Thursday, 1 July 2010

A New Opening for the Left?

Grzegorz Napieralski, candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), gained 13.7% in the first round of Poland's presidential elections. It is a sign of how far the Polish left has fallen in recent years that this was met with an almost euphoric reaction in Napieralski's camp. However, this vote was more or less the same as the left had achieved in the 2007 parliamentary elections and far below the more than 40% that had taken the SLD into power in 2001.

Yet there are some very real reasons why the left should welcome Napieralski's result. Firstly, is because it had looked as though it was going to be much worse. At the start of the campaign support for Napieralski was languishing in low single figures and he seemed unable to galvanise many within his own party and the wider left. Those standing on the edges of the SLD, and those who had previously defected, rushed to give their support for Citizen Platform's (PO) candidate – Bronisław Komorowski. These included representatives of the failed Social Democratic Party of Poland (SdPL) such as Marek Borowski and Tomasz Nałęcz alongside former Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz. Also, the most liberal wing of the SLD – under the influence of former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski – abstained from participating in Napieralski's campaign, with high-profile figures such as Ryszard Kalisz openly critical of Napieralski. The Komorowski camp also reached out to the liberal wing of the left by, for example, appointing another former PM, Marek Belka, as the new president of the National Bank of Poland

The distancing of the left's liberal old-guard from Napieralski perhaps turned out to be his greatest asset. Napieralski was elected SLD leader in 2007, replacing his rival Wojciech Olejniczak, after the failed attempt by the SLD to create an electoral alliance with the small liberal-centre currents that remained outside of PO. Olejniczak was promoted by Kwaśniewski, who for nearly two decades has been seeking to form a political alliance between the left and the liberal centre – a strategy that has time and again ended in failure. The final logic of this approach has been to try and move the SLD towards forming an alliance with PO – a party that can only really be considered to be liberal on economic issues. This would once again drive the left into an isolated cul-de-sac and would almost inevitably signal the SLD's fatal demise.

In the run-up to the 2nd round of presidential elections, liberal voices within the left-camp have urged the left electorate to give their votes to Komorowski. These have included elements of Poland's cultural elite, parading as representatives of the left, who have focused on the minor differences between Komorowski and Kaczyński on cultural issues, whilst entirely ignoring matters of economic policy.

Despite these pressures Napieralski has announced that he will not recommend a vote for either of the two right-wing candidates in the second round of elections. This decision was the correct one if the left has any chance to rebuild itself as a strong, independent force in Polish politics. We can understand why this is so if we analyse the vote that Napieralski received in the first round (I shall be partly drawing upon a good analysis of this vote which can be found in Polish here).

Firstly, Napieralski received his highest number of votes from young people and the lowest amongst the elderly. This inverts the previous perception of the SLD as being a party of the older generation who are attached to the former 'communist' system. Concurrently, however, Napieralski also gained a high vote in small towns and in Poland's provinces. In effect this means that Napieralski managed to win the votes of those that are more drawn to culturally liberal issues and those of personal freedom; alongside those who would support more economic redistribution and social equality.

This in itself is a minor breakthrough for the left – because it takes them out of their shrinking ghetto and expands into new sections of the electorate. By not supporting either candidate in the second round of elections, Napieralski is potentially able to build upon this opening.

This however will not be easy. Napieralski's relative success was not built upon delivering a clear programme of political sustance that could unite and take forward the left. Rather he managed to present himself as a young, independent alternative for those who are tired of voting for candidates who represent two sides of the same conservative coin. Napieralski ran an energetic campaign - travelling extensively around the country and visiting workplaces and factories. However, this rested largely upon a PR campaign focussed upon building the image of Napieralski as being young, modern and in touch with ordinary people.

Napieralski now faces a dilemna. On the one hand he could hope that the goodwill felt towards him will spill over into the forthcoming local elections and next years parliamentary elections. This would at best maintain the SLD's present level of support, allowing it to negotiate places in a future PO-SLD (or even PiS-SLD) government. However, the long-term effects of such a strategy would be disastrous for the left and would undoubtedly speed up its decline. The other alternative is that Napieralski returns to his former role of being a loyal representative of the SLD and concentrate on firming up the support of its core electorate. However, this would lead the SLD into isolation, fail to expand the left's vote (for simple demographic reasons this loyal SLD electorate is steadily declining) and continue its steady demise.

Rather Napieralski has to attempt to seize the political iniative and use this limited breakthrough to help unite the left within a new political and organisation framework. The challenge for the left is to break apart the governing political dichotomy, which is based upon dividing society between 'winners' and 'losers' of the transition. The essential assumption is that on the one hand there are a group of voters who are culturally open and modern and supportive of free-market economic policies; while on the other there is a section of society who are culturally conservative and supportive of economic redistriion and government intervention. This is far too simplistic a description of Polish society. The left has to attempt to forge a new political position which can attract the support of different sections of society on a programme of economic development, equality and cultural tolerance.

This will not be an easy task and it is a perspective that is not focussed entirely on the upcoming elections but one that seeks the long-term strengthening of the left. It is to be seen whether Napieralski is able to take the first step in such a political direction.


  1. Napieralski seems to be on the way to transforming SLD form a party of the post-Communist establishment into a genuine social democratic party. Will he succeed? I think it depends on one additional factor: his ability to build an alliance with left-oriented social movements against his PO-leaning opponents within SLD. Keeping my fingers crossed!

  2. Adam - I agree with this and which way Napieralski decides to jump is anyone's guess. But they do have an opportunity - its just whether they take it or not.


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