Friday, 23 December 2016

As PiS Tightens its Grip on Power, The Left Faces a Number of Choices


As 2016 draws to a close the political crisis in Poland has taken a new turn for the worse. In line with international trends, Polish society is now divided into two competing and conflicting groups. The functioning of the democratic system has ground to a halt as an open conflict between the government and the opposition has spread from the parliament and onto the streets. The parliamentary chamber is currently being occupied by opposition MPs, with the area of the parliament under the control and surveillance of a large number of police. The government has said that during this period of protest, members of the armed forces may patrol the streets of the capital alongside the police. The trade union confederation, Solidarność (once the mass movement of the opposition during Communism), has said that if this situation continues it will consider sending its members onto the streets against the opposition to bring order. The leader of PiS (and de facto head of state) Jarosław Kaczyński, has said that the MPs inside parliament are breaking the law, whilst the opposition parties are claiming that the government is acting against the constitution and moving the country in a more authoritarian direction. The situation is serious and unpredictable and events can change very quickly both inside and outside of parliament. At the time of writing the opposition MPs have declared that they will continue their occupation throughout the Christmas period

This latest crisis started on Friday 16 December, during a debate on the budget in parliament. An opposition MP began his speech by holding up a sign in protest at a bill that proposes to restrict the access of the media in parliament. The Speaker of the House then refused this MP the right to speak in the debate, which in turn resulted in MPs from the opposition parties (Citizens’ Platform (PO) and Modern) occupying the podium in the parliament. The government then took the decision to adjourn to a side room to vote on the budget bill through a show of hands. The opposition accused the government of breaking the constitution, as there was no way of being sure who attended this debate or what the vote actually was. With the opposition MPs still occupying the parliamentary chamber, protestors began to gather outside the parliamentary building. Eventually these protesters were cleared forcibly by the police. Demonstrations continued in Warsaw throughout the weekend (both outside the Presidential Palace and parliamentary building), with the police erecting a metal cordon in front of the parliament and moving protestors in the middle of the night away from the entrance to the parliament.

The government has since climbed down from its proposals to restrict media access to parliament. However, opposition parties are arguing that the vote on the budget should be re-held as the previous one was unconstitutional. At present a stand-off continues, but the government has not wasted time to cement its position during this period of crisis. It has finalised the taking over of the Constitutional Court, thus removing one of the potential obstacles to the government. This means that PiS now has total political power (the government, Presidency and Constitutional Tribunal), the first time that any political party has achieved such a position in over a quarter of a century. Over the past year, it has brought the state media further under its control and introduced a law that places some restrictions on the right to demonstrate and assemble. The democratic accountability of the government is further complicated, due to the fact that Kaczyński holds no formal governmental position (apart from being an MP), although he is the decisive voice of the Polish government and state.

The demonstrations on the streets of Warsaw during the past few days have been angry and determined, but their size has been relatively small (numbering a few thousands of people – contrary to some exaggerated claims in the international media). These were much smaller than the demonstrations organised by the opposition movement, (Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD)) a year ago, and the women’s protests organised in the autumn against the proposed anti-abortion bill, which spread around the country beyond the major cities. Furthermore, the political leadership of the opposition movement now seems to have moved away from KOD and its self-appointed leader Mateusz Kijowski, with the leaders of PO and Modern heading the demonstrations and providing them with their political direction. This plays into the hands of the government, with Kaczyński attempting to consolidate the opposition by offering the ‘compromise’ of creating the position of an ‘official opposition’ that would hold a special role within the state. Although opposition parties have not as yet taken up this offer, the leaders of the opposition movement have been calling in recent days for a unified movement against the government. Whilst the temptation of unity is luring, under its current leadership the opposition would be further reduced to a minority of society and become incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the government.

The leaders of the opposition movement are largely made up of people who had been connected to the previous government and/or former centre-right governments in Poland. Many had belonged to the Solidarność movement during Communism, and then became part of the new liberal establishment that governed Poland. These people have come to regard themselves as the natural holders of power, the enlightened men and women who had helped to transform Poland into a modern European economy and democracy, integrated into the institutions of the West. Their outlook was restricted to their own social milieu, which increasingly viewed Poland from a position of privilege. They did not see the long-lasting effects of the communities destroyed by the shock-therapy reforms; they were not reliant on the crumbling health system; nor did they understand the resentment of those living at the bottom of a social system with the highest income disparities in the EU. They were not part of families that were torn apart by the need to find work in other countries nor the more than 1/5 of the employed that are working on zero hour contracts.

