Thursday, 31 December 2015

And Then They Came for the Media...

Another day, another public institution. The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has continued to gain control over public institutions in Poland by passing a new media law through parliament on Wednesday. 

The new law (which will come into immediate effect after being signed by the President) allows the Minister of the Treasury to appoint and dismiss members of the boards of management and supervisory boards of Polish TV and Radio. Previously, members of the boards were appointed by the National Broadcasting Council. It also ends ends the terms of the current management of national broadcasters. 

Public media will change its name to national media, with the PiS MP, Elizbieta Kruk, saying in parliament that: 
“The public media are ignoring their mission towards the nation. Instead of creating a media shield for the Polish national interest, journalists often sympathize with negative opinions about Poland.”
The new bill has been heavily criticised by, amongst others the OSCE and the European Commission. Also a number of press freedom organisations from Europe signed a joint letter protesting against this new law, stating that

The introduction of a system whereby a government minister can appoint and dismiss at its own discretion the supervisory and management boards goes against basic principles and established standards of public service media governance throughout Europe. If the Polish Parliament passes these measures, which may happen today (30 December), Poland will create a regressive regime which will be without precedent in any other EU country.
 At the same time parliament has begun discussion on a new bill on the police and special services that would give them access to information from operators about people's activity online, without asking for permission from courts or informing those who had been effected once the investigation has been completed. 

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

School Starting Age Raised - But Investment Needed

The Polish parliament has agreed to raise the compulsory age at which children start school from 6 to 7. This reverses the decision of the previous government to lower the starting school age to 6, which only became obligatory during the last school year. 

This decision in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Although the decision to lower the school age bought Poland into line with most other EU countries, some of the most successful education systems in the world (most noteably Finland) have a relatively high school starting age. The previous reform of reducing the school age was rushed through with many schools unprepared for the change (e.g. according to the state audit commission 84% of schools did not have a place for 6 year olds to use a computer.) Also the decision to lower the school starting age was opposed by the majority of society. 

However, this reform will not solve the growing problems in the Polish education system. Amongst these is the chronic lack of available places in state pre-schools. Poland has one of the lowest rates of pre-school enrolement inside the EU. Between 1990/91 and 2011/12 the number of available places in pre-schools dropped from 896,000 to to 829,561 and the number of pre-schools from 25,873 to 19,906. There is a huge disproportion between the precentage of children that attend pre-schools in the cities (84%) compared to the countryside (51%). But even within large cities there are major discrepencies. For example, in many of the new districts built in Warsaw over the past couple of decades there has been no corresponding investment in public services (in the district of Białołeka, where many young families live, only 600 per 1,000 children attend a pre-school). 

The idea that children should not start formal school education until later can be beneficial if there is a well-functioning pre-school system. The raising of the school starting age in Poland will place further strain on pre-schools. Without significant public investment in building new state nurseries, then the raising of the school starting age could actually have a detrimental effect on the education of children in Poland. The PiS government bases this reform on a conservative ideology that places the responsibility of child care and their upbringing onto the family (particularly women) and away from the public sphere. 
(Shameless plug: The statistics from this article were taken from my book Privatising Capital.)

Parliament Approves New Banking Tax

The Polish parliament has passed a law introducing a tax of 0.44% on bank assets. The law was passed with the support of MPs from PiS, Kukiz'15 and the PSL, with PO and .Nowoczesna voting against.  The law will come into effect from February 2016. 

The tax will affect both Polish banks and branches of foreign banks, as well as credit institutions and insurance companies. The government says that it intends to use the money gained from this tax to finance its electoral promises (such as parents receiving PLN 500 a month for their second and each subsequent child). The opposition has claimed that this will result in foreign banks moving their business to other countries and to banks passing the cost onto customers through raising charges, etc. 

One result of the neo-liberal transition has been the creation of a banking system dominated by foreign banks. At the end of 2014, 61.5% of banking institutions were controlled by foreign banks. The banking sector has so far not only avoided paying tax, but also enjoys some of the highest fees and commissions in Europe. According to a recent report by Golden Sachs, 27% of the income of banks in Poland comes from fees and commissions, the fourth highest in Europe. Banks in Poland have continued to make huge profits, which they have not passed onto clients by reducing costs. Between January and September this year, banks in Poland made a net profit of 12.40 bln PLN.  

