Saturday, 9 October 2010

A New Challenge for the Left

Last weekend a new political movement was born in Poland – or was it? The extrovert millionaire businessman and Citizens' Platform (PO) MP – Janusz Palikot - organised a gathering of supporters in the Palace of Culture in Warsaw. Around three thousand people attended from around the country – an impressive number in a nation where currently political apathy is the norm. Palikot has announced that he is resigning from PO and forming a political movement, with the aim of creating a new political party. The movement is based upon a series of liberal-cultural demands such as a full-separation of the Church and State, sexual rights and liberalisation of the laws on abortion and in-vitro.


The movement around Palikot potentially poses a challenge both to PO and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). As Palikot is splitting from PO (and could take a number of other MPs with him) then he could potentially weaken this party and win the support of its more liberal wing. However, the biggest threat is potentially to the SLD, who – under the leadership of Grzegorz Napieralski – won 14% of the vote at the recent Presidential elections and has been seen as the main defender of secularism and cultural liberalism in the country. Palikot is hoping to build upon the dissatisfaction within sections of society – particularly the young – towards the growing influence of the Church in social life, which came to a head during the conflict around the cross outside the Presidential Palace.


A recent interview with the political scientist Rafał Chwedoruk raises some interesting issues about the current situation facing the left in Poland and the challenge that Palikot's movement poses. I will discuss some of the points raised by him below.


Firstly, Chwedoruk believes that the movement around Palikot was created with the agreement of PO leader and PM Donald Tusk. This is as a reaction to the movement of sections of the PO electorate to the left – which PO are having difficulty containing. The creation of a new party around Palikot could therefore be a way of containing this electorate, within a liberal-centrist framework, and preventing it from being taken by the left. Without knowing the ins and outs of the discussions between Palikot and Tusk or advancing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories – it does seem logical that PO would welcome a liberal-centre party challenging the SLD for the liberal-cultural vote. PO is predominantly a conservative party and if it were to move to the left on such issues it would undoubtedly lose the support of a larger section of its political base. However, there have been many attempts to build liberal-centre parties in Poland during the past 20 years all which have ended in failure (ROAD, UD, UW, PD, LiD – I'm sure I have missed some out). The combination of neo-liberal economics and cultural liberalism simply reduces the support of the latter to a minority of society. On past history Palikot has shown himself to be a staunch economic liberal. Whether he will take an opportunistic turn to the left on socio-economic issues is doubtful but not out of the question.


Chwedoruk also discusses the relative success of Napieralski at the Presidential elections and at how the left managed to widen its support beyond its traditional core electorate. Therefore, in these elections, Napieralski was supported not just by the older left-voters who identify themselves with the Communist period and see the SLD as a 'successor party' from this time. Rather, one-fifth of the SLD vote at the Presidential elections came from young people and furthermore (and perhaps more importantly) the SLD managed to win a significant vote amongst middle-aged voters.


Chwedoruk compares the electoral base of social democratic parties in Northern Western Europe with that of social democratic parties in Central-Eastern Europe. In the former, the social democratic parties have a long history and their base was built up during industrialisation and remains concentrated within large urban areas. However, in CEE, the situation is different. For example, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, support for the relatively large left parties is concentrated within the provinces – the countryside and small/medium cities. Chwedoruk proposes that the SLD looks to builds its support amongst those who have fallen a 'step-behind' during the transition. This would include appealing to that part of the electorate in the cities – including well-educated and young/middle-aged voters - who have struggled to get a decent credit for a flat, find a stable well-paid job, etc. Anyone living in a city such as Warsaw will recognise this social group and also see how it is growing. Potentially such an approach cuts through the cultural divide that has dominated Polish politics and supersedes the simplistic 'Polska A/Polska B' schism that is so often talked about. Chwedoruk suggests that the SLD should therefore prioritise socio-economic issues and promote the development of the public sector and welfare-state as being in the material interest of these social groups. This idea of expanding the left's base through providing a range of social groups with decent public services and welfare is a viable one. However, I would argue, the real dilemma that the left needs to address is how it is going to fund these services and furthermore how it will expand stable employment and help raise wages.

Chwedoruk argues that although the SLD should retain its culturally liberal programme and support the de-clericalisation of society and politics, this should not be built around launching a new cultural revolution (as seems the ostensible wish of Palikot.) Rather he suggests that the SLD should direct itself towards the 'average person' and on questions of anti-clericalism focus on matters such as the participation of the Church in public life and its financing – rather than on the meaning of religion. Poland could not repeat the example of Spain – where the Church historically became associated with the Franco regime and therefore could be politically challenged by the left. In contrast, in Poland, the Church still retains some authority after the role it played in the opposition movement during Communism.


Chwedoruk asserts that despite the legitimate criticisms of the SLD from the left, it remains the only real left-wing party in Poland; and that if it were to disappear then the left would be pushed further into the margins of politics for the next couple of decades. However, his major criticism of Napieralski is that he has not managed to use his position of strength to gain full control of the party and open it up to the wider left. This is evident in Warsaw, for example, where in the forthcoming local elections former SLD leader Wojciech Olejniczak will stand for President. Olejniczak is a liberal in the full-sense of the term and would be better suited in a party created by Palikot than one claiming to be left. Chwedoruk argues that the SLD should open itself up to those to its left and seek to open up a dialogue with the Alter-Globalisation movement.


There is much to be admired in the proposal that the SLD should open itself up to new forces on the left. However, this would have to encompass a greater number of groups and individuals than those found within the so-called Alter-Globalisation movement. Also Chwedoruk talks about the SLD repeating the example of the German PDS, which managed to grow out of its post-communist nostalgic ghetto and help build a broad party of the left in Germany. The difference here, however, is that the PDS had a larger 'nostalgic' electoral base in eastern Germany and could also align with a strong left-social democratic current in western Germany. The SLD has neither of these advantages. As Chwedoruk points out the SLD lost much of its status amongst the left during the term of its last government (2001-2005) when it was ridden with corruption scandals, implemented neo-liberal economic policies and became regarded as a party of big-business. The SLD must seek a way of opening itself up to a range of individuals and groups who associate themselves with the left but do not see the SLD as being a party that represents them. After-all, I have lost count of the number of times that somenone has complained that 'there is no left in Poland'. There is a need for a democratisation of the party, which would include challenging part of the SLD's apartchiks and the vested interests that have been built within it. If Napieralski and the SLD are serious about building a broad and democratic left party – within which a range of currents and ideas can cooperate and compete – then this is what needs to be done. Perhaps it is also time for part of the left outside of the SLD to consider how it can help facilitate or speed up such a process.

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