The arrogance of their time in power came to the fore towards the end of the PO government. Secretly recorded in the VIP room of a high class restaurant, Ministers and bankers made deals and revealed in lewd language that what they said in public had nothing to do with their actual opinions (http://tinyurl.com/zgzsq9k) During the Presidential campaign, the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski could barely drag himself from his residence to talk to the voters, thus handing the political initiative to his competitor Andrzej Duda who then claimed an unlikely victory after having previously trailed far behind in the polls. The poster-boy of liberalism and leader of Modern, Ryszard Petru, had spent decades working for financial institutions and advising on the introduction of a compulsory private pension scheme that nearly bankrupted the state and has left millions facing a retirement in poverty.

And now PiS has filled this void, by introducing the first significant downward redistribution of wealth in over a quarter of a century. The government’s decision to provide 500 złoty (113 euro) a month for every second and above child has effectively wiped out a large part of child poverty in one stroke. Poverty in Poland most harshly affects children, with over 30% of those living in absolute poverty being under 18 years of age and families with more than two children being particularly at risk.  One can argue about the merits of this social transfer (it excludes those with only one child, the funds would be better spent investing in public services, etc.) but the present government has done more to alleviate poverty than any of the liberal or left governments that have been in power over the past couple of decades. And it doesn’t stop there. The government has also raised the minimum wage and reduced the pension age, thus claiming to live up to its promise of representing the people and not the corrupt elite.

Is it little wonder then that a mass nationwide movement for democracy throughout the country has not developed? Can we really expect people to risk these social transfers in order to defend a Constitutional Tribunal or allow journalists to interview politicians in parliament? Do these failed representatives of liberal economics really believe that they can raise the symbols of Solidarność after they had previously left behind the very people who had built this movement in the first place?

In recent months the liberal centre has become increasingly radicalised, as it sees its former privileged position slipping away. It has urged its supporters onto the streets and taken on the government head on, in an attempt to remove it from power. Such a strategy is unlikely to be successful. Firstly, as outlined above, the opposition has not been able to win the support of the majority of the population, with PiS still retaining its standing in the polls as the country’s most popular party. The government is finding it easy to use its public media to paint the opposition as frustrated members of the old elite who cannot accept the democratic will of the population. Also, if these street protests and actions were to lead to confrontation with the authorities, then they would almost certainly end in defeat. Not only does the government control the police and the army, but in the past year territorial guards have been setup that may be used in the future during a period of unrest Furthermore, the far-right have become increasingly active and organised and are often connected to groups of football hooligans. Add to this the threat made by the leader of the Solidarność trade union, and the opposition should understand what a weak position it is in. Any talk of organising a Maidan in Poland should be rejected as being completely irresponsible and something that would end in further defeat and possible repression.

The left therefore has a particularly important role to play, as the divide between the liberal and conservative right grows. Some parts of the left have effectively boycotted the opposition demonstrations and organised their own activities, whilst others have critically participated in them. The left has been divided and unable to offer a coherent strategy on the how to oppose the PiS government. However, there are signs of the left beginning to work together, with a coalition of left organisations and parties recently organising a successful demonstration outside the Presidential Palace, urging him not to sign a bill on the education reform.  The proposed education reform could be hugely disruptive to children’s education, threaten the jobs of teachers and move the curriculum in a more conservative direction. The teachers trade union (ZNP) has also organised a number of demonstrations against this education reform and has declared that it will call a nationwide strike in the new year.

To cite Gramsci, the opposition has to move from a war of manoeuvre to one of position. This means setting out to win the support of different social layers and creating a majority position against the conservative-nationalist government. Firstly, the left has to oppose all attempts by the government to erode democratic and civil rights. This may mean sometimes demonstrating alongside the liberal opposition, but it should do so as a united left with its own slogans, banners, etc. Secondly, the left has to offer a political alternative to PiS that promises to maintain and improve the social transfers offered by government, whilst simultaneously proposing a programme of increased public economic and social investment to raise economic growth and employment and offer real solutions to the crisis in public services such as health, education and pensions. The PiS government is pursuing a policy of national capitalism, as it seeks to strengthen domestic capital. It’s social transfers provide it with a temporary base of support, however with the European economies slowing and investment declining it is going to be hard to maintain sufficient economic growth to secure increased public spending. At some point, it will renegade on its social promises and seek to raise the rate of exploitation to benefit domestic companies. It is then that the true nature of the PiS government will become clear and when the left needs to be ready to win the support of those dissatisfied with the economic policies of the government. The government has already began to show how it is essentially a pro-business party, by rejecting a progressive reform of the Polish taxation system. Finally, the left has to lead those that are opposed to the conservative and nationalist policies of the government. The liberal opposition has proven itself completely inadequate in this area, as shown for example when KOD demonstrated under the symbols of the pre-war far-right leader Roman Dmowski on National Independence Day and openly criticised the anti-fascist movement. Moreover, many in PO and Modern hold conservative policies on many matters (such as reproductive and sexual rights), which provides space for the left to fill. The abortion protests earlier this year indicate the breadth of opposition to many of the most extreme policies of the conservative camp and at how these most harshly affect some of the most disadvantaged sections of society. Opposition to the education reform is potentially another issue that may unite diverse social groups under the leadership of a trade union and the left.


