Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Left Should Unite to Stop Kukiz

‘At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent and lead them are no longer recognized by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic “men of destiny”.’
(Antonio Gramsci – Prison Notebooks)

With just three months until the next parliamentary elections, Polish politics is in a state of flux. The surprise defeat of Bronisław Komorowski, in May’s Presidential elections, followed by the resignation of a number of government ministers, have left the ruling Citizens’ Platform (PO) government in a state of crisis. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) has seized the initiative, by attempting to repeat its successful strategy from the Presidential elections of focusing on living standards, keeping its leader Jarsosław Kaczyński in the background and putting forward a younger less controversial candidate for Prime Minister: Beata Szydło. And then we have Kukiz….

According to the latest opinion polls only three parties/movements will enter parliament in October. With PO now trailing PiS by at least 10% in most opinion polls, the yet to be officially established Kukiz Movement (created by the rock star Paweł Kukiz) is currently maintaining its score in the Presidential elections of around 20%. Therefore, the Kukiz movement has a chance of assuming a key political position after the next elections and entering government with either PiS or PO.

The Kukiz Movement potentially represents one of the most dangerous and regressive developments to have appeared in Polish politics over the past couple of decades. This is because it simultaneously appeals to the dissatisfactions of the disadvantaged and frustrated, using extreme anti-systemic rhetoric, whilst representing the interests of the establishment and the privileged. 

Paweł Kukiz is the archetypal ‘charismatic leader’. He is a rock-star who portrays himself as a ‘non politician’ and therefore someone who can honestly represent the people and clean up politics. He repeats the long-held opinion of the conservative right that the problems of the Polish economy and politics are due to a corrupt elite, derived from the previous system, that has usurped and retained power. He appeals to the far-right through nationalism, support for the traditional family and conservative catholic values. He had previously been a member of the organising committee of the nationalist Independence March in Warsaw and was active in protesting against the Europride march when it was held in the Polish capital city. He has a base of support within the far-right National Movement and has offered some of the most right-wing politicians in Poland, such as Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Grzegorz Braun, the opportunity to stand as candidates in the parliamentary elections on the Kukiz Movement list. At times his rhetoric is extreme and devisive, such as when he said that the proposal from the EU that Poland should accept 1,000 refugess from Africa (in a country where around 1.5m people have emigrated during the past decade) is an attempt to weaken and divide the Polish nation.

But then there is the other side of Kukiz. Despite presenting himself as the antithesis of the ruling elite and PO government, Kukiz comes from this very same milieu. In 2005 he was an honorary member of the committee supporting the Presidential campaign of Donald Tusk; in 2006 he supported the PO candidate Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz for Warsaw Mayor and in 2007 he backed PO in the parliamentary elections. Also, despite his rhetoric, the Kukiz Movement has strong support from those representing the interests of big capital and finance in Poland. For example, Kukiz is presently being supported by Cezary Każmierczak, President of the Union of Businesses and Employers; Andzej Sadowski, President of the neo-liberal think tank the AdamSmith Centre and Robert Gwiadzowski, President of the Warsaw Enterprise Institute. These people embody the most extreme neo-liberal opinions in Poland and support Kukiz as someone who will represent their views in parliament. 

Yet for now all of this is being kept in the background. Kukiz has announced that his movement does not have a political programme, as these are only for political parties that cheat (sic). Instead Kukiz has focused on one issue, which he claims will help to overthrow the establishment: the introduction of a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, similar to that existent in Britain or the USA. This was his one campaigning point in the Presidential elections and his success in the first round led to Komorowski drawing up a bill, in the run up to the second round, that a referendum on this issue will be held in September, including a question on the continuation of the state funding of political parties. This was considered by many as being unconstitutional and it certainly goes against good democratic practice for a President to take such an important decision when campaigning in an election.

The issue of electoral reform is a complicated one, as there are advantages and disadvantages of each system, none of which are perfect (I have written previously about this issue here). The question to be asked now is who would gain from FPTP in Poland? 

The answers to this question is clear. This would benefit the established parties (PO and PiS) which have dominated politics for over the past decade and give Kukiz the opportunity to consolidate his own political movement, if it enters as the third party this autumn. It would make it virtually impossible for new political parties and movements to emerge from below and challenge the status quo. It would mean that only those parties that have strong private financial backing would have a chance of seriously competing on the political scene and would thus bring politics and business closer together. 

