Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Poland revises plans on funds for railway sector

It has been pointed out in this blog how Poland has managed to maintain economic growth throughout the global economic crisis largely due to an increase in public investment spurred by an inflow of EU funds. It has also been noted however that the vast majority of infrastructural developments in transport have been concentrated in roads rather than railways.

There are signs however that the Polish government is considering reversing its decision to divert funds designated for railway development to road building. This is a welcome development and comes after sustained political pressure at a time when Poland holds the EU Presidency.

Below I reproduce an article from European Greens website (thanks to Greig Aitken for pointing this out)

According to reports, the Polish government has changed its mind about proposals to redirect €1.2 billion in cohesion funds from rail to road projects. The money will now be spent, as originally foreseen, on the modernisation and maintenance of existing rail infrastructure.

The Greens, who lobbied the Polish government on this issue together with EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas, welcome the decision. It's good news for the climate, rail transport in Poland and the credibility of European transport policy.

According to Green transport spokesperson Michael Cramer MEP, "Redirecting cohesion funds from rail to road would have set a disastrous precedent for EU transport policy and would have been a terrible signal to send in the context of the current Polish EU presidency."

"It is welcome that there was coordinated EU opposition to the original plans: funds that are approved for environmental-friendly railway projects cannot become subject to subsequent relocation to the climate-damaging road construction."

This is particularly good news for the Polish railway network which is in urgent need of funding. Poland is Europe's frontrunner in dismantling railway infrastructure with 25% of rail routes dismantled since 1990. Improving this infrastructure will aid transport not just in Poland but for the rest of Europe, in particualr the Baltic states. For Michael Cramer "Strengthening and expanding the connection between Bialystok in Poland and Kaunas in Lithuania has to be a top priority to ensure Baltic States do not remain disconnected from the European rail network".

Monday, 26 September 2011

Palikot - Humanities' Students Should Pay for their Studies

Janusz Palikot - who leads the liberal populist Palikot Movement - claimed in an interview in today's ' Metro' that those studying on Humanities courses should pay for their studies. And why? Because afterwards they will be unemployed.
I also have an idea for education. It can not be so that a philosophy student studies for free and an extramural student at a polytechnic has to pay. The governemnt should state that those courses will be free, which give someone a chance of finding work. Subjects such as business, biology, food-processing, mathematics, medicine and IT should be free. Those studying humanities should pay, because they end up unemployed.

There speaks the new leader of the left (sic)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Poland Takes Centre Stage During Eurozone Crisis Talks

With Poland currently holding the EU Presidency, it has taken centre stage over the past week as the debt crisis in the eurozone intensifies.

During a debate at the EU parliament last Wednesday, the Polish Finance Minister - Jacek Rostowski - claimed that the crisis in the eurozone threatens the break up of the EU itself. He went on to warn that such an event could result in the outbreak of war in the continent within a decade and that he is 'really thinking about obtaining a green card for my kids in the United States'.

Such claims may be over emotive and exaggerated, but they do reveal the fears felt about the break up of the European project in Central Eastern Europe and other poorer states in the Union.

On Saturday, Economic and Finance Ministers and the European Central Bank met in the Polish city of Wrocław to discuss the current EU crisis. The situation is deemed so serious that the U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner joined the discussions. They were also greeted by a demonstration of up to 50,000 trade unionists, protesting against low wages and unemployment.

Opinions on dealing with the crisis range from increasing help for the so-called periphery economies and issuing eurobonds (alongside imposing further austeriy measures upon these countries) to allowing for the break up of the eurozone as these countries default on their debts. However, neither of these options addresses the fundamental problem facing the European economies today and at how this can be resolved. This can only be done through reversing the collapse in fixed investment that has accounted for the total economic contraction in Europe over the past couple of years.

The article reproduced below, from the website Key Trends in Globalisation, looks at this :

The international financial system is passing through the agony of a new round of the Eurozone debt crisis for the simple reason that European governments, like that in the US, refuse to deal with the core of the economic recession in Europe for reasons of economic dogma.

Anyone who looks at the economic data for the Eurozone without wearing ideological blinkers can see the situation at once – it is charted in Figure 1. The Eurozone recession is due to a collapse in fixed investment. Taking OECD data, at inflation adjusted prices and fixed parity purchasing powers (PPPs), then between the last quarter before the recession, the 1st quarter of 2008, and the 2nd quarter of 2011 Eurozone GDP fell by $204bn. But private consumption declined by only $29bn while the net trade balance increased by $32bn and government consumption rose by $91bn.

