Thursday, 25 November 2010

Some General Advice

If you want controversy in Poland then bring in General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Jaruzelski will be remembered as the man who introduced Martial Law in Poland in 1981 - which ended the stand off between the burgeoning Solidarity movement and the Communist government. The image of the dark spectacled General proclaiming Martial Law is one that remains in the collective memory in Poland and beyond. The repression of strikers and the opposition movement by the armed forces directly led to the deaths of 56 people.

President Bronisław Komorowski invited all the former Presidents and Prime Ministers from the past 20 years to a meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday, in order to advise him on December's visit of Russian President Dmitrij Miedwiediew to Poland. Jaruzelski - as the first President in post-communist Poland - was amongst the invited former heads of state and government. This has immediately caused an outcry from the conservative-right - inevitably from PiS, but also from some within PO. Jarosław Kaczyński has called the decision a disgrace and others have argued that it is disrespectful to those who fought against and suffered during Martial Law in Poland.

The invitation of Jaruzelski to the President's Palace raises a number of issues.

Firstly, and most controversially, is the historical assessment of Martial Law in Poland. The implementation of Martial Law in Poland, in December 1981, highlighted the bankruptcy of the Communist government at this time and the inbability of the party to govern in any consensual form. For this reason power was handed over to the army. This not only resulted in the repression and atomisation of the opposition movement but also ended any remaining hopes that communism could be reformed and democratised. However, the other aspect of these events, is what would have happened if Martial Law had not been called. One argument runs that if the Polish government had not implemented Martial Law at this time then the Soviet Army would almost certainly have intervened, which would have resulted in civil war. Now, as in all such historical debates, noone can be certain what would have happened if the Polish state had not acted as it did. However, what is known, is that the Polish population certainly do not agree with those who outright condemn Jaruzelski and the decision to bring in Martial Law.

The Pentor public opinion agency has run an opinion poll prior to the anniversary of the implementation of Martial Law every year since 1996. Throughout this time attitudes to this event have remained surprisingly consistent. The last opinion poll showed that 51% of society believe that the introduction of Martial Law was justified, against 30% who believe it was not. Those who believe that it was justified is higher amongst those who experienced the event. For example only 33% of those under 30 agree that it was justified against 66% of those aged between 40 and 49.

The second aspect is the role played by Jaruzelski during the negotiated ending of communism in Poland. The implementation of Martial Law showed how the system had lost its majority in society and that its power was steadily disintegrating. Once Gorbachev had given the green-light for countries within Central-Eastern Europe to leave the Eastern Bloc, then it was only a matter of time before the Polish People's Republic fell. Jaruzelski was instrumental in organising the Round Table talks with the opposition in 1989, which resulted in the open and free elections that led to the Solidarity movement taking power.

This negotiated hand-over of power was followed by the joint running of the country by a Solidarity government and President Jaruzelski for over a year. The first non-commnunist PM, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, introduced the thick-line policy that allowed those who had been involved in running the previous system to participate in public life in the new Third Republic. This meant that a section of the post-communist forces were able to reconstitute themselves, eventually leading to the creation of the SLD, which won goverment power twice during the 1990s.

It was this 'unholly alliance' (between sections of the opposition and the previous administration) that has been condemned by the conservative right and which gave rise to both PiS and PO. When in power PiS identified a network (układ) that supposedly ran through economic, political and social life. The failings of contemporary capitalism was blamed upon this układ and a campaign against the 'communist' and 'liberal' elites was waged. This was, at least temporarily, defeated once PO came into power in 2007. PO had found themsevles on the receiving end of the attacks by PiS (despite the fact that they initially supported the idea of creating a new Fourth Republic) and managed to win the support of a range of different social and political forces who feared the creeping authoritarianism of the PiS goverment.

The visit of Miedwiediew to Poland is an important step in the direction of normalisng relations between Poland and Russia, which had soured during the period of the PiS government, fuelled by the Bush administration's project of building a missile defense shield in Poland. The experience of the Smoleńsk tragedy has opened up new avenues for those hostile to Moscow to create contemporary consipiracy theories about Russian aggression against Poland. Thankfully the Polish population is generally more sobre and wise in its assessment of such events.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Local Election Results – All to Play for in 2011

Last weekend's local elections have produced no major shocks although they do suggest that the dominance of the two parties from the right – PO and PiS – is weakening.

