Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The End of the 'Post-Communist' Left?

When the former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski said on election night that this could be the last time that the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) enters parliament, he wasn’t exaggerating.

The Polish left has now reached its nadir. Not only has it scored its worst result in any election since the end of Communism, but it has also been overtaken by a liberal populist movement (the Palikot Movement – RP) that is trying to portray itself as the new party of the Polish left. The left is facing the very real possibility of extinction from the political mainstream in Poland.

It goes without saying that the SLD – under the leadership of the hapless Grzegorz Napieralski – ran a poor and ill-thought out election campaign. Napieralski had led an energetic campaign during last year’s Presidential elections and was able to represent himself as the young alternative to the two candidates from the right. Although he failed to articulate a political alternative to the right, he did manage to accumulate enough political capital to help strengthen support for the left in the run up to the parliamentary elections.

However, rather than reaching out to other activists and organisations from the left – who had previously become disillusioned with the SLD – Napieralski turned the party both inwards and to the right. Napieralski came to embody the worst features of the post-communist left in Poland. In the all-important game of deciding who should be in which position on the party’s electoral list, Napieralski chose his friends and close allies above genuine activists. This meant that in the run up to the elections there were a number of high-profile defections (both to PO and RP) that weakened the support of the party.

The most galling aspect of this political manoeuvring was the re-integration of former PM Leszek Miller into the leadership of the SLD. Miller was given first place on the party’s electoral list in the winnable seat of Gdyńia and became a high-profile figure during the election campaign. The political influence of Miller upon the political strategy of Napieralski became all too clear. This was particularly symbolised by the party’s decision to sign an economic pact with the Business Centre Club - an organisation that had openly praised the former Prime Minister.

It should be remembered what damage Miller has done to the left in Poland. It was Miller who was PM when support for the SLD declined from over 40% to 11%. His government was seeped in corruption scandals, which helped build the image of the SLD as a party of privilege and power. It was Miller who reneged on his promises to tackle the privileges and power of the church and reform the abortion law (policies on which the SLD was elected.) It was Miller who argued that the left should become supporters of neo-liberal economics and even advocated introducing a flat-income tax rate. Finally, it was Miller who followed Bush and Blair into their disastrous military adventure in Iraq. Yet, while even the mention of Tony Blair’s name at the Labour Party conference is met with jeers and boos nowadays, Miller returned to parliament this week.

The problem for the SLD is that for more than two decades it has been trying to be accepted as part of the mainstream. At the start of the transition – during a time when the legal right for those connected to the old system to participate in politics was under question – it did all it could to convince people that it was committed to the course of reform. Once this had been established, it then sought to show that it was not an ‘anti-clerical’ party and would not challenge the authority of the Church.

However, while the SLD remained stuck in this ideological straightjacket, Polish society was changing. Over 80% of society believes that the Church should be separated from politics. Young Poles lead life-styles that are far removed from the doctrines of the Church and are closer to those within the majority of European societies. It is not that Poles have suddenly stopped believing in God, but they have certainly realised that the privileges and power, accumulated by the Church hierarchy over the past two decades, are excessive.

It is in these conditions that Janusz Palikot was able to usurp the SLD and win the support of that part of the electorate that is the most liberal on social and cultural issues. After splitting from PO, Palikot became the champion of policies such as removing compulsory religious education from schools, making priests pay taxes, supporting the state-funding of in-vitro treatment, supporting same-sex legal partnerships and legalising marijuana. This strategy allowed him to successfully win the support of those parts of the electorate that were dissatisfied with the conservatism of PO and the timidity of the SLD.

Despite Palikot’s stance on these matters he is no man of the left. Alongside this array of social and cultural policies he advocates an economic policy of more neo-liberal reform. Most strikingly, he supports the introduction of a flat tax (18% for VAT and income and business taxes) and advocates no programme of economic redistribution at a time when social inequalities are once again growing. RP is setting itself up to be the leading advocates of reform in parliament and it is to be expected that this will include them pushing for the government to introduce further liberal economic reforms. It will be interesting to see whether those in his movement that are genuinely from the left will oppose these moves.

While some of the policies of Palikot are progressive, and many of these are supported by the majority of society, his overall programme is not. For the past few years Polish politics has become dominated by symbolic cultural conflicts that have disguised the real socio-economic problems and challenges facing the population. Palikot’s aim is to harness the frustration’s of the middle class through waging a cultural war in the country and attack his opponents in an often primitive and offensive manner (such as claiming that Jarosław Kaczyński was responsible for the Smoleńsk tragedy.) In many ways he replicates the so-called ‘new atheists’ in the West, who use progressive liberal principles as a guise to promote regressive political aims (such as banning Muslim women from wearing the veil).

Palikot has already become enemy number one for the Law and Justice Party (PiS), who will attempt to show how Palikot, in alliance with PO, represent an immoral elite that ignores the economic difficulties faced by the majority of society. The danger of such a situation is that social and cultural liberalism will become further regarded by some as the preserve of the privileged few and that the causes of economic inequality will be hidden behind artificial cultural conflicts.

For the left the situation is more complicated. In order to reassert its independence it needs to consistently support progressive social and cultural reforms, whilst also developing a clear left economic programme that promotes economic growth, develops public services and reduces social inequalities. As the economic crisis worsens in Europe it needs to maintain a clear political stance of ‘investment not cuts’ and oppose attempts to shift the burden of this crisis onto the poorest sections of society.

For these reasons the left has to rebuild itself in opposition to and not in alliance with the Palikot Movement. Immediately the SLD should open itself up to all those on the left and help instigate a process of creating a new organisational framework that can represent the left’s pluralism. All of the left at this moment should realise its common interest and understand the seriousness of the challenges that lie ahead of it. For if it doesn’t act now then it may be too late.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a refreshingly clear and constructive analysis


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