‘Maybe Mrs Nowicka wants to be raped, but this will not be by me as I am not a person suited to such an act’.
These words have possibly spelled the end of the political career of Janusz Palikot and his ill-named Palikot Movement. He may explain that they were intended as a joke or perhaps that they were taken out of context; however there can be no excuses for such a statement. The fact that Palikot claims to be the new leader of the left and of a political movement that represents women and sexual minorities in parliament make them even more shocking.
First some political context. A scandal recently broke out when it was revealed that the four deputy speakers of the house of parliament had been granted 40,000 zloty each in bonuses. This understandably caused some controversy in these times of economic austerity. One of these Deputies was the representative of the Palikot Movement – Wanda Nowicka. The Palikot Movement announced that it was withdrawing its support for Nowicka and a bill was presented to parliament on Friday for her to be removed from her post. This resolution was however decisively defeated, as the MPs from other parties (smelling political blood) voted against the Palikot Movement’s resolution.
Against expectations, Nowicka then announced to parliament that she would not be resigning from her post. Palikot had already declared that the transsexual MP Anna Grodzka would be standing in her place and a political storm within the Palikot Movement ensued.
The Palikot Movement has decided that it will not vote on whether Nowicka should be excluded from the parliamentary club until the middle of next week, with Palikot announcing that he will be recommending her expulsion. Nowicka meanwhile stated that when she told Palikot that she would not resign if she won the vote in parliament that he threatened her by saying that she would be finished politically. It was when referring to these comments made by Nowicka that Palikot made his scandalous remarks about rape.
And now for some background. Wanda Nowicka is a well-known and renowned women’s activist who has campaigned consistently for the rights of women in Poland. Before the last election she had been promised a prominent place on the electoral list as a candidate for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). After this promise was broken, Palikot stepped in and offered her the chance to stand as a candidate for the Palikot Movement. This was one of many shrewd moves made by Palikot, that helped his movement to win a greater share of the vote than the SLD in the parliamentary elections. Nowicka's reputation as one of the most politically important and experienced Palikot Movement MPs, was then underlined when she was appointed as a Deputy Speaker.
Despite these initial successes, and Palikot’s claim to be building a new party of the left in Poland, the Palikot Movement has failed to develop as a coherent and consistent political force. The Palikot Movement is a liberal populist party current – despite the presence of some genuine left-wingers – that combines liberal economics with liberal cultural policies. It represents the frustrations of a stalled middle class, promising to remove the constraints of the state in economic and social life.
The problem for the Palikot Movement is that this only appeals to a minority of society. Despite upsetting the political status quo in 2011, the Palikot Movement now struggles to reach 5% in the opinion polls. Recently he has been trying to repeat the tried and failed strategy of cementing an alliance with sections of the social democratic left outside of the SLD (primarily with ex-President Kwaśniewski). Although the SLD continues to face its own political and organisational difficulties, it is once again cementing itself as the main party of the left and consistently leads the Palikot Movement in the opinion polls.
Like any other good populist, Palikot has repeatedly resorted to political showmanship and organising happenings in an attempt to increase his movement’s popularity. However, these have brought no discernible political success. As its name suggests, the Palikot Movement has remained permanently controlled by and associated with its charismatic leader, despite the fact that he is one of the most distrusted politicians in Poland.
These contradictions were exposed when Palikot believed that he could get some short-term political gain by making a political scapegoat of Nowicka and show how the Palikot Movement is unlike the other parties in parliament. He believed he could move some of the major political players in his party (such as Nowicka and Grodzka) around like pieces on a chessboard. This political arrogance and placing of style over substance then backfired on Palikot. Seeing his plans fall apart and serious politicians like Nowicka refusing to play by his rules, he reacted like an angry patriarch let down by those who should submit to his wishes.
Recently, the conservative right has won victories in parliament over issues such as the funding of in-vitro treatment and the legalisation of same-sex partnerships. This has been dependent upon the votes of the conservative wing of the ruling Citizens’ Platform (PO), making a farce of the idea that it is a progressive force in Polish politics. However, the latest traumas within the Palikot Movement show how it is not capable of leading those opposed to conservatism, let alone build a new party of the left. This probably signals the beginning of the end for Palikot as a serious player in Polish politics, although the task of building a credible left alternative in Poland remains.