Even if the referendum in September is not successful (it is probable the turnout will be too low or even that the new President Andrzej Duda will block the referendum), there is a chance that new constitutional changes will be made (including to the electoral law) after the parliamentary elections. This would most likely be a condition set by the Kukiz Movement before entering any coalition government. The Kukiz Movement will attempt to push a future administration further to the right on almost every issue of importance, whether that government includes either PiS or PO. 

The position of PO, as the leading hegemonic party in Poland, is coming to an end. The more consensual policies of PO, situated within the conservative wing of mainstream European politics, have run their course. Sections of the elite are now looking to a movement that appeals to some of the most reactionary sentiments and emotions of those frustrated with their standards of living. This movement will serve the needs of the elite, support further neo-liberal reform under the guise of cleansing the economy of political interference and seek to structure the party political system so that it is dominated by the parties of conservative right. 

The electoral base of Kukiz is diverse, with a range of people who wanted to register a protest vote supporting him in the Presidential elections. However, it potentially brings together main two social groups: middle earners (including entrepreneurs and small business owners) and the socially excluded (including low earners). Over 30% of the Kukiz voters are middle income earners (earning at least 2,000 złoty per month), whilst one-quarter earned only 650-1,000 złoty per month. The opinions of his supporters are diverse, but they oppose the current system and believe that electoral reform is a way to change it. Both of these social groups do not feel that they have benefited from the country’s economic growth, that a corrupt elite is to blame for this and they are attracted by the simple solutions offered by the Kukiz Movement.

An alliance of such social groups in the service of large capital and the establishment is not something new. The growth of fascism before the war was based upon this very social alliance. In Europe today we see  such movements of the far-right such as the Jobbik Party in Hungary, the pro-austerity boot boys of Golden Dawn in Greece and the oligarch’s paramilitary Right-Sector in Ukraine. The Kukiz Movement as yet does not have a clearly defined political ideology and it is too early to say in what direction it will develop, or whether indeed it will be able to crystallise as a lasting political force at all. However, the warning signs are there. It could potentially deepen its roots within the organisations of the far-right and football hooligan groups. Furthermore, over the past year there has been a huge growth in volunteer paramilitary groups, whose membership has soared in the atmosphere of war that has developed in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. There are an estimated 120 such groups in Poland, with a membership of around 10,000 members. Such groups could also be attracted to the politics of the Kukiz Movement and be strengthened and politicised by the formation of a new right-wing government in Poland. 

It is for these reasons that the left has to understand the urgency of halting the rise of Kukiz. This is the biggest threat facing progressives in Poland today. The prospect of a new right-wing administration being formed with the Kukiz Movement, during a time of the potential break-up of the Eurozone and further conflict in Ukraine, should concentrate the minds of the left and set its priorities for the forthcoming elections. The Kukiz Movement is drawing on social frustrations at a time when the left is weaker and more divided than at any time over the past quarter of a century. The forthcoming elections are therefore about the future survival of the left and preventing the growth a new far-right force in Polish politics.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

European Elections in Poland Confirm Dominance of the Right

This article was first published on the LeftEast website

The 2014 European elections have confirmed a number of trends in Polish politics. These include a general disillusionment with the political establishment; the dominance of the right in party politics and the weakness of the left in countering this right-wing hegemony.  

It is hard for any party to claim victory in an election where over 76% of the electorate either did not vote or spoilt their ballot paper.  Although the EU has one of the highest approval ratings in Poland, turnouts in elections are generally low. For almost a decade now the country’s political scene has been dominated by two parties of the conservative right (Citizens’ Platform – PO and Law and Justice Party – PiS). An artificial divide around historical and cultural issues between these parties has formed, with each reliant on the other to mobilise their core electorates. This has helped to enhance political apathy and the sense that there is no alternative to the status quo.

Both of these two right-wing parties ended up virtually neck and neck in the elections, with the ruling PO scoring 32.13% of the vote, narrowly above PiS who gained 31.78%. Compared to the 2009 elections this is a swing to PiS of around 16%. This represents a relative success for PiS and points towards the possibility that it could emerge as the largest party in next year’s parliamentary elections. However, the PiS electorate is traditionally more disciplined in voting than PO voters, which inflates its support when there is such a low turnout.