 In order for the left to take advantage of such situations then it has to forge a political direction and organisational framework that can bring together its disparate elements. It is around three years until the next elections, so any talk of electoral pacts or coalitions can be put on hold for a while. The dangerous shift to the right in Poland and the drift towards authoritarianism and nationalism should be incentive enough for the left to unite in action against the present government.  

Monday, 20 June 2016

Economic Convergence Not Migration is the Major Issue Facing the EU


The EU referendum campaign in Britain has been focused almost entirely upon the question of immigration. The specific focus of the Leave campaign has been about the supposed need to restrict immigration, arguing that if Britain left the EU it could control the amount of immigrants arriving from other EU countries. This of course diverts attention away from the failures of the Conservative Party government and the policies of austerity, onto blaming immigrants. It fails to account for the huge positive economic effect of immigration in Britain and it also does not consider what is driving migration and at how these trends may change.

The major source of EU migration over the past decade has been from the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 (I exclude Croatia here due to the short time it has been a member of the EU). The biggest of these countries is Poland (with a population of around 38 million), with Poles making up the largest number of EU migrants. 

In 2014 it was estimated that around 685,000 Poles lived in the UK, up from 150,00 in 2004. This is a very active section of the population, with almost 90% either in permanent work or education and one that pays much more in taxes than it takes out in benefits. Although the Polish community is now a well established part of British society, the number of immigrants arriving has significantly slowed, growing by just 60,000 between 2010 and 2014. In contrast more than 140,000 Poles have moved to Germany for work during the same period. 

The reasons for the large outflow of Polish workers over the past decade are clear. The CEE countries underwent a huge economic decline after the end of Communism, although this decline was much shallower than in many of the countries of the ex-USSR. These countries' economies were deindustrialised, creating huge pools of poverty, large social inequalities and deep structural unemployment. In Poland prior to joining the EU its economy was in stagnation and unemployment had reached almost 20%. 

This neo-liberal transition to capitalism brought huge benefits to the stronger economies in the west. Western companies began to buy up and monopolise large sections of the CEE economy. They had a new and expanded market for their products in the east and access to a fresh supply of highly skilled and cheap labour. This movement of capital is less evident than the movement of people to many people in countries like Britain, despite the fact that they have hugely benefited from it. 

The CEE countries had already been incorporated into the international division of labour as semi peripheral economies prior to EU entry. It was therefore inevitable that there would be a period of mass migration westwards. During the initial stage following EU entry only Ireland, Sweden and the UK opened up their labour markets to the new countries from CEE (there was a 7 year period before all countries were compelled to do so). It is to the great merit of the then Labour Party government that it immediately opened up its labour market to CEE workers. However, this was done in an extremely disingenuous manner. The official estimates of the government  prior to EU enlargement were that just 13,000 Poles would come to Britain. By not openly recognising the reality of the situation, the government not only failed to prepare the British population for this social and demographic change, but more importantly did not carry out the  necessary investment (in public services and housing) that was needed to facilitate the flow of people. Rather than fully using this as an opportunity to develop the country,  migrants were seen to be undercutting the wages of British workers; whilst public services, housing, transport, etc countinued to deteriorate. In the wake of the economic recession and years of austerity,  UKiP and the Conservative Party have found a receptive audience for their xenophobic and reactionary ideas. 

The scaremongering tactics of the Leave campaign is based upon the idea that Britain will continue to be 'flooded' by hoards of migrants from CEE. However, as shown above, the flow of immigrants from countries like Poland has significantly slowed, a trend which is likely to continue. Although the countries of CEE are still poorer than those in the west, since joining the EU these countries have drawn closer to the living standards in Western Europe. The graph below shows GDP per capita in the CEE countries (100 = the average of the whole EU). As we can see, in almost all of the CEE countries (excluding Slovenia) GDP per capita has grown closer to the EU average over the past decade or so. This has been particularly marked in countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. In some CEE states (particularly the Baltic countries) this  stalled following the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, but the trend towards convergence has once again continued. 



