Spring seems to have been bypassed this year in Poland. After enduring a generally cold and gloomy March and most of April we were suddenly catapulted into a summer heat wave. And so on May 1st – international workers day – the left gathered in the sunshine in numbers probably greater than during any May Day over the past two decades.
The largest gathering of the left in Warsaw was organized by the two veteran organisations of the Polish left: the trade union confederation the OPZZ and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Earlier in the week the SLD had held its conference and the former PM – Leszek Miller –elected as leader of the party.
This was like no other May Day parade that I can remember. It wasn’t just the amount of people on the march (15,000 is a truly impressive number) but also the composition of the participants. These were not just the old die-hards, clinging onto the memories of past glories. No, here were large numbers of young people, families, trade unionists, party members and independent activists. The core organisations of the left were showing that they were no spent force and that they maintained roots in sections of Polish society that run deep.
The other difference this year was the political character of the march. After a period of greeting the delegations of trade unionists and party branches from around the country, the demonstrators first sang the Polish national anthem and then the Internationale. The sight of the leaders of the left – who have spent the last 20 years trying to disassociate themselves from any reminisces of the past – attempting to remember the words to the hymn of international socialism was truly a sight to behold.
The star of the show was Leszek Miller. The great survivor of the Polish left, who only a few years earlier had been excluded from the party, was back in the frontline. His speech signaled a significant break in the politics of the SLD leadership. Its focus was on the economic hardships felt by large sections of society, how the left had to stand up for these people, how it had proved its credentials by voting in parliament against raising the retirement age and (wait for it) how he supported introducing a 50% income tax rate for the highest earners in Poland.
What exactly has happened to Mr Miller? After all this is the same person who in recent years has waxed lyrical about the benefits of a liberal free-market economy, who had propagated the introduction of a flat-income tax rate whilst PM and who had aligned himself closely with the Business Centre Club. The answer is probably not very much. Miller is a technocrat, a pragmatist, a politician with a nose for survival. And this wily operator has scented that for the left to survive and grow it has to reconnect with its base and challenge the right-wing monopoly of the political scene from a clear left-wing perspective. There is no talk nowadays from Miller about learning from Blair and Zapatero, rather he is looking for inspiration from Fico in Slovakia.
One of the reasons that Miller and the SLD have taken a left turn is that their very existence was under question after the Palikot Movement (RP) usurped them at last year’s parliamentary elections. For a while it seemed as though Palikot may manage to hegemonise the left, and May 1st was set as the date for a congress of the left organized by RP. Former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski openly supported this project and urged the SLD to participate. Yet thankfully Miller and the SLD turned down these latest overtures for the left and liberal camps in Poland to unite, and the independence of the social democratic left in Poland was maintained.
So Janusz Palikot and his ‘movement’ spent the afternoon alone in the grand halls of Warsaw’s iconic Palace of Culture. Although around half the size of the OPZZ/SLD gathering, the numbers were still respectable. The show was impressive and included Janusz himself emerging through a rapturous crowd as if at the start of rock concert. In recent weeks RP’s claim that it is a ‘party’ of the left has been severely questioned after it voted with the government to raise the age of retirement. The suspicion has risen that RP represents a Trojan horse on the left, that seeks to create a liberal party that will provide a respectable future coalition partner for PO. However today – on May 1st – it was time for Palikot to talk left once again.
The slogan of the conference was for ‘zero unemployment’. He argued that the free market is not able to correct all of the ills of capitalism. He criticised the ‘junk contracts’ on which millions of young Poles are employed and even suggested that the state should consider building factories when the private sector is not able to do so. He also argued that rate of social insurance should be cut, although little mention was made of how this would affect public finances and future pension payments.
Alongside him Palikot has managed to recruit the long-standing left-winger in Poland, Piotr Ikonowicz. Ikonowicz had been an MP for the Polish Socialist Party (standing on the SLD’s slate) in the 1990s. Since losing his seat he has campaigned hard against poverty and social exclusion and has been particularly active in the movement against people being evicted from their homes. In recent years he has created the Office for Social Justice (KSS), as an organization to campaign on such issues.
It has been traditional for Ikonowicz and his supporters to organize a separate gathering of the so-called ‘radical left’ on May 1st. Although it used to be the case that they would then join the main march, in recent years they have not done so. This year, Ikonowicz received some criticism from parts of the crowd at the gathering for his decision to align with Palikot. In the afternoon, he and his supporters joined Palikot in the Palace of Culture and he addressed the audience, talking about the problems of poverty and inequality in Poland.
I’m not sure what attracts Ikonowicz to RP so strongly. Perhaps he sees an opportunity to influence a growing political movement and win support for his ideals in parliament. Or perhaps he views RP as a means to return to front line politics. For years Ikonowicz had rallied against the so-called ‘red bourgeoisie’, although he now seems very willing to align himself with its orange version. Whatever his reasons, he is playing a risky game which could result in him losing credibility amongst those politically closest to him.
May 1st in Poland proved a number of things this year. Firstly, is the fact that the left has not disappeared in Poland, but rather remains a strong force who can organsze significant numbers. Secondly, is that the present competition on the left has pushed the SLD to adopt a clearer left stance on socio-economic issues. Thirdly, it showed that the strongest party on the left remains the SLD, which maintains strong support amongst sections of society. It is difficult to forgive Miller on many issues, but the fact that he has fought to retain the independence of the left at time of intense difficulty should be commended. Finally, May 1st showed – and I write this with no satisfaction and with a certain regret - that nothing of any significance exists in Polish politics to the left of the SLD.