Michał Sutowski on the upcoming Polish parliamentary elections


Veronika Pehe: What are the main issues in the election campaign?

Michał Sutowski: I think there is a slight difference between the main topics of the campaign and the main problems that concern Polish society, although – I admit – today we are speaking much more than before about issues such as the unequal tax burden, precarious working conditions and low wages, the lack of support for families with children, forced economic emigration to Western Europe and how to stop it, how to solve the problems of the Silesian coal-mining industry, or the fact that part of Polish middle class became trapped in Swiss franc mortgage loans. The two most important parties – the ruling centre-right Civic Platform (PO) and the opposition right-wing conservative Law and Justice (PiS) – do not properly articulate the most crucial concerns of the Polish people. Both parties would like to impose a bipolar framework on the public debate, where the ruling PO claims to represent those who are quite satisfied with the status quo of modernization and mainstream European policy, while PiS wants to bring significant change through reviving the pride of the Polish political community, national sovereignty, traditional values, etc. This is a bit like Orbán’s Hungary, although without Orbán’s pro-Russian bias; the leader of PiS clearly stated quite a while ago that “we’re going to have Budapest in Warsaw”. Clearly, there is a mood of exhaustion and resignation within the Civic Platform. The leader, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, is extremely non-charismatic, and tries to present herself and her party as a force of rationality and pragmatism, defending Poland from conservative radicalism, acts of political revenge, and the insane foreign policy proposed by PiS. This strategy was used very efficiently by the former PM Donald Tusk, who was seen as a pragmatic leader defending Poland from Kaczyński, sustaining economic development and leading the nation through the financial crisis, but today it clearly has lost its impact. Many people still – and rightly so, especially in terms of gender equality, minority rights, but also foreign policy – are afraid of Kaczyński ruling Poland, but Ewa Kopacz is not perceived as a successful buffer against him in the way that Tusk was.

Opinion polls suggest that Law and Justice has the support of about 30-35% of the electorate, about 10 points ahead of Civic Platform, who are polling around 25% at the moment. It seems that Civic Platform’s tactic of pragmatism is no longer appealing to voters. Why is that?

The first reason is quite simple: Donald Tusk was a much better leader and speaker than Ewa Kopacz, who is perceived as being “nominated” by Tusk, a kind of “ersatz Tusk”. But there are much deeper reasons. There is a widespread concern in Poland that the ruling party has no plan for any new model of growth, different to just attracting foreign investment through low labour costs, which of course implies low wages. Although the government tried to present Poland as a “green island” in Europe that continued to grow even during the crisis, people feel this is not the whole truth. The costs of the crisis were borne by the working poor on the flexible labour market; apart from that, many feel that the relatively good social conditions of the last years were not a result of the ruling party’s politics, but due to the European Union and money from structural funds, as well as the fact that over one million people emigrated to go and work abroad. Another problem is, I think, that voters feel the ruling elite to be extremely alienated from ordinary people. This became apparent especially in the presidential election campaign earlier this year. In particular, Bronisław Komorowski, the former President associated with the Civic Platform, came across as extremely arrogant, portraying anyone who voiced criticism of any aspect of the transformation in Poland in the last 25 years as somehow “radical and irrational”. I think the most crucial factor in the current results of the opinion polls is that people are dissatisfied with the last years of Civic Platform rule and perceive this party as an exhausted political project.

What is attracting voters to Law and Justice that the ruling party is not offering?

 I think they are offering different things to different parts of their electorate. First, I would say that about half of their constituency are their hard-core supporters, who are mostly interested in the narrative of the Smolensk catastrophe as a conspiracy; it corresponds with an overall idea of post-1989 Poland as ruled by a “grey network” of post-communist secret services, liberal media, and alienated intellectuals, which was a story told by Kaczyński long before 2005 when he won the elections for the first time. Of course, there are a lot of people who are simply right-wing traditionalists, with very old-school views on family, women, and homosexuality – just like the Polish Catholic Church, which overwhelmingly supports  Law and Justice because of its cultural and what I would call its “paleo-patriotic” agenda.  But then there is also part of the trade union movement. In particular Solidarność, a very powerful conservative trade union, is supporting PiS. This is a significant factor especially in industrial regions like Silesia, mostly in male-dominated industries. An important recent topic has been the crisis in Poland’s biggest mining company, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Those working in the mining industry are of course very much in favour of PiS, given that the party is strictly oriented towards a carbon economy. PO also supports the “carbon agenda” and is very sceptical about green technologies, but is suspected – against their own declarations – of being in favour of closing mining plants in Poland and importing coal instead. As for the social agenda, PiS promises a very significant increase in family benefits, but without any clear idea of how to finance them, apart from a vague notion of “fighting tax evasion”. Some of their potential voters are also those conservative and nationalist protest voters who previously supported Paweł Kukiz, the former rock start who came third in the presidential election, but have been disappointed with his lack of political skills. For many of them, Kaczyński could be a “lesser evil”; on the other hand many of them will probably stay at home.

