‘Those who hold power’ was a derogatory phrase commonly used during the term of the last SLD government. It reflected the feeling of many that the SLD was made up of people who were primarily concerned with maintaining their positions of influence and privilege, rather than on matters of principle or changing society for the better. It related to the belief that a network (układ) dominated public life – bringing together politicians and business people in an unholy and dishonest alliance.
It was in this atmosphere that the two parties of the right that currently dominate Polish politics – PO and PiS – rose to prominence. Both claimed that they were opposed to corruption and that the problems in the country were primarily due to the corrupt elite that control public life. Prior to PiS forming a government in 2005, both parties supported the creation of a new Fourth Republic out of the ashes of the decaying Third Republic.
Much has changed since this time. PiS became discredited due to its authoritarian style of government (2005 – 2007) and its willingness form a coalition with the extreme right-wing party - the League of Polish Families (LPR). In these circumstances PO was able to take up the mantle of the defenders of democracy and, now opposing the project of the Fourth Republic, galvanise the opposition to the PiS government at the 2007 parliamentary elections.
PO was formed in 2002, bringing together a range of personalities and currents that were looking for a home after the break up of the Solidarity Electoral Alliance (AWS). It claimed to be different from other political parties, presenting itself as a citizens’ movement, formed from the grass-roots that would bring a new quality to Polish political life. The party combined liberal economics and democratic politics with social and cultural conservatism. Behind the leadership of Donald Tusk and co was a strong ideological conviction, emerging as they had from the ‘Gdansk Liberals’ – a small opposition group formed during Communism that reproduced the works of Hayek and Friedmen and believed that ‘capitalism without democracy would be better than socialism with democracy’.
Political power always brings with it responsibilities and also the need for compromise. When in government Tusk and his main advisor and mentor Jan Bielecki have proven themselves capable of understanding this reality much better than their neo-liberal predecessors, who are now confined to throwing criticisms from their well-funded Think Tanks. The fact that the PO government could stand back from its previous convictions and introduce a positive – although limited – reform of the pension system reflects this reality. However, this pragmatism has another side.
Since 2005 PO’s major selling point has been that it is the only viable alternative to PiS. It therefore tends to highlight the negative features of Kaczynski’s party – of which there are many – and attempt to gain from the fear of a return of PiS to power. Even its main attack against the SLD nowadays is the fictitious claim that it would like to form a coalition government with PiS after the next elections.
Beyond this the party attempts to show itself as being competent and trustworthy. Tusk presents himself well, shows a humour and self-distance in public and appears confident on the international stage. At times he reacts proactively and aggressively to perceived (or created) threats: such as the spread of the sale of ‘smart-drugs’, football hooliganism, gambling corruption and so forth. He attempts to skirt ideological issues and present his government as one of pragmatic stability. Primarily it promises to use the opportunity presented by an inflow of EU funds and the up-coming 2012 European football championships by investing in the country’s infrastructure and pushing forward Poland’s development.
Just as hangers on and opportunists flocked to the ranks of the SLD ten years ago – so the same is happening to PO. It’s membership has increased to above 50,000 (from around 30,000 in 2008) – small in comparison to many parties in Europe but large in Polish terms. The leadership of PO has also engaged in a number of high profile political transfers in recent weeks. As reported previously, the former MP connected to the SLD – Bartosz Arłukowicz – has been given a symbolic post in government in order to provide PO with a left face at the forthcoming elections. During the recent PO convention Arłukowicz was sat – resplendent in his new blue tie – alongside two new recruits: Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska and Dariusz Rosati.
Kluzik-Rostowska rose to fame as the manager of Jarosław Kaczynski’s Presidential campaign last year – as she attempted to present the former Prime Minister in a positive and more centrist light. She then led a break away from PiS – forming a new party under the ludicrous name: Poland is the Most Important. The party predictably failed to make any impact in the opinion polls and now Kluzik-Rostowski has jumped ship and is looking for a safe seat to contest as a PO candidate. She now claims that the main priority for the next election is to keep Kaczynski out of power (sic). Rosati had been advisor to the last PM during Communism and became a strong advocate of the Shock-Therapy reforms at the end of the 1980s. In 1989 he naively claimed that there would be no serious problem with unemployment in Poland – 2 years later those without work had soared above 12%. In 2004 he was elected as MEP as part of the Social Democratic Party of Poland (SdPL) – but then lost his seat in 2008 after running on a joint slate with the liberal Democratic Party. After helping take the left down a blind-alley he also is seeking to enter parliament as a PO candidate.
PO has now become the party that holds power. It has sought to avoid controversy and attract support from different political currents in order to create a party of the centre-right that can dominate and hegemonise the Polish political scene. Many fear that a new form of political system has been created, where there are no real choices between the political parties on offer and where principle and conviction have been replaced by technocratic manipulation. Such an opinion was recently aired by the leader of Krytyka Polityczna: Sławomir Sierakowski. Sierakowski’s thesis states that politics has been reduced to a façade, where there is no true political pluralism in the country and PO are creating a ‘post-political’ party in which public relations has replaced political programme. Sierakowski writes that PO has given up its political ideals in order to create a pact with society by showing they can deal with issues such as the economic crisis and road building.
There is much to agree with in this opinion. However, its weakness is that it assumes that PO will be able to manage the practical issues of government and therefore maintain political power. Sierakowski compares the project of Tusk to that carried out by other European leaders such as Berlusconi and Sarkozy. Yet leaders such as these are now facing grave political problems and it is highly likely that they will lose power at the next elections. All governing parties in Europe are facing the quandary of how to maintain political support in a period of economic crisis when it is not so easy to buy off different sections of society. So-called post-political democracy will difficult to maintain in the post-crisis age.
The Tusk government is trying to delay facing up to this contradiction until after this autumn’s parliamentary elections. However, cracks are already beginning to show. As mentioned above one of this government’s main selling points has been its claim to be successfully managing the inflow of EU funds and carrying out investments in the country’s infrastructure as part of the preparations for next year’s European football championships. However, a report produced last week shows that this claim is far removed from reality. Last year only 1/3 of all planned investments were completed (instead of ZŁ95bn only ZŁ35bn was spent.) The report predicts that more than 403 km of roads will not be completed as planned by the start of the tournament. The A2 highway, due to link Warsaw and Germany, is unlikely to be ready for the tournament and there have been insufficient investments in the rail networks.
The problem for PO is that their economic strategy is unviable. They are attempting to carry out one of the largest investment programmes in transport and sports facilities in the country’s history, whilst also endeavouring to bring down the budget deficit from nearly 8% this year to around 2% next year. Quite simply, these two simultaneous projects do not add up and is leading to less money being assigned to these investments (especially through making local governments reduce their spending) alongside more pressures to cut expenditures in other areas of economy and raising regressive taxes such as VAT. With inflation rising, unemployment remaining high (particularly for youth) and the government planning a new round of spending cuts, then PO’s attempt to be the ‘party for all’ will become increasingly difficult.
In these circumstances it is worthless for opponents of PO to bemoan its successes and gripe about its popularity. Rather it should be highlighting the failures of PO to actually deliver what it promises and preparing its own programme of economic development that can unite different social layers. Investment not cuts and protecting low and middle wage earners from further economic hardship can form the basis of such an economic programme. For behind the gloss and PR, PO is promising economic solutions that will divide and not unite.