However fixed investment fell by $290bn – i.e. the recession in the Eurozone was wholly due to the fixed investment decline

Equally evidently, due to its scale, until this fall in investment is reversed it will take a prolonged period for the recession to be overcome. Therefore to restore growth, which by now is generally realised is the core to turning round the budget deficit problem, the fixed investment decline must be overcome.

Nor is there anything mysterious about how to do this – the state has entirely adequate means. To take the most decisive international case China made the core of its stimulus package direct state investment particularly aimed at infrastructure and housing – the result being that China’s economy has grown by over thirty per cent in three years.

Europe and the US clearly do not have the scale of state sector, nor the political willingness, to act on the scale China did. But US history shows that even without proceeding to a socialist scale of measures direct state intervention on investment is entirely possible.

Roosevelt expanded US state investment from 3.4% of GDP to 5.0% between 1933 and 1936 (data from US Bureau of Economic Analysis Table 1.5.5). Jason Scott Smith, in his study of New Deal public spending, summarises such investment as including 480 airports, 78,000 bridges, 572,000 miles of highway - which, in addition to its immediate effect in stimulating demand, reinforced the productive position of the US economy. Roosevelt, it is superfluous to point out, was neither a socialist nor a communist (despite claims to the contrary by the US right!).

Quarterly, up to date, data is regrettably not available on what is occurring across the Eurozone for state investment, but it is available for the US and there is no reason to suppose, with current policies, that the situation in Europe is any better. Between the peak of the previous US business cycle, in the 4th quarter of 2007, and the 2nd quarter of 2011 US private fixed investment fell from 15.8% of GDP to 12.2% - i.e. a decline of 3.6% of GDP. Yet in the same period US state investment did not compensate but also fell marginally – from 3.3% of GDP to 3.2% of GDP. Therefore while Roosevelt expanded the weight of US state investment current US administrations have been letting it fall.

Instead of directly addressing the core issue of the investment fall European administrations are either attempting to stimulate it indirectly – which, as it is ineffective, has led to fiscal/sovereign debt crises, or are acting via expansion of the money supply – which, in a situation whereby companies and households are paying down debt, is merely the famous ‘pushing on a piece of string’. The most favourable outcome of such a situation is that eventually the debt will be paid down, but only after several years of stagnation. The less favourable variant, of course, is that the banking system breaks under the strain and renewed recession is further propelled by fiscal cutbacks. All these problems simply arise from the fact that, under the rubric of the dogma ‘private equals good, state equals bad’, European governments refuse to use the state tools available to deal with the investment fall which is at the core of the Eurozone recession.

Some European politicians are now beginning to call for state measures to increase investment, UK Business Secretary Vince Cable being one. But the action they envisage so far is inadequate to deal with the scale of the investment fall.

China's economy, which does not have such ideological inhibitions, will continue to expand while the Eurozone remains relatively stagnant for a significant period - and as long as economic stagnation continues there will be no resolving of the Eurozone debt crisis.

Electoral Success for Latvian Centre-Left

The recent Latvian elections have resulted in the centre-left Harmony Centre gaining over 28% of the vote. This is interesting due to the fact that a large section of the Harmony Centre's support comes from the Russian minority that live in Latvia. It also raises doubts about the claims the Latvian policies of austerity have been a great success and an example to be emulated.

Below I reproduce an excellent article from the Socialist Unity website:

Yesterday’s election in Latvia is more than a curiosity for two reasons; firstly that Latvia has been the poster-child state for austerity, with political claims made that the Latvian population have supported huge spending cuts; and secondly that Latvia is one of the few parts of the former USSR to now be part of the EU.

Given the use of rhetoric about human rights by Western governments, the unconditional acceptance of Estonia and Latvia into the EU, despite the legal discrimination in those states against Russians, (and other ethnic minorities who use Russian as a lingua franca) is extraordinary. A full 16% of people domiciled in Latvia are denied a vote in elections, including many who were born there, and whose parents were born there.

In response to the 2008 recession, Latvia’s government made the decision to assume responsibility not only for the state’s sovereign debt, but also for the private sector debt of the banking institutions; and to protect the banks they launched extraordinary cuts in public spending. As Daniel McConnell in the Irish Independent reports:

A third of teachers in Latvia were laid off; the rest have endured savage salary cuts of up to 40 per cent, leaving them barely above the minimum wage.

Many have seen their pension entitlements slashed by 70 per cent; doctors and police officers face sacrificing a fifth of their pay. Many other key state services were severely curtailed including the cancellation of medical surgeries and closure of hospital wards in order to bring the cost of running the state into line.

