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, Law and Justice (PiS) are still enjoying the support of many in Poland. Opinion polls regularly show that Jarosław Kaczyński and his political party can count on even more votes today than they received back in 2015 when they won the election. This is the case, despite several waves of mass social protests (i.e. marches organized by the The Committee for the Defence of Democracy against infringing constitutional law, the “black protest” against stricter abortion laws and demonstrations against the reform of the judiciary), and despite sharp criticism by influential liberal media and alarmed voices coming from the international community, including the EU. As we reach the end of the first half of the parliamentary term of office, we may ask – is Poland a democracy in which silent majority is against “the street and the foreign countries” and where the voice of “everyone” has triumphed over the fears and arrogance of the establishment? The situation, however, is far more complex.

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 and specific actions. This includes limiting the independence of Polish courts, observing the constitutional law, the right to discontinue pregnancy, the role that Catholic church plays in public life or distribution of power between the central and local authorities, and the stance vis-a-vis the EU. What is visibly in line with the expectations of the majority of Poles is what the government does in terms of redistribution and social policy. Can we say that Poles, despite being unfavourable towards many aspects of PiS policies, have agreed to Kaczyński’s rule because of his generous family-oriented policy and the fact that he changed retirement age and raised the minimum pay?

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

That is what liberal commentators, who are no friends of the authorities, have been saying all along: 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 for PiS’ enduring support, i.e. the right-wing party reached out to the excluded, “the losers of transformation”, whose personal experience had been marginalized in the neoliberally-driven public discourse.

Such diagnoses are mistaken at worst, and at best – incomplete. There are an increasing number of studies and analyses that show the complexity of the whole issue. The most insightful comes in a form of a study by the team lead by the sociologist Maciej Gdula, PhD, commissioned by the Advanced Studies Institute in Warsaw (led by people connected with Krytyka Polityczna – Political Critique) and funded by Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

All Poles’ Party?

Using biographical and qualitative interviews, the authors studied 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 working class (people doing manual work and providing simple services) and middle class (white-collar workers in private and public sector). Both groups are important because the ruling party does not appeal solely to poor and poorly educated voters. The study team stated: “Indeed, 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 never have received so many votes were it not for the support it got from the middle class, i.e. administrative and service industry employees. Their victory here was not overwhelming, but they managed to collect the most votes – 35.4%. Civic Platform (PO) won within just one of the professional groups listed in the questionnaire, i.e. among the CEOs and managerial staff (…). PiS was also the winner among businessmen, reaching 29.1% and people with a higher education 30.4%”.

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

The idea that PiS voters form a non-homogenous group is clear if we look at the polling day results. However, the study by Maciej Gdula points to the actual attractors for PiS voters. Different social groups seem to 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 comes from gratification related to the possibility to participate in the political drama directed by its 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), proud members of the national community where solidarity is directed inwards; or people who just push forth 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 “setting accounts with the elites” identified with the establishment of politicians, public servants and 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 somehow 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 pacification of the Constitutional Tribunal and agree with bringing the courts under governmental control.

It is worth noting some subtle differences. The working class is dominated by an image of the Third Republic’s elites, especially the government, 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 their 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, and declare that you have “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 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, it is a “civilized norm,” while the working class sees the program as an expression of social justice.

To have a sense of belonging to a group of “normal people”.

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, of 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 etc., with the recognition, however, that war victims were facing grave difficulties and that it was necessary to provide assistance “on the spot”). 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 Middle East, whom they thought of as cowards who had left 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, joining the “social pathology” 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, overruling the law), and the practice of democracy, i.e. 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 its own national community.

Where, then, do opportunities lie for the opposition?

Does PiS have an electoral competitor? The events of the last two years, i.e. successful protests and poll results, indicate that Poles do not wish to restore the Third Republic, because 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 is also less confrontational in terms of European policy, is manifested in some fractions of the Law and Justice itself, 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 for new groups of voters. Lastly, a successful mobilisation of the society that hold protests in the streets cannot replace building an alternative in a form of a political party or an electoral movement. Where, then, do opportunities lie for the opposition?

What’s next?

Kaczyński’s party attracted more moderate voters by appealing not so much to the “losers” or those effected 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 came 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 fulfil 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, 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.