Wednesday, 14 September 2011

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.


  1. Part of a growing trend towards such parties the region over the last 10-15 years

    or for the heavy duty academic version

    Watching the Palikot Movement with great interest...

  2. Thanks Sean, I'll have a read. A conservative politician from PO described the Palkiot Movement yesterday as the Samoobrona of the cities - hard to disagree.


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