For years the left in Poland was represented primarily by the SLD, whose left-wing credentials began and ended in its name. A kind of virtual political reality ruled, whereby a person's connection to the left was more due their own personal history than any real political conviction.
The SLD had become complacent in its role as the sole ambassador of the mainstream left. Other pretenders were swept aside and genuine left-wing activists marginalised to the sidelines or restricted to single-issue campaigns. Even after the SLD had led the left to a series of disastrous electoral defeats, no challenger to its leading status appeared. That is until the emergence of Janusz Palikot, and his modestly named Palikot Movement (RP) at the last elections.
Palikot and RP have usurped the SLD as the leading representative of the left, they lead their rival in the polls and they are openly declaring their ambition to unite the left at a congress on May 1st.
The party (is it actually yet a party?) has made a name for itself through the media of 'political happenings'. Palikot announces that cannabis will be smoked in parliament in protest at the country's draconian drug laws, but then burns an incense stick instead (all too reminiscent of a teenager's bedroom). His party enters parliament claiming that it will remove the cross from the debating chamber, yet the cross still hangs. He drinks beer with the miners at galas and holds press conferences with those campaigning against eviction from their houses. Yet he openly supports the government's decision to raise the age of retirement.
What exactly is the Palikot movement? Who do they represent? What do they want? These questions circle around the conversations on the left in Poland unsure whether to embrace or react against this new phenomenon.
Palikot has already made his place in history. The simple fact that prominent feminists, gay activists and transsexuals are amongst their MPs has ensured that. This after all is no mean feat in a country like Poland (and not just Poland, when will the first transsexual MP make an appearance in the House of Commons?) However, this is a millionaire businessman who once edited an arch conservative and at times homophobic magazine. He is someone who rose through the ranks of PO as the arch supporter of liberal economic reform.
If Palikot is anything he is the establishment's rebel. He rallies against the state and claims to wish to set people free from its clutches. He represents the frustrated young professional, the struggling business owner, the unwilling self-employed. Cut bureaucracy, remove their tax burden and the creative and entrepreneurial will bloom.
However, there are two more aspects to Palikot's character – ambition and intelligence. He realises that a liberal party in Poland (and can anyone actually tell me when there was a true liberal party ever in Poland's history?) has a limited electoral appeal. He does not wish to simply be PO's precocious young sibling, he wants to rule the roost himself. So he looks left. He looks both to that part of the political scene that is under and poorly represented and he seeks to speak for those who feel let down by 'really existing capitalism'.
Presently Palikot talks left, he surrounds himself by (sections) of the left and he dons the symbols of the left (a nice red shirt being one of his favoured outfits). In addition to his liberal secular rhetoric he rallies against homelessness and social exclusion. He appears on the demonstrations against ACTA sensing that this is potentially his movement; and although he is greeted with a mixed reception at these demonstrations, the decision of RP MPs to put on Guy Fawkes masks in parliament captures the mood.
But scratch the surface and the Palikot of old remains. He has opposed the campaign by the trade unions to call a referendum on the government's plan to raise the age of retirement (over 80% of society oppose this plan). He does not support the SLD's proposal to increase the minimum wage, despite the scandalously low wages received by a huge section of society. Palikot has opposed the raising of taxes for the most wealthy in society, although the country has one of the most regressive tax systems in Europe.
Despite these shortcomings the emergence of Palikot and RP on the political scene should be welcomed. It is heartening to seek a new political movement take on the conservative establishment and raise issues that are of real concern. A vocal liberal party in Poland, that possesses some social conscience, could be an invaluable ally to the left.
The problem emerges however because Palikot does not wish to complement the left, he wants to take it over. A recent article by left wing veteran Ryszard Bugaj puts this into some perspective. He notes how the strategy of the post communist left, led by Aleksander Kwasniewski, has always been to ally the left with the liberal centre. This has continually failed and driven the left into deeper defeat and isolation when attempted. According to Bugaj the efforts of Palikot to unite the left under his own auspices, which is being supported by Kwaśniewski, is a continuation of this project.
It is therefore also welcome that the SLD has so far refused to go along with Palikot's plan. Presently under the leadership of Leszek Miller, the party has supported a campaign for a referendum on raising the pension age and initiated a bill to increase the minimum wage. Miller has held joint press conferences with the Solidarność trade union (something that would have been unthinkable previously) and has adopted a strategy of positioning the SLD to the left of Palikot on a number of socio-economic issues.
Therefore one of the benefits of having some competition on the left has been that it prevents a continual drift to the right. The SLD are now painting RP as being a liberal party that is only left on certain social and cultural issues. In turn Palikot has attacked Miller and his party's own dubious record. In particular he has stated that he would refuse to work with Miller if it is proved that he was aware of the CIA interrogating prisoners in secret prisons in Poland when he was PM. This is a principled stance, although quite why he doesn't extend this to Kwaśniewski is unclear.
This is the new dual virtual reality of the left. The accusations flying in both directions between the SLD and RP are true. Miller is a pragmatic politician, with little political conviction. In the early 1990s he was the leading left-winger inside the SLD, opposing as Minister of Labour and Social Policy the SLD government's attempt to privatise the pension system. By the time he became PM in 2001, he had transformed himself into the main advocate of neo-liberalism on the left. As the political wind again changes direction, so Miller once more adjusts his image. But for how long?
Palikot will be unable to unite the left because he is not part of this movement himself. Despite the SLD's failings it is a party that has emerged from the traditions and structures of the Polish left, however treacherous and distorted these may have been. Miller's strategy of positioning the SLD to the left of RP has succeeded in, at least temporarily, halting the party's slide towards oblivion. By maintaining this position the SLD will only gain, particularly if Palikot becomes the informal partner in parliament that Tusk needs to push forward his reform agenda. However, due to Miller's own political biography (imagine Tony Blair returning to lead the Labour Party on a new left-wing platform?) he lacks the credibility to broaden support for the SLD beyond its core supporters.
Competition on the left is a good thing. The question now is how to capitalise from it.