Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Mixed Signals of Palikot

With the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in a seemingly terminal decline, the major political force claiming to represent the left in Poland is now the Palikot Movement (RP). RP has more MPs than the SLD, and since October's parliamentary elections has been a far more pro-active political current in and out of parliament.

Despite its left wing stance on issues such as the relationship between the Church and State and Lesbian and Gay rights, RP had taken an overtly liberal stance on economic issues, such as supporting the introduction of a flat income tax.

However, in recent weeks RP has been making some moves to be seen as a party that represents the economic interests of the poorest sections of society. Primarily this has been done through Palikot forming an alliance with the 'Office of Social Justice' movement (KSS), led by the socialist Piotr Ikonowicz.

The KSS campaigns against poverty and social exclusion in Poland and has been particularly active over the issue of housing evictions. Palikot has donated his own parliamentary salary to the KSS and is promoting it as a social movement to combat poverty in Poland. Furthermore, last weekend a meeting was held between RP MPs and representatives of KSS to discuss joint work over issues such as social security and the labour law.

At the same time, Palikot re-affirmed his commitment to a number of liberal economic policies. In a recent interview he defended the policy of introducing a flat-income tax rate, supported the compulsory private pension system, promoted the privatisation of a large section of the health service and re-affirmed his belief that students should pay for studying on courses (such as humanities) which do not teach the skills needed on the labour market. Furthermore, a document has recently been put up on RP's website that includes support for a flat tax of 18% for VAT and income and business tax. The major 'pro-growth' proposals in this programme are reducing the level of bureaucracy for businesses and liberalising the labour code.

In response to criticisms about this ambiguity, RP's spokesperson Andrzej Rozenek has argued that the left-right divide is archaic and has no meaning in contemporary society. It is interesting that Rozenek was previously considered to be one of the party's leading left-wingers.

RP has also recently announced that in Europe it will cooperate with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). This is the third largest group in parliament and although it currently has no Polish MEPs as members it previously had relations with the neo-liberal Freedom Union and Democratic Party.

It seems that Palikot recognises that there is a space on the left in Poland which he can fill. His secular and cultural liberal programme appeals to voters from the left and statements on poverty and social inequality allow him to extend into other areas of the left electorate. While such developments should be welcomed and one has to wait to see how RP develops (particularly as it has yet to form as an actual political party) its continued support for liberal macro-economic policies and its alliance with liberals in Europe separates it off from the rest of the Polish left.

It seems that RP is moving towards being a social liberal party where statements on social exclusion and poverty can be deployed as populist slogans, yet where its actual economic programme would make them worse.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Speech For the Rating Agencies

These have been a bad few weeks for democracy in Europe. Italy and Greece are now ruled by technocrats, trained in American banks, appointed to push through austerity measures that no government with a democratic mandate could manage. Even in those countries where elected administrations ostensibly rule, economic policies are being devised more according to the concerns of the international markets and the whims of the rating agencies than the needs of the electorates.

On the economic peripheries this situation is most pronounced. Most obviously the governments in Southern Europe are being forced into a programme of extreme austerity under the pretence that this will instigate growth and bring down public debt. Likewise, in Central-Eastern Europe a similar - if more subtle - game is being played out.

In Hungary investors have been awaiting proposals from the government for a deal from the IMF for a new loan. The negotiations between the IMF and the government in Budapest essentially concern the amount of economic sovereignty that the country should be allowed to have. There is a lot to be concerned about when it comes to Orban's government in Hungary. However, the IMF is most worried about reversing some of its more positive economic policies, such as passing part of the burden of mortgages taken out in Swiss Francs onto the international banks that created them and abolishing the compulsory private pension pillar.

Therefore, despite the fact that Hungary's economy is growing and its budget deficit and public debt are at comparatively low and manageable levels, the country's bond's have been put on watch for a possible downgrade to junk by both Fitch and Standard and Poor's, leading to a surge in borrowing costs in the country.

The situation is similar in Poland - a country that has grown almost twice as much as any other inside the EU over the past three years - where the representatives of the international markets are turning the screw. Poland's economy has expanded through increasing borrowing in order to drive public investment (boosted by EU funds) in the country's infrastructure. With public debt standing at a meagre 53% of GDP any rational approach to the Polish economy would be to continue and in fact deepen this economic course of development.