The biggest opposition to the introduction of the tax on banks came from the party .Nowoczesna, led by Ryszard Petru. Petru was assistant to Leszek Balcerowicz, when he was Finance Minister between 1997 and 2000. It was during this time that a large section of the Polish banking sector was sold off to foreign banks. It was also when a compulsory private pension system was introduced, that guaranteed a steady flow of money from the state social insurance system to the private financial system, which led to a huge increase in public debt. It was also incidently a time when economic growth declined from around 7% to 1% and unemployment almost doubled to nearly 20%. After this, Petru worked as an economic expert for a number of banks and financial institutions, before formally entering politics earlier this year. 

And herein lies the problem. PiS are using the imbalances and unfairness of the capitalist system developed over the past 25 years to justify the creation of a more national form of capitalism, accompanied by  a more authoritarian political system, based on nationalism and Catholic conservatism. However, the main opposition in parliament are led by those that represent the interests of international financial capital, which created the social disatisfaction that led to the election of the present government.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

OPZZ and Razem to Cooperate on Workers' Rights

The All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ) and left wing party Together (Razem) have agreed a series of actions in defence of workers' rights. 
These will include organising demonstrations and pickets and organising regional meetings on employment rights and social security. The first joint actions are expected to be around the issue of the minimum wage, with both organisations planning to remind the governing party PiS of their committments on this issue. 
The two organisations have also discussed such things as joint work on the council of social dialogue and trade unionising people working on temporary contracts. 

Monday, 28 December 2015

The Liberal Roots of Polish Conservatism

Almost every article in the Western media, covering the recent developments in Poland, have followed the same script. How is it possible, they ask, that the supposed success story of the post-Communist transition has diverted from the political and economic road that has served them so well? There is a sense of exasperation, a feeling that Poland is acting almost like an ungrateful child. Despite healthy economic growth, rising living standards and new found freedoms, Poles are still not happy. These sentiments are replicated by many in the country themselves. They compare their lives today with what they had before and cannot fathom how anyone could not be satisfied. Yet over the past few months the population has elected a President (Andrzej Duda) and government (Law and Justice Party – PiS) that seem to offer a fundamental break from the past.  However, rather than this new conservative turn in Polish politics being an anomaly, it is rather rooted in the practice and ideology that have dominated  over the past quarter of a century.

After the defeat of the PiS government in 2007, the former opposition leader and editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, made a speech at Warsaw University. Expressing his delight at the election results he claimed that “every nation has an intelligentsia that it deserves, however I believe that our nation has a better intelligentsia that it deserves”. Michnik praised the Polish intelligentsia for uncritically supporting the shock-therapy reforms, claiming that the previous two decades had been the best in Poland for over 300 years. Another such example of this thinking, was given by the leading intellectual authority on Polish Liberalism, Andrzej Walicki, who once quoted Janusz Lewandowski (former Solidarity advisor, liberal politician and then EU Commisioner) as saying that the Polish intelligentsia will be able to fulfil its historical mission only by supporting the “empire of capital” and that it would betray this task if it concentrated on caring for the needs of the losers of the transition and socially excluded. 

Such sentiments have deep roots in sections of the Polish intelligentsia. After Communism fell, it was believed that one could now serve the common good by becoming rich and embracing the new values of competition and individualism. By acting in  their own individual self-interest and supporting the dictates of neo-liberal economics, the new middle class would strengthen the market’s invisible hand, which would help to raise the living standards of the whole of society. In contrast, those who sought to protect their jobs, increase social expenditures or retain public services were now acting according to narrow self interest.  

Despite its apparent liberalism, this extreme individualism contains an inherent conservatism. The poor are to blame for their plight, as they are lazy and disinterested in work. The state holds back the market, which if allowed to act freely would bring prosperity to all who wish to work for it. This Hayekian conservativism found fertile ground in a post-Communist society, that was believed to have become infested with a collectivist mentality of passivity and dependency. The burgeoning entrepreneurs bemoaned those who continued to yearn for the securities of the past. They resented paying into a social insurance system from which they received little and pay taxes to support those who refused to work. They saw their own failings on the market as being due to a heavily bureaucratised state and the homo-sovieticus mentality that ran through it.