For the fifth election in a row PO emerged as the strongest party, with PiS relegated to second place. However, as shown in the table below, PO 's vote fell considerably from the more than 40% it gained in the 2007 parliamentary elections, although they scored a higher vote than that achieved in the last local elections in 2006. Likewise, support for PiS has dropped by nearly 10% since the parliamentary elections and is slightly down from the last local elections. The major success story of the elections was PSL, who increased its vote significantly from the parliamentary elections and the last local elections. The SLD has kept its vote stable, managing to just cross the 15% mark and raise its support from 2006 and 2007.

As mentioned in previous posts Polish politics has been hegemonised by PO and PiS – two competing parties from the conservative right. Prior to this year's presidential elections it was widely predicted that the SLD could disappear from the political scene – but this election confirms that it has managed to stabilize itself as a party with significant although minority electoral support. Also in recent months PSL has seen itself fall below the 5% threshold in the opinion polls, and therefore this result represents a great success for the party and confirms it as a permanent player in Polish politics. It is interesting to note how SLD and PSL are the only two parties that have existed throughout the whole of the post-communist transition (although the SLD have undergone some cosmetic metamorphoses). Their continual existence is partly due to the fact that they are both 'successors' from parties that existed during communism and the structure, property, activists and local social support has maintained them throughout the past two decades. This is particularly evident in the case of PSL – who maintain a network and structure that is particularly beneficial in local elections.

Despite recent problems for PO and PiS it is clear that they will be competing for power in next year's parliamentary elections, with PSL and SLD vying to become the king-maker in the next coalition government. PiS in particular have suffered turbulent times in the past few weeks, with a number of MPs leaving the party and attempting to create a new political party. As well as seeing its overall vote decline, PiS was only able to win in two local districts – Podkarpackie and Lubelskie and Świętokrzyskie, bastions of PiS situated in the South-East of the country. Despite its defeats, the decline in support for PiS does not as yet represent a terminal decline for the party and its is still well placed to challenge PO in next year's parliamentary elections.

Although support for PO declined they again emerged from an election as the largest party and now hold power at a local, national, presidential and European level. However, the party is showing signs of strain as it comes towards the end of its first term in office and ahead of it lies a difficult year as it tries to steer a clear path towards the parliamentary elections without making too many unpopular decisions. It now seems unlikely that it will be able to win an overall majority at the next parliamentary elections and if it may find that it will be forced to form a coalition government with either PSL or SLD. The former has shown itself to be no pushover for PO in the present coalition government, as shown recently by the complaints made by the Minister of Labour Jolanta Fedak (from PSL) over the private pension system. This will cause more difficulties for PO, who are having to take a careful pragmatic approach to socio-economic policy, when many in the party would prefer it to deepen its neo-liberal course. Possible negotiations with the SLD would offer even more difficulties for PO and potentially open up divisions within PO. The choices facing the SLD after these elections will be discussed in the next post. One thing is clear: those who want to vote against PiS no longer have to feel that they must support PO. There are other options on offer.

A final point to consider is how the Presidents in most of the major cities (many of whom were independent candidates) were easily re-elected, often without the need of a second round. This phenomenon can largely be explained by the positive effect of EU money coming into Poland that has allowed local governments to carry out large investment programmes. Most of the EU funded investment projects have gone through local governments. Therefore local populations have seen the positive results of these, through new roads, renovated pavements, newly built stadiums, etc. This is a refreshing change to national politics that has been dominated by 'talking heads' arguing about issues generally removed from the everyday lives of 'ordinary citizens'. These EU funds have only been gained through local governments spending large sums themselves and partly funding these investment projects. It is of course imperative that this money is spent now, in order to fully realise the available EU money, which may not be available after 2013. For this reason it is irresponsible of the Finance Minister, Jacek Rostowski, to criticise local governments for allowing their debt to rise and targeting them as being responsible for the country's rising public debt. Such statements make a farce of PO's ludicrous election slogan: 'We Don't Do Politics' (Nie Róbmy Polityki).

Local and Parliamentary Elections (% Vote Cast)

2006 Local Elections

2007 Parliamentary Elections

2010 Local Elections

















Friday, 19 November 2010

A New Recomposition of Polish Politics?

For the past few years Polish politics has been dominated by two parties of the right: Citizens ' Platform (PO) and Law and Justice (PiS). Beyond this dominant dichotomy only two other parties are represented in parliament - the Peasant's Party (PSL) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). This is a far cry from the 1990s when a plethora of political parties regularly appeared and dissapeared. Some have claimed that the division of Polish politics into two main competing blocs is a natural and healthy consolidation of the political scene - replicating that in the West. However, within the past few weeks divisions have emerged within both PO and PiS. Is this the beginning of a new recomposition of Polish politics?