According to an excellent study by Fine Gael TD Paschal Donohoe, which compares Ireland’s economy to other similar-sized European and Scandinavian countries, living standards in Latvia are well below those of Ireland and the EU average.

Despite the strong growth this year, unemployment remains high at 18 per cent but is falling.

The article in the Irish Independent quoted above is flawed by accepting the conventional but preposterous narrative that Latvia has somehow benefitted by these austerity measures. based upon the flimsy evidence that since its economy fell by a full 25% since 2008, and unemployment reached 22%, Latvia has more recently experienced a limited dead-cat bounce.

Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post had boasted that this limited recovery is linked to mass political support for what is euphemistically called “internal devaluation”, i.e. massive deflation of Latvia’s domestic economy and devastation of its civic institutions in the short term interests of servicing the debt:

What distinguished Latvia’s experience from our own is that, once people recognized the gravity of the crisis, they came together to support the necessary, if harsh, policies to stop the free-fall and restore stability. The economy is now growing again, and although joblessness remains horrific (16.6 percent), it is gradually declining. There is renewed hope. The government that presided over the punishing measures that brought about recovery was reelected last October with an expanded majority.

Yesterday’s election which reverses the 2010 result both burst the bubble of the myth that Latvians support austerity, but also reveals starkly the ethnic and linguistic divide in Latvian society which produced last year’s anomalous election result.

With regard to the economy, Samuelson is simply wrong. As Professor Michael Hudson argues:

The modest uptick in growth is primarily a consequence of Swedish demand for Latvian timber. Long-term economic prospects in the country, however, remain grim. … … let’s interrogate what Latvia’s “success” means? First, the banks are being paid. There has been no debt write-down. That would be an answer to the question previously raised of cui bono. Latvians are paying their private debts (largely to the Swedes, … helping to ensure that Sweden has faced no economic crisis). The cost, however, came at 25% GDP contraction of Latvia’s economy and public-sector salaries to driven down 30%, with unemployment from public spending cutbacks driving down private sector salaries.

Meanwhile, the Latvian public will have to bear the cost of this programme through the future debt payments required on the more than €4.4bn borrowed from the EU and IMF, which was required to keep its government running on life support during the crisis.

The Latvian solution’s defenders, however, argued that the economic contraction has ended and that modest growth has returned, with unemployment finally below 15%. But emigration has been part of the reason for the fall in unemployment, while investment in manufacturing and savings are far too low to return the country to robust growth. Unlike, say, Argentina, which rejected austerity, and saw its economy grow at 6% annually for six of the seven years following its crisis, Latvia shows no signs of posting such numbers.

… So, is Latvia on the way to recovery? Only time will tell, but the initial signs look very bad. Demographically, the country’s very survival looks in doubt. Economically, according the internal devaluation proponents, the country will have to export its way back to health. Yet, as the economist Edward Hugh has shown, only 10% of Latvia’s economy is from manufacturing, as opposed to roughly 40% for an industrialised economy like Germany’s.

Effectively, Latvia has become a colony for the EU, with the population toiling to service debt, but their real economy and social infrastructure disintegrating. Let us be clear, Latvians now have a standard of living (as measured by Parity Purchasing Power (PPP)) roughly half that of Greece, and only slightly higher than Belarus; and a large proportion of Latvians are now economically worse off than when they were part of the USSR.

This is the context where the 28% vote for the centre-left “Harmony Centre” party (Saskanas Centrs) must be understood.

Harmony have opposed austerity, and strategically opposes the discrimination which denies citizenship to almost half the Russian speaking population. Russians make up a majority of the population of Daugavpils, the second city, and over 40% of population of the capital, Riga; but many Russian speakers are not accepted as citizens in Latvia’s racist constitution. Remember that almost half of Latvia’s Russian population are denied a vote.

Latvian government statistics show that 630,380 ethnic Russians live in the Baltic state. Some 367,662 are Latvian citizens, and around 22,000 hold Russian passports. Another 235,908 people are neither Russian nor Latvian and are classed as “non-citizens.”

For example, Tatjana Zdanoka, the only Russian out of Latvia’s nine MEPs, (despite one in four Latvians being Russian). She gained citizenship in 1996, but only after a court battle, and the original rejection of her citizenship was on political grounds, because she had opposed independence in 1991.

The centre-left Harmony party now has 31 seats in the 100 seat parliament (Saeima), and to have acheived that they must have attracted votes from left inclined ethnic Latvians. But a pro-austerity coalition seems to have been swiftly stitched together between the so-called Reform Party, and the Unity bloc, the parties which came second and third in the election; they can probably also count on the support of the Latvian ultra-nationalists.