What are Law and Justice proposing in terms of foreign policy?

Andrzej Duda, the current president from Law and Justice, has proven to be quite passive, despite his recent speech in the UN. Before the elections, he claimed that he would continue the legacy of Lech Kaczyński, but in fact he has been quite reluctant in the area of foreign policy. Lech Kaczyński was a very pro-Ukrainian politician. Of course PiS declare that they are against Russian imperialism, but there is a clear tendency within the party of abandoning messianic ideas of supporting countries in the East against Russia. One of the reasons for that is a very broadly-spread scepticism towards Ukrainians amongst part of the conservative constituency, mostly for historical reasons. On the other hand, I think Jaroslaw Kaczyński does not believe that sustaining a strong and independent Ukraine is at the core of our national interests in the way that Lech Kaczyński did. Rhetorically, PiS is very much against Russia, but I think they do not have any clear idea what instruments to use to stop Russia from further aggression – it would require organizing a coalition within the EU, including Germany, in favour of Ukraine, and PiS is not in a good position to achieve that.

Has the refugee crisis been a major issue in the campaign?

It was not major, but important. There was a conflict between the government, which was very much reluctant to take a clear stance on the issue, but finally agreed to the German proposal for the redistribution of refugees, and the opposition, which criticised this decision very harshly, expressing open support for Victor Orbán’s policies. The opposition and the parties on the right of the spectrum were very often using quite racist, anti-Muslim rhetoric, far beyond the typical “clash of civilisations” discourse. I’m not sure if this will be a crucial factor of mobilization, but it may be for right-wing voters. But of course it does not mean they will necessarily vote for Law and Justice, as the smaller right-wing parties are using this kind of racist language as well.

You mentioned the waning support for Paweł Kukiz. Why is he no longer as successful as he was in the presidential election?

One factor is that in the presidential election, people voted for an individual and not for a party. Kukiz appeared to be a charismatic person with the ability to attract people, to channel their anger and frustration into a political movement, with a simple – even simplistic – political agenda, namely the idea of electoral reform towards “one-mandate districts”. Basically, he was saying “fuck this system, crooks and thieves go to hell”, as well as using nationalist, conservative, and free-market rhetoric. As a rock star, he seemed quite trustworthy and received a significant amount of “protest votes”. There is an anecdote that the most “googled” phrase in Poland the day after Kukiz received 20 % in the presidential election was “Kukiz’s programme”, which means that few of his supporters really cared about the details of his agenda when giving him their vote. However, only a few weeks after the presidential election, it became clear that he completely lacks interpersonal and political skills. He is too individualistic, unable to cooperate with people, to create a structure, and he has antagonized his potential allies. He has also been repeatedly discredited by journalists asking him quite simple questions, so I think he is no longer taken seriously. And of course, in the presidential campaign, in the first round at least, you could vote for someone you like, for somebody who articulates your feelings rather than your political agenda. In party elections, it’s a different story.

What about the other small parties that have emerged? What chances do they have?

 The Agrarian Party (PSL), which actually has a long tradition, will probably enter the parliament. This is because they have extremely strong structures in the countryside. And they are of course the pivotal party, as they can form a coalition with anybody. There was a famous anecdote that the leader of the party was asked who will win the elections and he answered “our future coalition partner”.

An important phenomenon is also Ryszard Petru’s Nowoczesna.pl. They are what I would call a fake “anti-systemic” party. Fake, because Ryszard Petru is someone who is closely connected to the banking sector, he was an influential neoliberal economic expert and disciple of the neoliberal guru Leszek Balcerowicz. The party has a liberal populist agenda – lower taxes, supporting private health insurance, enhancing the conditions for entrepreneurs, an innovative economy, etc. In fact, they’re an anti-etatist rather than anti-system group; basically, they are offering a liberal populism oriented not towards frustrated people as in the case of Paweł Kukiz, but rather towards an aspiring young middle class. They may take some of the votes from PO, because they are using the ideas that were at the core of the Civic Platform’s agenda 15 years ago. It is also important that the party can be clearly identified with one person – Ryszard Petru – who is almost omnipresent in the media, or even promoted by them.