The monopoly of politics between two parties of the right is an anomoly in Europe. In almost every other European country the political system is dominated by a party from the centre-left and centre-right. Polish politics is therefore closer to the situation in the USA, where there is no established social democratic party. However, at least some form of organised left - with social democratic leanings - exists within the American Democrats and this party can be classified as being liberal in its cultural outlook. In contrast Poland is dominated by two parties from the conservative right, with its more liberal version - PO - far removed from a party representing the liberal centre.

Now one may argue that this is reflective of Polish society and represents a population that is hostile to the left - especially one organisationally derived from the previous system. However, it should be remembered that the SLD were able to win political power just three years into the transition, that its candidate held the presidency for two terms (the legal limit) and that it gained over 40% of the vote to win power for a second time in 2001. It is not that the Polish electorate is averse to left parties - but that the experience of the second SLD government shattered the support for the left and thus allowed for the growth of the conservative right. The left is still paying a very high price for the policies carried out by the Leszek Miller government in 2001 - 2005.

In recent months there have been some signs that the dominance of PO and PiS in Poland is weakening. Firstly, the SLD's candidate - Grzegorz Napieralski - scored a relatively impressive 14% in the presidential elections signalling that the country's major centre-left party may at last be in a position to forge a new political fightback. Then in October, the prominent MP, Janusz Palikot, left PO and created a new political movement, designed to win the support of those opposed to the clericalisation of public life. Both of these events are significant but have so far had a limited impact. Although Palikot was able to mobilise impressive numbers for a rally in Warsaw he has as yet been unable to make any real political breakthrough and is scoring around 1% in the opinion polls. Likewise although Napieralski achieved success through underlining the independence of the left and challenging both PO and PiS, since the presidential elections he has not instigated any new political initiative that may help to unite and galvanise the wider left.

This month a new development has occurred after two leading MPs in PiS - Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska and Elżbieta Jakubiak - were expelled from the party. Kluzik-Rostowska was responsible for running Jarosław Kaczyński's presidential campaign - which was based upon appealing for consensus and building upon the sympathy felt towards Kaczyński after the Smoleńsk tragedy. The campaign was run along lines of avoiding conflict and under the slogan of 'Poland is the Most Important' (Polska Jest Najważniejsza). The new dissidents from PiS have adopted this name for their new association and they have been joined by a handful of other PiS MPs. They seem destined to create a new political party, with the aim of replacing PiS as the main opposition to PO.

The space created for such a political development has been created by PiS deepening its conservative and clerical political trajectory after the presidential elections. The original success of PiS was achieved through uniting a range of political currents - within a broadly conservative political framework - and blaiming corruption within the political elite for the country's socio-economic problems. The party's new strategy threatens to reduce its base of support and make it likely that it will become more politically confrontational and extreme as it tries to secure it core political support. Kaczyński has moved to isolate and remove those who challenge this political position, and behind him lie the new leadership in waiting - presently serving their time in Brussels - of Zbigniew Ziobro and Jacek Kurski.

The new association (Polska Jest Najważniejsza - NJW) wants to repeat the relative success of PiS's presidential election campaign. It realises that if it wants to win the support of the majority it has to move beyond issues of Smoleńsk and the building of monuments in Warsaw and appeal to a wider constituency. All this is true. However, beyond this the new kids on the block don't really seem to have much to say. On the one hand they bemoan the inability of the government to get to grips with rising public debt and criticise PO from a liberal economic position. On the other hand, they offer vague notions of how Poland should become a 'pro-family' country - banal in the extreme.

The problem for NJW is that they want to create a new conservative right-wing party in a country where there is already an overabundance of such political forces. It is rather like bringing coal to the miners. However, what these events do show is that the hegemony of the conservative right in Poland is weakening and that it could be challenged if a real political alternative were to be offered.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Lessons of 11 November

As noted in the previous blog post the counterdemonstration against the fascist march in Warsaw on 11 November was a great success and breakthrough for the anti-fascist movement in Poland. This was the largest demonstration against a fascist march that I can remember in Warsaw and it was successful in diverting the fascists from their planned route. However a number of repucussions have arisen from this march and a discussion is underway within the anti-fascist movement about what the best tactics are to take in future events. Without being privy to all of these discussions here are my views on this matter.

The anti-fascist movement managed to mobilise thousands of people, many of whom would not have been on such a demonstration before. The demonstrators attempted to block the march and prevent the fascists from demonstrating. Once the march had been diverted then the counterdemonstrators followed the march to its new route and again sought to block its path. This resulted in violent skirmishes between the demonstrators and with the police. A number of counterdemonstrators were arrested - amongst them the prominent campaigner against homophobia Robert Biedron. Biedron - who was observing the march - has since accused the police of beating him (you can show your support for him here).