This is an extraordinarily volatile situation. In particular, the apparent electoral support for pro-austerity parties is a reflection of the racialised politics in Latvia; where support for Keynesian economic intervention has become associated with the Russian minority; and austerity is trumpeted by Latvian nationalists.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Wnuki Thatcher, Dzieci Blaira

My article in Polish about the riots in the UK was published in the latest issue of Le Monde Diplomatique (Polska Edycja):

Do Wielkiej Brytanii nie zawitała Arabska Wiosna. Nie były to nawet wydarzenia porównywalne z ostatnimi protestami w Atenach czy Madrycie. Te zamieszki nie miały pozytywnych celów politycznych, nie wysunięto żądań, nie przedstawiono programu. Był to wybuch chaosu.

Błędem byłoby jednak rozpatrywanie zamieszek w Londynie w całkowitym oderwaniu od wydarzeń w innych miejscach świata. Najpotężniejsza dekoniunktura gospodarcza w ciągu całego pokolenia doprowadziła do powstania całego łańcucha powiązanych wzajemnie zdarzeń, których przyczyną pozostaje spadający standard życia i rosnące nierówności. Kair, Ateny, Madryt, Londyn, a nawet Oslo – oto momenty, które zachwiały znajdującym się w kryzysie systemem globalnym.

Dlaczego jednak Wielka Brytania, i dlaczego teraz? Dlaczego w kraju, uznawanym często za opokę stabilności, zaczęło się dziać tak źle, że cały sektor młodzieży wyległ na ulice własnych społeczności, wszczynając zamieszki i dokonując grabieży?

Oto pytanie, na które nie chcą odpowiedzieć rząd brytyjski i jego zwolennicy. Premier David Cameron określił zamieszki jako akt czysto kryminalny. Uczestnicy zamieszek to po prostu kryminaliści i zbiry, a zatem rozwiązaniem jest zaprowadzenie prawa i porządku.

Uczestników zamieszek stygmatyzuje się i szufladkuje jako grupę pozbawionych moralności przestępców. Potem słyszymy jedynie wyjaśnienia, że w ich społecznościach panuje nieład moralny i kulturowy. Przyczynami ostatnich zamieszek mają być rozkład rodziny, samotni rodzice, brak dyscypliny i wreszcie rasa.

Prawica konserwatywna i jej przedstawiciele wśród intelektualistów wykorzystują zamieszki jako nowy pretekst do ataku na społeczeństwo wielokulturowe, obwiniając za wybuch przemocy imigrantów. Nawet wobec faktu, że w zamieszkach wzięła udział młodzież o wszelkim możliwym kolorze skóry, zrzucają odpowiedzialność za problemy na „czarną kulturę". Takie opinie pojawiają się nie tylko na marginesie skrajnie prawicowym, lecz wypowiadają je również „szanowani" przedstawiciele establishmentu w mediach głównego nurtu. Historyk David Starkey wprost zadeklarował w BBC, że biali uczestniczyli w zamieszkach, ponieważ są zainfekowani kulturą czarnoskórych. Oto jego słowa: „problem polega na tym, że biali stali się czarni" [1]. Każdy, kto ośmielił się spojrzeć choć trochę głębiej na problemy społeczne i ekonomiczne, spotyka się z oskarżeniem o usprawiedliwianie przemocy. Jednakże wyjaśnieniem przyczyn zamieszek pozostają głębokie nierówności społeczne i nędza, które przez ostatnie 30 lat stawały się wśród Brytyjczyków coraz powszechniejsze [2]. Prawda jest taka, że Wielka Brytania odczuła rezultaty potężnych nierówności społecznych, powstałych w czasie rządów Margaret Thatcher w latach 80. W ciągu owego dziesięciolecia przepaść między najbogatszymi a najbiedniejszymi 20% społeczeństwa wzrosła o 60%, w wyniku czego nierówności pozostają tu dwukrotnie większe niż w większości krajów Europy Zachodniej [3].

Nie dokonano tego pokojowo. Thatcher musiała zmierzyć się z zamieszkami na początku lat 80., gdy czarne społeczności zaprotestowały przeciwko bezrobociu i nękaniu przez policję.

Trwający przez cały rok strajk górników i zamieszki przeciwko podatkowi pogłównemu to kolejne przykłady niepokojów, za sprawą których Thatcher straciła stołek. Nie zniknęło jednak jej dziedzictwo.