Then there is the United Left. It consists of the old post-communist party, but on the other hand, it also include more grassroots, leftist groups, such as the Greens, which makes it appear new. At the moment, they are receiving 10-12 % in the opinion polls, slightly above Ryszard Petru’s party.

[easy-tweet tweet=”It is now a “new norm” that a woman can be a leader and there is nothing special about it.” user=”@krytyka” usehashtags=”no”]

As a coalition of several smaller groupings, are the United Left able to offer a coherent programme?

Of course there is some tension between the social-democratic agenda of progressive taxation or extended social policies and the discourse of “supporting entrepreneurship”, used mostly by the liberal faction. Nevertheless the message of their leader, Barbara Nowacka, is clearly progressive in “Scandinavian style”, including higher tax exemptions for the poor and raising the tax rate for the rich, improving social and healthcare infrastructure, especially for young people in schools, an orientation towards “greener” solutions, and finally, there are many points concerning minority rights, secular education, reproductive health, and gender equality, which sit well with the image of a young female leader and her team. An important factor is the undoubtable charisma of Nowacka herself. She belongs to a younger generation in comparison to the post-communist party, in fact she herself is from the Palikot movement. She is trustworthy as a progressive, due to her biography as a long-time youth activist, and speaks very well in the media. Sometimes she is accused of having too little experience, but she is learning very quickly – and there is a widespread notion in Poland that the old leaders are rather too experienced now. The question is whether she can convince voters that she can make this initiative a new political force and that she is not just a cover-up for old apparatchiks – whether she dominates the image of the coalition can be a crucial factor determining its results. So far, she is doing well, we’ll see what the last days of the campaign will bring.

What are the chances of the other left-wing party, Razem?

Razem is really a grassroots party that represents something new. Their big success lies in having really engaged people, they are the first initiative in a long time that displays a lot of enthusiasm. They are spontaneous and quite effective in using new media such as Facebook, but they have also been practising door-to-door politics. Their agenda is leftist and progressive, with a very strong focus on social and economic questions, oriented mostly towards precarious workers and questions of low wages, also outside the biggest urban centres of Poland. Actually all the parties are aware that the wages in Poland are too low. But the solutions in most cases are liberal populist: if you lower taxes, then salaries will increase – so this is certainly a problem that could be articulated effectively in a different manner by the left. I think Razem’s biggest problem is how to get into the mainstream media. One of their ideas is that Polish politics is too personalized, so they have no leader – or at least they present themselves as such – they are meant to be Razem, which means ‘all together’ in Polish. It’s one thing to express your ideas online, but we are not a country like South Korea where the public agenda is dominated by the internet. I’m afraid that Razem only started getting the attention of the mainstream media too late and only recently appeared in the opinion polls. They are also much too focused on criticizing the bigger leftist coalition. But if they move above the threshold of 3 %, which in Poland entitles a party to budget support, they will have a chance to build up a true grassroots political party in the next years, creating an opportunity to build a left-left coalition in the parliament four years later.

The leaders of the three largest parties are all women. Has this in any way affected the issues at the centre of the election campaign?

Firstly, it is a sign of success for the Women’s Congress and feminist movement, which have fought for better representation of women in politics for a very long time. It is now a “new norm” at least in terms of image – maybe with the exception of the Agrarian Party and hard-core right wingers – that a woman can be a leader and there is nothing special about it. Of course, this does not mean that the case for gender equality is over and the next four years will, unfortunately, probably show us just how far we are from full acceptance of women’s rights: even the conservative “compromise” on abortion will be contested in favour of a total ban, we don’t know if state funding of in-vitro fertilization will survive, and so on. Secondly, we must remember that among the three woman leaders – Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, right-wing opposition candidate Beata Szydło, and Barbara Nowacka from the United Left, only the third is almost unambiguously seen as an independent leader. Szydło – not only among her opponents – is widely perceived as a puppet of Kaczyński, not to mention her conservative, patriarchal agenda. As for Ewa Kopacz, she is trying hard to lead the party and is admittedly engaged personally in policies oriented towards women, as in the case of in-vitro, and generally supports a moderate social agenda. Only Nowacka, if she builds up a strong team around her, will get the chance to lead one of the crucial political groups in Poland with a potential to create government. If she becomes Prime Minister, a leading woman with a pro-women agenda – this would be a major breakthrough for Polish politics. I hope she is taking the first steps in that direction.



Michał Sutowski  is a political scientist, columnist, and editor.  He is a coordinator of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Warsaw and translator from the English and German. He has edited the political writings of Jacek Kuroń and Stanisław Brzozowski.


Veronika Pehe
is a historian and contributing editor at A2larm.cz.