The reasons for this convergence are two-fold. Firstly, has been the inflow of EU funds to these poorer countries, which for the first time since the transition from Communism represented some sort of redistribution of capital eastwards. During the transition private capital tended to be tied to privatisations and/or the buying up and monopolisation of large parts of these countries' economies. Although the EU funds are insufficient in size and not concentrated on developing these countries' productive sectors, they have at least developed parts of their infrastructure and helped to boost economic growth. This allowed many of these countries to avoid the economic catastrophe suffered by  many countries in Southern Europe following the financial crisis. Secondly, the ability to move and work in other EU countries eased unemployment and allowed people to work and earn abroad. Many of these workers have returned to their home countries with savings and new skills. 

The CEE countries are still blighted with huge social and economic problems and are considerably poorer than the countries to their west. They face their own rise in nationalism and political authoritarianism, which will  be boosted by Britain leaving the EU.  Whatever happens on June 23 Britain will still belong to Europe and be tied to the European economy. If divisions between the richer and poorer countries start to diverge again then new waves of migration will open up (whether these be legal or illegal). The issue is not whether people are free to move within Europe or not. This is a right that benefits everyone in the EU, not least the more than 2 million Brits that live in other EU countries. Rather, the real problems are the large economic inequalities between EU countries and regions and whether Europe can further integrate and converge. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

First they Came for the Communists.....

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has unleashed a campaign of anti-Communism in a country


where there are hardly any Communists. They have begun a process of decommunisation, where there is no communism. The aim of the government is to ideologically push the country further to the right and open the way for greater attacks on the wider left.

A regional court has sentenced 4 activists from the Communist Party of Poland for allegedly supporting a 'totalitarian' regime and propagating communist ideology in their newspaper and website. They have been sentenced to 9 months of limited freedom, with obligatory community work and a fine. 

They have been accused of breaching an article in the penal court that states: 'Whoever publicly promotes a fascist or other totalitarian system or state or incites hatred based on national, ethnic, race or religious differences or for reason of lack of any religious denomination shall be subject to a fine, the penalty of restriction of liberty or the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 2 years'. Previous attempts to add a ban on Communist symbols were rejected by the Constitutional Court in 2011 after protests in Poland and abroad that this would violate human rights.

The case against activists frm the KPP had previously been brought to court in 2013, by the PiS MP Bartosz Kownacki. Howeverf the Prosecutor's Office refused to initiate the proceedings. This changed after the election of PiS and on 31 December 2015 the Regional Prosecutor's Office in Katowice issued a case in the Regional Court in Dábrowa Górnicza. The act stated that the activists were publicly promoting a totalitarian system by publishing articles ' directly related with the communist system and Marxism-Leninism, which in the context of historical experience is contradictory with democratic values'

This potentially means that anyone now using the work of Marx (or other Marxist writers and ideas) could be prosecuted under the law. This is a direct attack on democracy and human rights and could be used to repress other left-wing activists, academics and groups. 

Simultaneously, the PiS government has recently passed in parliament a “decommunisation” bill, whose stated aim is to remove any remaining Communist symbols from public spaces. However, there are no Communist monuments in Poland anymore, nor streets or squares named after figures such as Marx or Lenin. The bill rather aims to remove from the public sphere any reference to the Polish People's Republic (PRL) and to the country's socialist and anti-fascist history. 

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) has published a list of street names that should be removed. These include the names of the 19th Century socialists Ludwik Waryński and Stefan Okrzeja who died fighting the Tsarist regime. They are also threatening to change the name of the street in Warsaw named after the Dąbrowski Battalion, which comprised of Polish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. In the city of Gdańsk some right-wing politicians want to rename such a street after Margaret Thatcher. Such name changes are widely opposed by the residents of these streets, although their opinions are not being taken into account. 

A further element of this 'anti-communist' drive, is to remove monuments commemorating the role that the Red Army played in defeating Fascism (600,000 Red Army soldiers died on Polish soil). In the city of Rzeszów (which was liberated by the Red Army) a decision has already been made to remove such a monument. However, opinion polls show that around 80-90% of the city's residents do not want the monument removed. 


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Egyptian Man in Critical State, After Latest Racist Attack in Poland

A 40 year old Egyptian man is in a critical state in hospital after undergoing an attack by a group of nationalists in Gdańsk.

The attack took place on Sunday afternoon as the man returned home from a party of Egyptians. The attackers beat him until he lost his consciousness. As yet none of the attackers have been caught.

This recent attack is an example of a wave of racist attacks that have taken place in recent months, as an atmosphere of nationalism and hostility to immigrants has risen.

These include:

- In September a group of 13 year olds in Świnoujście beat their colleague because he was black. They admitted that they had been inspired by the slogans of an anti-immigrant demonstration that had been held in the city a few days earlier. 