Trudno jednoznacznie ocenić rządy Partii Pracy w latach 1997-2010. Za jej rządów wzrost gospodarczy był zazwyczaj wysoki, spadło bezrobocie i zwiększono wydatki na służby publiczne. Ów wzrost został jednakże w znacznej mierze osiągnięty dzięki polityce deregulacji finansowej, za sprawą której powstała niemożliwa do utrzymania bańka kredytowa. Gdy pękła, gospodarka Wielkiej Brytanii zaznała nie tylko recesji, lecz wręcz depresji. Co gorsza, nawet w latach wzrostu gospodarczego nie zmniejszyły się, a nawet nieco wzrosły nierówności społeczne. Gdy płynął pieniądz, rozwijał się rynek nieruchomości, a ludzie oddawali się szałowi zakupów, pielęgnowano kulturę konsumeryzmu i indywidualizmu. W 2007 r. liczba kredytów osiągnęła punkt krytyczny i domek z kart się zawalił.

Słynne jest powiedzenie Margaret Thatcher, że „nie ma czegoś takiego jak społeczeństwo".

To nie opinia, lecz projekt polityczny, którego konsekwencje okazały się tragiczne. Budowa kraju nierówności i atomizacji przez Thatcher i jej kontynuacja przez Blaira dały się we znaki dwóm kolejnym pokoleniom. Nie można się dziwić, że efektem nierówności społecznych i nędzy okazują się niepokoje społeczne. Nie dzieje się to jednak natychmiast – społeczeństwo doznaje wcześniej uszczerbku, a społeczności i rodziny ulegają korozji. Wśród 21 najbardziej rozwiniętych gospodarek na świecie, Wielka Brytania ma najgorsze wskaźniki dobrobytu dzieci, wypada też źle w przypadku ciąż wśród nastolatek, liczby więźniów, poziomu narkomanii, otyłości, braku mobilności społecznej i chorób psychicznych [4].

Zamieszki zaczęły się w Tottenham. Policja zastrzeliła młodego czarnoskórego, w kraju, w którym czarnoskórzy są 26 razy częściej niż inni zatrzymywani i przeszukiwani przez policję, a mimo pokojowych protestów rodzina zabitego nie otrzymała żadnych wyjaśnień co do przyczyn zdarzenia. Miało to miejsce w okolicy, którą cechuje wyjątkowo wysoki w skali kraju poziom bezrobocia wśród młodych. Zamieszki zaczęły się w okręgu, w którym ostatnio, w ramach 75% cięć budżetu na służby dla młodzieży, zamknięto kluby młodzieżowe [5].

Zamieszki rozszerzyły się z Tottenham na cały kraj, w którym trwa stagnacja gospodarcza, rośnie bezrobocie, a jedyną odpowiedzią rządu na te problemy pozostają oszczędności i cięcia budżetowe. W ostatnich miesiącach rząd zlikwidował zasiłek studencki (Educational Maintenance Allowance, EMA), zapewniający młodzieży z klasy robotniczej środki konieczne na podjęcie edukacji. Podniósł też czesne w szkołach wyższych, w wyniku czego każdy, kto zechce rozpocząć wyższą edukację, musi się liczyć z popadnięciem w dług rzędu 20 tys. funtów.

Zamieszki stanowiły wybuch chaosu na gruncie przygotowanym przez niesprawiedliwość, złość, brak złudzeń i wykluczenie. Są produktem społeczeństwa nauczonego, że jedynym wskaźnikiem sukcesu jest to, co skonsumujesz – zatem ich uczestnicy postanowili wziąć sprawy we własne ręce. To wszystko stało się w kraju, zbudowanym na nieuczciwości i chciwości. To tutaj bankierzy otrzymują nagrodę za doprowadzenie gospodarki do ruiny,

to tutaj przyłapywano polityków na machlojkach w ewidencji wydatków, to tutaj media (w przymierzu z policją i politykami) działają zbrodniczo i niemoralnie.

Cameron może sobie gadać o „wielkim społeczeństwie" i twierdzić, że „wszyscy jesteśmy w nim zjednoczeni". W rzeczywistości jednak polityka gospodarcza jego rządu oznacza cięcia wydatków na służby publiczne i społeczne, mające zapłacić za kryzys wywołany przez sektor finansowy. Całe społeczności, które cierpią już od dziesięcioleci wskutek zaniedbań, zdane są na łaskę i niełaskę sytuacji, w której brak widoków na lepszą przyszłość, nic nie daje nadziei, a za uczciwość i ciężką pracę nie sposób spodziewać się nagrody.