These elections confirmed that there is currently only one serious electoral party on the Polish left: the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). The SLD won 9.55% of the vote, above its rival Europe Plus-Your Movement (EP-TR) that scored just 3.58%. EP-TR was an alliance between sections of social democracy with the liberal centre, bringing together the ex-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski and the liberal populist Janusz Palikot. This most probably signals the end of Palikot’s attempt to build a new centre-left party, failing to capitalise on his huge success at the last parliamentary elections when his movement won more votes than the SLD.  EP-TR is the latest failed attempt to build a political current that combines liberal economic with left-wing social cultural policies.

The SLD leadership, around former PM Leszek Miller, has attempted to present the SLD’s result as a success for the party. However, the party won over 300,000 less votes than it had done in the 2009 elections. This confirms how the party has been unable to extend beyond its, naturally diminishing, core electorate and build a serious alternative party to PO and PiS.

Poland is one of the few countries in Europe where there were no candidates connected to the European left slate: GUE/NGL. The only left alternative to the SLD and EP-TR was presented by the Greens. Although they put forward candidates in a number of constituencies and ran an energetic campaign on limited resources, they failed to make any notable breakthrough.

The political party that managed to break onto the political scene was the extreme conservative-liberal party: New Right (NP). NP is led by the maverick Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who has been on the margins of the political scene since the early 1990s. NP combine extreme neo-liberalism, with strong conservative policies on social and cultural issues. As examples, they support the total abolition of state education and in the past Korwin-Mikke has claimed that 'women only pretend to resist rape'. They are likely to sit with the far-right in the European Parliament, alongside parties such as the French National Front. Although NP’s vote represents a minority of society it indicates a worrying trend in Polish politics, whereby the ideology of liberal individualism is being combined with strong social conservatism. NP won the largest percentage of the vote amongst young people and have replaced Palikot’s party as the new representative of the frustrated young entrepreneur.

The dominance of PO and PiS in Polish politics will continue at least until next year’s general elections. PO will try to mobilise its electorate by repeating its long-used strategy of raising fears about PiS returning to power. In turn PiS will try to mobilise its base in the hope that it can usurp PO as the largest party and form a new government. The rise of NP means that PiS potentially has a new ally on the right that it could enter government with. It is also likely that the SLD will remain as Poland’s sole major party of the left before these elections and hope that by gaining its standard 10% it could possibly enter government with PO.

The fact that over ¾ of the electorate did not participate in these elections shows how the vast majority of society feels no connection to any of the political parties. More urgently than ever there is a need for a new progressive left alternative in Poland. This needs to be based not on competing with the right for the votes of the ‘liberal centre’ but seeking to win the support of the vast majority of society who presently have no political representative. 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Rather the Useful Idiot

The images from Odessa were truly horrific. Burnt corpses, a strangled pregnant woman, people jumping out of windows to their deaths. Yet perhaps the most disturbing of them all was the scene where a group of young educated looking teenage girls, draped in the Ukrainian flag, were happily making the Molotov Cocktails that would later help cause the deaths of over 40 people. These images encapsulated how the Maidan had transformed from being a movement for hope to one of tragedy.  

On the one hand, the Maidan represented a genuine social explosion of unrest against a corrupt, inefficient and sometimes brutal government. Thousands came onto the streets, amongst them the young aspiring middle class, who believed that Yanukovych had taken away their prospect of enjoying a ‘normal’ life within the EU. Maidan seemed to be following a well-known script, with the lure of the democratic and economic freedoms in the West sweeping away the last authoritarian remnants of the Soviet era.

However, whilst politicians from the West posed for photographs and handed out cookies, the demonstrations were developing into a violent confrontation with the authorities. Furthermore, those leading this fight were the organised groups of the far-right (predominantly the newly formed Right-Sector), which excluded alternative movements from the left.  The regime disintegrated under this pressure after the horrific (although as yet not fullyexplained) shooting of demonstrators and militiamen by snipers. Yet this was not a victory for civil society or democratic values. It was a conquest of power by oligarchs favoured in the west, which were dependent upon the support of the emboldened far-right.

Despite the patriotic rhetoric and symbolism, this is not a new government of unity in Ukraine.  During the first days of the newly formed government the parliament passed laws such as repealing minority languages, outlawing the Communist Party and removing the ban on Nazi propaganda. Some of these bills were rejected by the President, but the political mood had been set. Six members of the neo-Nazi Svoboda Party obtained cabinet positions in the new government. This is a party that the European Parliament had previously described as having views opposed to the EU'sfundamental values and principles and which openly claims the historical tradition of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and its leader Stepan Bandera, which carried out the genocide of around 70,000 Poles during World War Two.   