The international markets and agencies have other ideas. Over the past few weeks the three largest rating agencies have been making it clear that if the new Polish government does not undertake the structural reforms that it deems necessary then it too will face a downgrade, which of course would lead to soaring borrowing costs.

It was in this atmosphere that PM Donald Tusk made his opening speech to the new parliament, setting out his government's priorities for its next term in office. Tusk did not even attempt to conceal that the main purpose of his speech was to appease the financial markets, stating 'I do not hide the fact that the aim of this is to stabilise the financial situation of Poland. This is positive for the reputation of Poland and connected to the security of our bonds.'

And so Poland is embarking on a course of drastic deficit and debt reduction as it attempts to keep in line with the policies of other European economies that are undergoing economic contractions. The government predicts that public debt will reduce to 42% of GDP by the end of 2015 and that the budget deficit will stand at just 1% by the end of the government's present term in office (it currently is above 7%). Quite why this should be the aim of any government in the midst of the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s is not explained.

And how will this all be achieved? Well if Tusk is anything he is not a stupid politician and he at least understands that part of the austerity has to be shared out amongst different groups if he is to maintain political support. Yet behind these attempts at policy 'triangulation' Tusk has drawn a clear line under his first administration and opened up a period of cuts that are, on the whole, socially and economically regressive.

One of his major ideas is to move social policy away from the principle of universalism. Therefore, child benefits and tax reliefs will no longer be made available for those earning more than 85,000 złoty a year. All this is dressed up in the progressive language of supporting the poorest in society. However, the poor will be no better off from the proposals, which will further socially stigmitise those who earn benefits, increase bureaucracy in the system and decrease social solidarity.

One of the other major announcements of Tusk was that the retirement age would be successively raised for men and women from 2013 until it reaches 67 (it is presently 65 for men and 60 for women.) Although the normal demographic arguments were deployed, this is being carried out in a country where the average life expectancy is just 75 and where youth unemployment stands at around 25%. Tusk also declared that the government would be seeking to move away from the annual percentage rise in pensions and also that the early retirement privileges of certain social groups (such as uniformed workers and coal-miners) would be abolished.

Along with making some farmers pay full health insurance, employers will have to pay 2% more in social insurance contributions. The only social groups that will directly benefit from this government will be soldiers and the police, who will enjoy a salary rise of 300zł, which will possibly be repeated before the end of the government's present term.

Tusk has not laid out any programme for economic or social growth and rather pins his hope on the delusion that cuts will instigate development. Nor has he proposed any measures to tackle the serious socio-economic problems that face the country such as high unemployment, workers employed on insecure contracts with low wages and the lack of housing.

Tusk claims that he is building a force of the political centre that can push through painful but necessary reforms. He has warned about the need to counter radicalism on the right and the left. It is true that compared to many other governments in Europe his proposals are relatively modest. Yet they place Poland in line with the policy of austerity being pursued around the continent and are likely to depress economic growth and raise social divisions. It is exactly these phenomena that are increasing social discontent and unrest throughout Europe.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Reflections on 11 November

For the second year running the anti-fascist movement was successful in blocking the 'march organised by the Polish far-right in Warsaw on Poland’s Independence Day. Grouped around the '11 November Agreement' Association, the counter-demonstrators organised a concert and blockade along one of Warsaw's main streets, preventing the far-right from walking along their planned route.

A stand-off occurred with the two demonstrations separated by lines of police. In response the far-right began to fight with the police and throw stones, street paving and flares. They also separated into smaller groups and attempted to attack some of those on the edges of the counter-demonstration as well as intimidating passers-by and attacking some bars and cafes.I personally saw someone getting seriously beaten up by a group of 'patriots' who were looking for anti-fascist demonstrators. Over 40 police were hurt during the actions and 29 people taken to hospital.

Once the demonstration had proceeded along a revised route and approached its destination (the statue of the leader of the pre-war far-right in Poland - Roman Dmowski) they also attacked and burnt the vehicles of media covering the march.