Wielu z tych, którzy wzięli udział w zamieszkach, zapełnia dziś więzienia i sale sądowe.

Znów porządek panuje na ulicach i trwa usuwanie szkód. Jednakże wobec pęknięć, które pojawiły się w społeczeństwie, jakiekolwiek długotrwałe rozwiązanie musi pociągnąć za sobą podjęcie problemu głębokich nierówności, które prowadzą do jego fragmentaryzacji. Lewica musi zaoferować program, w którym podejmie te kwestie, gdyż inaczej nie będzie w stanie przeciwstawić się tym, którzy pragną wykorzystać ostatnie zamieszki, by rozszerzyć swój reakcyjny i równoznaczny z dalszymi podziałami społecznymi pakiet propozycji.

tłum. Paweł Michał Bartolik


Gavin Rae – Socjolog, wykładowca w Akademii Koźmińskiego. Autor książki Poland’s Return to Capitalism. Prowadzi blog www.beyondthetransition.blogspot.com.

[1] http://tinyurl.com/3jhx34v.

[2] 41% of those convicted of taking part in the recent riots live in the 10% most deprived areas of England. (http:// tinyurl.com/3l5wpw7).

[3] „Broken Society, yes. But by Thatcher", The Guardian, 29 stycznia 2011 (http://tinyurl.com/yjwj3ta).

[4] R. Wilkinson, K. Picket, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Allen Lane, Londyn 2009.

[5] „These riots reflect a society run on greed and looting", The Guardian, 10 sierpnia 2011 (http://tinyurl.com/442sohu).

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Polish Green Party and the Upcoming Elections

An interesting interview in English with Bartłomiej Kozek from the Polish Green Party can be found here

Pensions Debate

Here you can read a paper on the debate over private pensions in Poland, which I presented at the ESPAnet conference last weekend.

The Rise of Liberal Populism

So is this election about to get interesting?

Well after a day of seeing the media obsess over the supposed hacking of the the PiS MP's - Beata Kempa - email account, it would seem not. Also, the painful sight of watching the left being represented by Leszek Miller and Aleksander Kwasniewski, as they stolled around Gdynia, was enough to put one off politics for life. But something may be stirring below the surface.

A current debate in Poland concerns the domination of Polish politics by four parties. The complaint is that these are the only parties that stand any real chance of entering politics, boosted by the large state subsidies that they have been receiving for years and their near total monopoly of media publicity. The programmes of these parties have essentially converged on many crucial issues and elections have become little more than a publicity show and popularity contest.

I have some sympathy for this point of view, although I feel that it is exaggerated and often used as an excuse by some to explain their own lack of political support. Nevertheless, the issue of how any real alternative could break the current status-quo is a complex one.

One person is currently giving it a go - Janusz Palikot - and according to current opinion polls his political movement (aptly named the Palikot Movement) has a chance of crossing the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament.

Palikot first entered parliament as a Citizens' Platform (PO) MP in 2005. He had previously made his name as a millionaire businessman and a representative of the Polish Confederation of Private Employers. Palikot has a taste for self-publicity and rose to prominence as a flamboyant MP who courted controversy and media attention. He brought the culture of political stunts and happenings into the political mainstream and sought to shock the audience and outrage his political opponents.

Within PO, Palikot took up the mantle of the leading advocate of liberalism. He rallied against the hypocrisies and reactions of the conservative right. He has stood up for such things as gay rights, liberalisation of the drugs law and the secularisation of the state and society. In the aftermath of the Smoleńsk tragedy, Palikot has come into conflict with those on the right who have sought to expand their conservative agenda. Sensing a political opening, Palikot left PO and formed a new movement that already boasts as many members as PO.

However, most of Palikot's gestures and activities are about one thing: himself. For example, his recent proclamation that Jarosław Kaczyński was responsible for the Smoleńsk tragedy may play well to his supporters in the gallery, but is just another example of how far the level of political debate in Poland has fallen.

Yet in this age of media centred politics, Palikot is beginning to make political ground on his opponents. The question remains, if his support does rise who will suffer as a consequence? Palikot's attempt to form a party ostensibly of the left, means that he represents a direct challenge to the SLD. After the gay activist, Robert Biedron, became a candidate for the Palikot Movement, then this challenge has become more direct. Palikot's proactive and overtly political campaign contrasts with the SLD's, which is dominated by the party's old-guard and its leader Napieralski's search for the next photo-opportunity.