Yet those in the east of Ukraine have the same concerns as those in the west. They live in this corrupt oligarchal state and have had to endure the living conditions of a country whose GDP per capita remains 20% below what it was when the Soviet Union collapsed. The EU association agreement, that Yanukovych refused to sign, could not be accepted in these eastern regions as it included the conditions for an IMF loan that would have raised energy prices, cut social spending and opened up the country’s uncompetitive industry to the European market. The present government has decided to continue along this path of austerity, which will further depress living standards and widen social divisions.

It is this structural crisis in the country’s economic base that has driven the ongoing social and political rupture in Ukraine. The state is literally fragmenting and the country is being torn apart. These internal pressures are being exacerbated by outside interference (to its east and west) with the country becoming an epicentre of a potential global conflict. The accession of Crimea into the Russian Federation was one stage in a process whose end is unclear. Undoubtedly this was an opportunistic act by Russia that has helped to fuel Ukrainian nationalism and resentment. But it was also carried out peacefully and with at least the acquiescence of the local population, many who were undoubtedly relieved to be escaping a country engulfed in conflict.

The West seems to believe its own propaganda. It wants to claim that all that stands in the way of a free and independent Ukraine, integrated into the west, is an aggressive and interventionist Russia. Whilst not doubting Russia’s own ambitions in Ukraine, what this narrative leaves out is the population of eastern and southern Ukraine as independent actors. It exaggerates the power of Russia and Putin to such an extent that it ignores the opinions and aspirations of the millions of people living in these regions.   

The forces opposing Kiev in Eastern Ukraine copied the tactics deployed by the Maidan protestors in the west of the country, with masked men taking control of government buildings. But whilst western commentators welcomed these actions when they took place in Lviv or Kiev, they were seen as being simply terrorist actions organised by foreign agents when they occurred in Donetsk or Slaviansk.  And when seen in this way the solution is clear: send the army to eastern Ukraine to defeat these outside invaders.

The problem for the Kiev authorities is that the Ukrainian state and armed forces are not strong enough to wage war even against its own people. The army remains weak, chronically underfunded and its forces are disillusioned and divided. This has caused large defections by sections of the armed forces and police, who cannot understand why they should fire on their own people. Assaults by tanks and fighter planes have as yet been insufficient to overthrow opposition administrations in towns such as Slaviansk. With the army unable to carry out this task, the responsibility has fallen onto the newly formed National Guard, the Right Sector and other paramilitary groups to root out the ‘terrorists’.

 The Rubicon was crossed in Odessa, in what can only be described as a fascist pogrom. This was followed less than a week later when more than twenty people were shot, on Victory Day, in the town of Moriupol by members of the National Guard and Right Sector. Behind these events are conflicting accounts of conspiracy and outside involvement. But it is hard to imagine a more effective way of pushing the population of the eastern regions closer towards Russia than by murdering people on their streets. Although much of this has been disguised from our television screens, the ostensible supporters of democracy are riding tanks into towns, burning people in trade union buildings, shooting down unarmed civilians and firing on people queuing to vote outside election offices.  

In order to justify these actions an atmosphere of delusion and self-censorship reigns.  To speak out against these horrors is to be a supporter of Putin and a believer in Russian propaganda. Silence is needed if these atrocities are to continue.

In Poland this atmosphere is all prevailing.  The establishment and media are now united around the previously derided foreign policy precepts of the conservative right. These state that the Russian army is intent on moving westwards through Ukraine and possibly into countries such as the Baltic States and Poland itself. The government has encouraged an atmosphere of war, with PM Donald Tusk announcing that at stake in the European elections is whether children will even be able to go to school in September. Such a climate of fear has helped to justify the government’s policy of raising defence spending by around €24bln by2020 and the call by the Defence Minister, Radosław Sikorski, for 10,000 NATO troops to be deployed in Poland.  It has even allowed Polish politicians to support political forces that raise the banner of Bandera in Ukraine

This atmosphere has permeated large sections of the liberal left in Poland. The country’s liberal mouthpiece, Gazeta Wyborcza, has been doing all it can to prove its anti-Putin credentials. It recently nominated the Russian oligarch, Mikail Khodorovsky, a man who had amassed billions when Yeltsin was selling off the country’s economy to his corrupt friends, as its Person of the Year. The editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, has even compared him to Nelson Mandela.  It seems that falling out with Putin is enough to make anyone a hero nowadays.