The far-right demonstration this year was attended by a large number of football hooligans who had been mobilised from around the country. This is a worrying development and is a tactic that has been used by far-right groups in other countries (such as the English Defence League).

Some of the violent attacks by the far-right can be viewed here:

However, rather than the perpetrators being outrightly condemned for the violence that occurred in Poland's capital, some politicians and part of the media have sought to proportion equal blame on the counter-demonstrators.

This has primarily happened through claiming that the violence was partly caused by a group of German anarchists who were supposed to have come to Poland looking to cause trouble. The leader of the main opposition party, Jarosław Kaczyński, condemned the sight of Germans ‘attacking Poles’ on Independence Day.

As well as the demonstration being attended by representatives of far-right groups from other European countries, the counter-demonstration was joined by a number of anti-fascist activists from abroad. Out of the 210 people who were arrested on the demonstration, 95 were from abroad, including around 70 German anti-fascist activists. However, these people had already been arrested hours before the violence took place after being tracked by police since crossing the border.

The counter-demonstration was peaceful and sought only to stop the march of the far-right through the streets of Warsaw. The fact that some people are attempting to paint those involved in this counter-demonstration as being equally to blame for the violence is a cynical political manoeuvre. However, it has been partly successful and is being used by sections of the right to conceal the true perpetrators of the violence on 11 November in Warsaw.

This propaganda offensive also includes denying the neo-fascist and racist nature of the demonstration in Warsaw. While the demonstrators now try to avoid using openly racist or fascist slogans or salutes, the political character of the march is clear. It is partly organised by far-right organisations such as the National Radical Camp (ONR) and the All-Polish Youth organisation, both which follow the tradition of Dmowski and the pre-war Polish far-right.

However, the demonstration was also successful in reaching out beyond the confines of these groups. The danger is that the counter-demonstrators will be portrayed as the ones who prevent patriots from demonstrating on the country’s Independence Day and the cause of the terrible scenes of violence on the streets of Warsaw. Undoubtedly, this will involve calls for the police to prevent a counter-demonstration that blocks the march from taking place next year.

It is essential that the anti-fascist movement win this argument and engages with as wider a section of society and political opinion as possible to recognise the politically repulsive and violent nature of the Independence Day march organised by the far-right.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Below the Belt

It was heartening when watching the opening of the new Polish Parliament yesterday to see a more socially diverse group of MPs.

Most prominently were the first openly gay (Robert Biedroń) and transsexual (Anna Grodzka ) MPs from the Palikot Movement, alongside the country's first black MP (John Abraham Godson) from PO. Despite this progress, the Polish parliament - dominated as it is by representatives of the conservative right - showed how it remains stuck in the past.

Biedroń managed to offend and amuse a number of MPs when he spoke in favour of the nomination of Wanda Nowicka for Deputy Speaker of parliament (WiceMarszałek). Nowicka is a Palikot Movement MP and a long-serving activist of the Womens' Movement in Poland and at the second attempt has been elected as Deputy Speaker. Defending his collegue against attacks from the right Biedroń dared to use the term (wait for it).... 'Below the Belt'.

As in English this is a commonly used phrase in Polish. However, for the MPs from PO and PiS (including PM Donald Tusk) it was just too much to hear a Gay MP use such phraseology and they responded with howls of laughter.

However, rather than being embarassed by their behaviour a number of MPs then went on the attack against Biedroń. Interestingly, it has been MPs from PO that have criticised Biedroń the most - as the conservative wing of the party seeks to reassert its influence.

The PO MP Julia Pietra argued that Biedroń had crossed acceptable limits in the parliament and during a subsequent debate on television she argued that he always talks about the same thing: sexuality. As Biedroń pointed out there was nothing in his speech about sexuality. Furthermore, another leading figure from PO - Stefan Niesiołowski - stated that he voted against the nomination of Nowicka because of Biedroń's irritating and stupid smile (sic). As normal Niesiołowski was growling and grimacing as he said this.

Biedron won over 17,000 votes at the last election, which was possible due to years of campaigning against homophobia during a time when such voices were rarely heard. The election of MPs such as Biedroń is a great advance for Polish politics. However, from yesterday's spectacle it is obvious that many in the parliament are not yet ready for this.