However, the biggest losers from the rise of the Palikot Movement may be PO. Palikot is addressing much of his attacks against PO, claiming that they have betrayed their ideological roots and political base. His most recent stunt has been to erect tents (an 'orange city') outside the PM's office, protesting against the refusal of Tusk to debate with leaders of parties who are not currently in parliament.

Does the Palikot Movement represent a genuine alternative in Poland? A cursory glance at Palikot's programme reveals that despite its packaging, Palikot offers little new and combines cultural liberalism with extreme economic liberal policies. (An excellent article in Polish on this matter can be found here)

Palikot proposes to introduce a flat tax rate of 18% for Personal and Business tax and VAT. This would amount to a transfer of wealth to the richest sections of society and would further starve the budget of funds leading to more social spending cuts. Within his programme there is virtually no mention of social policy. The only proposal he has for creating employment is the fight against 'bureaucracy' and liberalising the labour code. He also wishes to raise the age of retirement, in a country that has one of the lowest employment rates in Europe and soaring youth unemployment.

The Palikot Movement represents a new strand in Polish politics: Liberal Populism. Previously the economic populism of the right had been combined with cultural conservatism. Palikot has harnessed the frustrations of a section of the middle class and promotes a mixture of cultural and economic individualism. He is winning the support of that part of the electorate who had placed their hopes in PO but feel let down by its record in government. He is also gaining votes from some of those who would traditionally support the left but are fed up with the SLD.

The dynamism and self-financing of his campaign give Palikot a chance of making a political breakthrough at next month's elections. Despite the fact that this may shake up the political scene, it would offer nothing progressive to Polish politics and further shift economic power to the privileged sections of society whilst further complicating the possibility of forming a real left alternative in the country. However, if the Palikot Movement continues to rise in the polls then the immediate consequence could be the weakening of PO, allowing PiS to make gains at next month's election. Already, the gap between these two parties is beginning to narrow in the opinion polls.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Travails of the Left

'There's no one to vote for' is the phrase repeated with depressing regularity when discussing the current elections. So with many fatigued by the two dominant right-wing parties in Poland, does the left have a chance to make a breakthrough at next month's parliamentary elections?

An opening emerged for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) following the relatively good result of its leader, Grzegorz Napieralski, in the Presidential elections last year. Napieralski ran an energetic campaign which, although low on political content, was carried out without the support of much of the party's 'old guard'. The surprisingly high result for Napieralski (14%) meant that he had an opportunity to widen the political base of the SLD, allying with different movements and individuals on the left.

Napieralski would claim that he has managed to do this. The SLD is standing on a joint list with the Green Party, the Womens' Party and the Labour Union. Although the latter is now little more than a satellite of the SLD, the Green Party and Womens' Party are small but genuinely active parties, with broadly left political programmes.

However, Napieralski has managed to isolate the party from a range of other left activists both due to political principles and organisational maneuvers.

No one is quite sure what the SLD stands for. On the one hand it has proposed a number of progressive social policies that would help society's poorest and build the country's public services. However, it has combined this with an economic programme that is based upon liberal principles.

One of the biggest mistakes of Napieralski has been to bring the ex-Prime Minister - Leszek Miller - back into the fold. Miller is the most vocal advocate of neo-liberal economics within the party, even proposing a flat-income tax rate whilst in power. He follows the Blairite dictum that the left should be supporters of liberal economic policies, that he believes will drive economic growth.

Following this philosophy, the SLD has signed an economic pact with the Polish Business Centre Club (BCC) based around the principles of fast economic growth, improving public finances, creating a friendly environment for business, developing technology and innovation and (finally) a fair distribution of wealth. Although short on detail, the pact confirms the SLD's wish to be seen as the most 'pro-business' party in Poland.

As well as allowing the politics of Miller and the 'old guard' to gain dominance, Napieralski has also given them prominent positions on the party's electoral lists. The most galling example of this, is Miller gaining first place in the SLD's electoral list in the city of Gdynia. Genuine left activists have generally found themselves lower down these lists with little hope of entering parliament.

All this has led to some dissatisfaction within the ranks of the SLD. In August the prominent gay rights activist, Robert Biedron, withdrew as an SLD candidate after he failed to gain a prominent position on the SLD list in Warsaw. Biedron has subsequently decided to stand as a candidate for the populist liberal Palikot Movement. Also the regional trade union leader, Barbara Kramarz, has resigned as an SLD candidate stating that by signing an agreement with the BCC then the SLD has shown that it is left-wing only in name.