Whilst the main centre left party (the Democratic Left Alliance) has attempted to diffuse this atmosphere of war and openly warned of the dangers of the far-right in Ukraine, the country’s ‘new left’ has tended to replicate liberal opinion. The leader of the liberal populist Your Movement party, Janusz Palikot, argued that the solution to the Ukrainian crisis was a combination of NATOtroops and shock-therapy. The leader of Political Critique, Sławomir Sierakowski, was an early cheerleader of the Maidan protests, believing them to be a potential source for a renewal of the EU itself. Once this optimistic scenario had proved too far-fetched, Sierakowski then labelled those criticising the new Ukrainian administration as being Putin’s ‘useful idiots’. In the week before the Odessa tragedy he had an article published in the New York Times that claimed that the Right-Sector was not a threat in Ukraine because (wait for it) its leader had met with the Israeli ambassador and told him they would oppose discrimination. Among some ‘progressive’ circles in Poland today it is acceptable to (quite rightly) condemn the far-right when it burns down the rainbow structure in the centre of Warsaw (http://tinyurl.com/mnjql6d), but not when its Ukrainian counterparts burn people to death in Odessa. Rather the useful idiot, than the worthless genius.

Those who really fear a Russian invasion of Ukraine should realise that when pro-Kiev forces kill people in eastern Ukraine, so the country falls further apart. If it is really true that the autonomous governments in the eastern regions are led by Russian nationalists and separatists, then those supporting the retention of at least a federal Ukraine need to win the support of the region’s ordinary citizens. The silent majority after all want just peace and stability.

If the country falls into a full blown civil war then all sides will lose their moral high ground as atrocities will be followed by revenge and killing will beget more killing. The prospect of the Maidan being a movement of national renewal in Ukraine that could unite its eastern and western parts has long passed, if it ever indeed existed. Only negotiations between those in power in western and eastern Ukraine and the allowing of internationally observed elections and referendums could possibly offer a peaceful way out of this crisis. As the atmosphere of war intensifies, the radical position is one of moderation. It is harder to call for peace and negotiation than it is for further conflict.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Poland Must Rediscover its Anti-Fascist Voice

Below I reproduce an article I have had published on the openDemocracy site about Poland and the Ukrainian far-right.

Ternopol Mayor Sergei Nadal was asked why Svoboda supports the recognition of descendants of former members of the Ukrainian 14th Division of the Waffen SS as national heroes. "These Ukrainian heroes must be honoured irrespective of what has been written about them in the history books of those peoples who were once our enemies," Nadal answered.
World War Two left too many stories of human misery. Amongst them was the ethnic cleansing carried out in Nazi occupied Poland by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). This reached its peak in 1943, when the UPA Commander ordered the liquidation of the male population, ending in the murder of around 100,000 Poles, the majority of whom were actually women and children.
These killings were carried out by the faction of UPA under the leadership of the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. Fighting alongside the German Nazis, who promised them a post-war independent Ukraine, their aim was to purge their future state of all non-Ukrainians. Thankfully, the Nazis and their allies were ultimately defeated and UPA was never able to realise its dream of an ethnically pure Ukraine within a Nazi controlled Europe.    Read More here......


Monday, 17 March 2014

Nurseries Not Guns

Below I reproduce a statement released by the III Congress of Left Women held in Warsaw this weekend.  (Original version here)
As women of the left we stand in solidarity with all women in the world, especially those living in areas of chaos and political tension. 

We oppose policies that are leading to the escalation of conflict and the outbreak of war. We reject the atmosphere of war-fever being created by a section of opinion-makers in Poland. We do not want to send our children to any war that can and should be avoided.

We appeal to all parties of the dispute to find a political solution that respects the rights of residents in the Crimea and abides by international law. So far, the Crimean crisis has caused no casualties, and this should remain the case. 

We reject the policy of "male war games". The excitement caused by inspecting troops, visiting bases or saluting allied aircrafts is alien to us.  We believe that real political leadership does not need to be supported by a background of tanks and guns. 

The atmosphere of war intensifies, rather than nullifies, the everyday problems of Poles. These include a lack of work, low wages, poor access to nurseries, pre-schools and medical treatment.  The government should be dealing with these problems rather than increasing war threats.  

Our appeal is simple: Less guns and more nurseries. Never again war!