- A few weeks later in Poznań a Syrian was brutally attacked by a young nationalist, ending up in hospital with serious injuries. In the same city a Chilean dancer was recently attacked being told to 'f**k of out of the country'. 

- In Szczeciń a well-known musician from the group Raggafay was attacked being told 'he was not Polish

- In Kraków a bouncer attacked a British Sikh man, as he did not like his turban.

- In Warsaw a few weeks ago a group attacked a Pakistani man in a park, resulting in him going to hospital with serious injuries. 

- Recently in the city of Rzeszów a Portuguese exchange student was beaten by a professional soldier. 

(Information in this article taken from the website Strajk.eu )

Thursday, 7 April 2016

As in the Case of Refugees, Young People are the Most Conservative on Abortion

One of the most  disturbing recent developments in Polish politics, is the growth of conservative attitudes amongst Polish youth.

This was previously revealed during the refugee crisis, with the youngest age groups being the most hostile to taking in refugees. Therefore, whilst 69% of 18-24 year olds and 51 % of 25-34 year olds are against Poland accepting refugees; this is much less for the elderly respondents: 41% (35-44), 36% (45-54), 32% (55-64) and 33% (64+).

A similar trend is observable on the issue of abortion. As can be seen in the graph below, those that  support tightening the current abortion law (that includes those that are in favour of a total ban) are in the age group 18-24. They display a far greater hostility towards abortion than any other age group, with the most liberal opinions held by those aged between 45-54 and 55-64.


A common perception throughout the transition from Communism, was that society would become more socially liberal as the market economy and democratic political system developed. However, we can now see that those who lived during Communism actually tend to be more liberal than those who have been born in under the current system.


Thursday, 31 March 2016

Polish Prime Minister Supports Complete Abortion Ban


The Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, has stated that she supports a complete ban on abortion in Poland. She has said that she backs the 'Stop Abortion' campaign, that is collecting signatures in order to put forward a citizens' bill to parliament to completely outlaw abortion in the country. It also proposes that women (and not only doctors as is the case currently) can be imprisoned up to 5 years if they are caught having had an illegal abortion.


The campaign to completely outlaw abortion is being led by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. This week a letter published by the Presidium of the Polish Catholic BishopsConference, stated that Poland should not halt at the present 'compromise' on abortion, but move towards a total ban. This letter will be read out in Churches throughout Poland this week. 

Poland already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Abortion was made illegal in 1993, in a move that was ludicrously described as a 'compromise'. It banned abortion in all but three circumstances: 
- where there is a high probability of severe and irreversible damage to the foetus or where it will have an incurable life-threatening disease
- where a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health; 
- where the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act. 

It is worth remembering that in the early 1990s, the parliament rejected a petition signed by 1.5 million people for a referendum to be held on this matter. Also, the then President Lech Wałęsa vetoed a resolution passed in parliament in 1994, that would have eased some of the restrictions (allowing women in poor health or difficult social circumstances to terminate a pregnancy). 

Last year only around 1,812 legal abortions were carried out in Poland (around 500 more than during 2013). The inevitable result of this situation is that huge numbers of Polish women are forced to either undergo illegal abortions or travel abroad to have their pregnancies terminated. It is obviously the least well off women, that are unable to travel abroad, who most often have to have illegal 'backstreet' abortion in Poland. It is estimated that around 150,000 illegal abortions take place in the country each year , which carry significant health risks. 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Members of Far-Right Invited to Polish School


It has been reported that members of the  National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny - ONR) visited a school in the city of Płock on March 1. They were invited by the school's Head Teacher to address pupils at a commemoration of the 'Cursed Soldiers' (the underground fighters against Communism after the Second World War). 


The ONR  is associated to the pre-war far-right organisation: the Polish National Movement (Ruch Narodowy - RN). At the event in Płock, members of the ONR boasted that this was the first time since 1934 that they had officially been welcomed into a school. The representatives of the ONR wore the insignia Falanga on their sleeves (see pictures). The Falanga became a popular symbol for Polish far-right nationalists in the 1930s; and continues to be adopted by different organisations of the far-right in Poland today. 

The ONR regularly display the Falanga and have marched under such slogans as: 'Poland for the Poles'; 'Hang Communists'; 'Ban Homosexuality' and 'Islam is the Death of White Europe'. 


Pictures from the ONR's facebook page show members of the ONR wearing the Falanga symbol, standing alongside the Head Teacher of the school. 


Events such as this make it important that the anti-racist march orgnised in Warsaw this weekend is attended by as many people as possible.