessarily come under a left-wing banner. The diagnosis is there on the table and the remedies are crystallizing. But the therapy itself is not up to sociologists but up to political leaders.


Michał Sutowski
Political scientist, columnist, editor. Coordinator of the Institute for Advanced Studies. Translator from English and German. Editor of the political writings of Jacek Kuroń and Stanisław Brzozowski. In 2012, he studied at the Yale University as part of the Political Critique scholarship.