The anti-fascist movement now faces a dilemna about what tactics it should adopt in the future. On the one hand it needs to build on the momentum gained from this event and try to make its events larger and broader. It has to show that it represents the vast marjority of people in Warsaw who are opposed to the fascists and repulsed by their presence on Warsaw's streets. However, many of these people will be put off from attending such demonstrations if they fear that they will degenerate into a violent battle between the two sides. The media has already begun to portray the counterdemonstrators as being comprised of 'extremists' and 'hooligans'. In turn the fascists are trying to show themselves as being the victims.
The movement has to work out a way of mobilising larger numbers than the fascists and not reducing itself to a small group of activists who are focussed soley on violently confronting the fascists. This is not a route to success and will reduce the anti-fascist majority to an isolated minority. It is in this context that the tactics for future marches should be worked out. One thing that was obvious from last weeks march was the poor level of stewarding and the often chaotic nature of the event. The organisers need to work out a clear strategy for these events and then enforce this through well organised and disciplined stewarding.

Last weeks event was a great success- the challenge now is to build a sustained and growing movement against fascism.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

No Pasaran!

Around Europe the 11th of November marks the end of the First World War and is a time to remember the millions of people who were killed in that senseless war. In Poland it also marks the date - in 1918 - when the country regained independence after centuries of division. Both of these events should be remembered and respected.

(Photo: Gazeta Wyborcza)

However it has also become a tradition on this day for extreme nationalists and fascists to stage a march through the streets of Warsaw. Although they claim not to be sympathisers of fascism or Nazism these events have consistently been accompanied by racist and fascist chanting and 'Hitler salutes'. The marches attract far-right fascist organisations that hold extreme racist and homophobic opinions. One of the main organisers of the march is the Radical Nationalist Group (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny - ONR) - which takes its name from the pre-war fascist party in Poland.

In recent years the fascists have met little resistence when marching through the main streets of Warsaw. This has led to the revolting sight of fascists openly demonstrating in a city which had been occupied and destroyed in the Second World War by the German Nazis. Warsaw was the scene of some of the worst autrocities of the Second World War, with the Nazis creating a Ghetto where the Jewish population was situated before being transported to concentration camps.
This year the organisers claimed that there would be no fascist symbols on their demonstrations and that this was just a manifestation celebrating Poland's independence. A number of prominent right-wing politicians and publicists gave their support to the march in an attempt to give it some legitimacy.

However, in opposition a broad coalition to the fascists was created, with the aim of forming a blockade which would prevent the fascist march. This resulted in around 5,000 counter-demonstraters congregating in Warsaw. Present were a range of groups and organisations and a number of prominent politicians and journalists. The counterdemonstrators were successful in preventing the fascists from marching through the main streets of Warsaw. They were instead diverted through the backstreets and under police protection the fascists completed their march.

This demonstration showed that the only way to counterpose such marches is by mobilising large numbers of people who are repulsed by the presence of fascists on the streets of Poland's capital. Hopefully a momentum will have been gained from this that will help make future events larger and put pressure on the authorities to prevent fascist marches. In the words of Martin Luther King - 'In Order For Evil To Triumph, Good People Do Nothing'.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Another Wrocław is Possible!

For too long now there has been no real choice for the left in Poland's elections. This has meant that the left electorate has had to support candidates with whom they have no real affiliation or abstain altogether from the electoral process. This will be the case for large sections of the left in the forthcoming local elections. However, in Wrocław some progress has been made in creating a broad coalition that includes the Democratic Left Alliance, the Greens and some genuine independent activists from the left.

The best example of this is the candidacy of Michał Syska. Syska has been a long-time activist from the social democratic left in Poland. Although presently not a member of a party, Syska is a leading member of Krytyka Polityczna and is also director of the left think-tank Ośrodek Myśli Społecznej im. F. Lassalle, which has organised a number of important events around issues such as the privatisation of hospitals and the commercialisation of education. Another major iniative of this group has been to draw up a coherent left-green programme for Wrocław ('Another Wrocław is Possible') and organise a conference around this.

Syska has managed to present a clear left programme for Wrocław, while focussing on local issues. His manifesto includes introducing medical care into schools, providing extra-curricular activies for school children; building a proper cycle path networ in the city, opposing the present administration's promotion of private nurseries and supporting the development of the city's infrastructure for the elderly. Although Wrocław is one of the country's fastest growing cities, Syska has pointed out how it has become a place of huge contrasts and social divisions. Away from the pituresque old-town and market square lie areas of large poverty and social neglect. Public services (such as nurseries and hospitals) are often neglected and subordinated to private developments.