There remain some real left-wing activists on the SLD list, that deserve the support of all those hoping for a renewal of the left in Poland. These include the Green Party and Womens' Party candidates, ex-Health Minister Marek Balicki and Michał Syska from the Ferdinand Lassalle Centre For Social Thought.

The more that such candidates get elected, the stronger the left's chance is of opposing the current political course of the SLD and its aim of entering a coalition government with Citizens' Platform.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Poland's Parliamentary Elections - Behind the Antics

The summer draws slowly to an end, the leaves begin to brown and whither, the nights draw in, we return to work and an election looms.

Poland has entered the silly season, with the parliamentary elections little over a month away (9th October). Unfortunately the level of debate displayed in the mainstream media has so-far fallen short of what should be expected for such an important election. The major issue to dominate has been about how, where and when the politicians will take part in debates, rather than discussion about the real issues facing Poland. There are however some underlying issues affecting the trivial games being played out by the politicians on our TV screens.

1. It is almost certainly known in which order the main political parties will end up following the vote. This will be: First, Citizens' Platform (PO); Second, Law and Justice Party (PiS); Third, Democratic Left Alliance (SLD); Fourth, Peasants' Party. It is highly probable therefore that PO will again be in a position to form a government, which would be the first time in Poland's post-communist history that a governing party has been returned to power and would therefore represent a significant victory for PO and its leader Donald Tusk.

2. However, it is extremely unlikely that PO will be able to achieve an overall majority and form a government alone. Therefore, a major part of this election campaign concerns who will enter a government with PO. PO's favoured partner in government remains PSL, with whom it has governed for the past four years. When the PSL had previously been in government (with the SLD - 1993 to 1997 and 2001 to 2005) it left the coalition shortly before elections were due. In this way, it expressed its independence and tried to convince its electorate that it was against the unpopular decisions of the government. This time it seems as though PO has allowed PSL to express its discontent more during the last few months of the government and to push forward some of its own projects. PO understands that a strong vote for the PSL will be good for it, both because it potentially provides a reliable partner for government and also because the PSL are often competing for the support of rural voters with PO's major rival PiS.

3. The major division in the election continues to be between PO and PiS and more precisely between its leaders Tusk and Kaczyński. Polish politics continues to be dominated by the artificial division between two right-wing parties, which in reality agree on a number of fundamental issues. These parties are mutually dependent upon one another and their rivalry maintains a right-wing hegemony within Polish politics.

- PO are attempting to return to the political situation that dominated the elections in 2007, when it was able to win the support of the majority of those that wanted to eject PiS from power. These were mainly young, urban voters who feared that PiS were eroding the country's liberal democratic practices and freedoms. The turnout of 54% was the highest in any election since 1990 and reflected how PO was able to mobilise a section of the electorate that had previously been inactive. It is unlikely however that PO will be able to galvanise voters as they had done four years ago.

- PiS are trying to focus on the economic hardships experienced by some due to such things as rising inflation. Although they are attacking PO for not successfully investing in the country's infrastructure, people remember the PiS government that almost entirely failed to push forward infrastructural development. Despite existing socio-economic problems, PO can claim that they have managed to maintain economic growth throughout their term in office. PiS have refused to take part in any of the televised debates and it seems as though their strategy is to maintain their core and usually loyal vote, which would swell in conditions of a low electoral turnout.

If PiS have a disappointing election then the future of the party with Kaczyński as leader is in doubt, as it would be the fourth election in a row that they have lost. A question is raised as to whether the party - or part of it - would consider entering into an alliance with PO if the possibility arose. It is difficult to imagine that this could happen with Kaczyński in charge. Also this would be the last resort for PO, as it relies on keeping Kaczyński and PiS as the bogey men to that maintains PO's strong support.

4. The leader of the SLD - Grzegorz Napieralski - has failed to build upon his success during the Presidential election and form a broad and progressive coalition of the left (more to follow on this in the next blog post). He is hoping to repeat his success at the Presidential elections, where he managed to run an energetic campaign and travel the country meeting the electorate. It is doubtful whether this strategy will be as successful during a parliamentary campaign and I am sceptical that SLD will improve on their score of 11.5% in 2007. The unspoken aim of the SLD leadership is to gain a high vote in order to negotiate a strong position in a future coalition government with PO.

5. The attempts by splinter parties from PiS and PO are unlikely to cross the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament. 'Poland is the Most Important Party' (PJN - I know they really have kept this name!) and the Palikot Movement are running high profile and well funded election campaigns but have so-far been unable to make any real impression in the opinion polls.

With the summer recess over, Beyond The Transition will be following and analysing the elections over the next few weeks. Keep tuned folks.