Michał Syska is standing for local councillor on a left-green platform that includes supporting the economic development of the city, whilst protecting public services and creating a city that serves the majority and not the privelleged few. There have been too few opporunities in recent years to fully give one's support to candidates in elections. But this is one of them. Powodzenia Michał, trzymam kciuki!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Hidden Games of EU Politics

EU summits often seem to be more about show than substance. The latest meeting of EU leaders last week was no exception, despite the fact that some crucial decisions had been taken.

The headlines in the UK concerned PM David Cameron's attempt to portray himself as the latest reincarnation of St. George and slay the dragons of the EU bureaucracy who wanted to raise EU spending by 6%. He rode back accross the channel victorious, announcing that EU spending would now only go up by 2.9%. Although he had previously stated that EU expenditure should not go up at all - this was announced as a great success by the British government. The absurdity of the theatre is of course that this had all been agreed beforehand and the show was for the cameras. Cameron has been criticised - both by the eurosceptics in his own party and by the Labour Party - for agreeing to any rise in EU spending. The argument runs that the EU should be cutting its spending at a time when national governments are introducing austerity programmes.

The other story of the summit involved the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, pushing forward her policy of introducing severe punishments for governments breaching the eurozone's strict budget rules. In recent months resentment in Germany has grown, after the EU bailed out the Greek banks. The populist argument in the richer states is that the poorer countries in the south were prolifigate with their spending and then came cap in hand to the EU once it all went belly-up. Of course they prefer not to mention that one of the first countries to break the Growth and Stability Pact guidelines was Germany nor consider how the eurozone has provided the Germany ecnoomy with an enlarged market to export its goods to and one in which countries are unable to devalue their currencies. The huge German trade surplus is one indicator of how the country has benefited from being inside the eurozone.

Merkel has proposed that both economic and political sanctions, that punish those eurozone countries that cross the set limits on budget deficits and public debt, should come into effect from 2012. Up till now the rules have largely been ignored and this is therefore an attempt to enforce restrictive budgetary policies accross the eurozone. In reality - considering the state of most government budgets following the financial crisis - this would be a new means of enforcing austerity in Europe.

The Polish government has largely supported the proposals of Merkel (although it has expressed some scepticism about introducing political sanctions). The Polish PM, Donald Tusk, stated: "We favour the changes to the treaty ..... Poland will certainly not block changes that will increase fiscal discipline in the EU as a whole."

Of course it is quite easy for the Polish government to agree to such proposals as Poland presently lies outside of the eurozone. 2015 is now being talked about in Poland as the date that the country could join the eurozone - after the government postponed plans to adopt the euro in 2012 in the wake of the global economic crisis. Up until now, any country wishing to join the eurozone has had to meet the strict criteria laid out in the Growth and Stability pact. Only once inside the eurozone have countries been able to adopt more flexible budgetary policies. Therefore the Polish government has figured that it can support such restrictive rules as they will not immediately affect them directly.

However, the Polish government could find that these new rules are detrimental to its interests, as negotiations begin in 2011 around the next EU budget for 2014 - 2020 (the present budget runs from 2007 - 2013.) As previously shown in this blog, countries such as Poland have benefited from the inflow of funds and subsidies from the EU. This has helped to stave off a recession in Poland, through maintaining investment in the economy, which has been beneficial to the whole EU economy. If the eurozone countries are compelled to further bring down their budget deficits and public debt, then there will be less funds available for this budget. It is likely that the richer countries in particular will be looking to reduce their payments into the EU budget and attempting to gain more of these funds themselves. Unsurpisingly, the British government has recently started lobbying for the next EU budget to be cut, and these new rules could mean that other governments will be more receptive to such proposals.

Most of the negotiations and discussions that affect the lives of Europeans are carried out behind closed doors, with the public just seeing the gamesmanship and backslapping of the various politicians at EU summits. The undemocratic nature of the EU helps to build resentment towards it. However, while some on the left in Western Europe may see the EU as a vehicle for neo-liberal reform, it is often perceived differently in the East. The opening of European labour markets and the inflow of funds through the cohesions funds, has partially counteracted the negative effects of the economic transition, which opened these countries up to global capitalism. The European economy will only be able to emerge strongly out of the present crisis if it pools its resources and embarks on a European wide investment programme to create jobs and promote cohesive growth. Unfortunately, the present proposals of Europe's leaders is pushing it in the opposite direction.