The liberal intelligentsia provided the reasoning behind the construction of a socio-economic system ridden with inequalities, deprivation and lack of social protection. Less than half of the country’s working age population is in paid employment; 27% of those in work are employed on insecure fixed term contracts (10 years ago it was 15%); 19% of those working are self-employed and have to cover their own social insurance costs; 9% of those under 18 years of age are estimated to live in absolute poverty; just 16% of the unemployed receive any unemployment benefit; and  a mere 2% of those working in the private sector are members of a trade union. Despite all the wealth created in the past couple of decades public services continue to decline. There are now more than 170 fewer public  hospitals than there were in 1990; nearly 20,000 fewer public sector nurses; around 3,000 fewer state nurseries and 4km less train lines in the country.

By cutting loose a section of society to poverty and destitution, another section of society believed that their living standards would rise. Their intellectual representatives assured them that their success would eventually trickle-down to the rest of society, although whether this actually occurred was generally of little concern. They drew credit (often from abroad) to buy housing in gated communities; took out private health insurance to escape the public health system (unless they actually needed hospital treatment of course); paid for private schools or tuition; etc. This social group came to believe itself to be the most tolerant and open-minded section of society. When PiS was voted out of office in 2007, it was this social layer that mobilised itself. It rejected what it termed the ‘mohair revolution’ (which symbolised the berets favoured by some elderly women in Poland) and joked that people should hide their grandmothers' ID cards so that they couldn’t vote.

However, the situation in 2015 is very different to that when PiS came to power 10 years earlier. At this year’s parliamentary elections over 2/3 of those aged between 18 and 29 voted for the parties of the conservative right. Over 16% of them voted for the party of Korwin Mikke (which narrowly failed to enter parliament) which combines extreme neo-liberalism and social conservatism. A generation has been brought up believing in the principles of individualism and the free-market, but where the economic conditions do not now exist for real self-advancement. This liberalism has transmuted into a form of social Darwinism where any ideals of solidarity are absent. This was most dramatically seen during the refugee crisis this year, where there was an extremely hostile reaction amongst sections of society and politicians to Poland taking in refugees (despite the government only being asked to take 7,000 from by the EU). Young people are decidedly more likely to be against Poland accepting refugees than the older generations and they are often attracted to the ideology and parties of extreme nationalism.

It is in these conditions that the PiS government is attempting to consolidate power, often through encroaching on the practices and institutions of the democratic state. They are drawing on the dissatisfactions in society, by presenting themselves as standing against Poland’s corrupt elite. They claim that this elite wishes to use the Constitutional Tribunal to block its social reforms (such as introducing new child benefits and reducing the retirement age). Their economic policies are often aimed at the young and the struggling middle class: the failed entrepreneur; the graduate who can’t find stable work; the person struggling to pay the mortgage s/he took in Swiss Francs. They offer more government intervention with the vision of a state that prioritises and protects Polish businesses and tax-payers. It is an ideology based on the frustrations of the many, who feel let down by a system many once supported. And when the economic programme of PiS founders they will find new external and internal enemies (imagined and real) to blame: refugees, the EU,  Russia, Gays, Communists, Liberals…….

In response to the actions of the new government a new opposition movement has arisen.  The problem is that many of those now standing up for democracy are the very people that helped to create the economic system that excludes so many and serves so few. For the past 18 years they have ignored the social clauses in the constitution that state such things as people having the right to form trade unions; that citizens shall have equal access to a health care system funded by the state and that the state shall promote low-cost housing. They have spent the past 2 decades denigrating the state; undermining its social rights and trying to avoid its obligations. And even now, this liberal milieu – represented strongly in the Polish parliament – propose yet more economic liberalisation and privatisation to cure the woes of the country. However, as the sociologist David Ost has regularly pointed out, the turning away of the Polish intelligentsia from the working class and poor created an anger within society that helped to generate the growth of right-wing conservatism that we see today. In the mainstream public debate it is now the conservative right that talk about such things social inequality and poverty. 

With the Polish left presently weak and divided, an alternative progressive and egalitarian voice is not being clearly articulated or heard at the moment. But it will have to be, if the old mistakes are not to be repeated again, that will further strengthen the resurgent conservative right and isolate the pro-democracy movement to a minority of society. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

PiS Rush Through Reform of Constitutional Tribunal....Just in time for Christmas

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has passed legislation in parliament that effectively neutralises the Constitutional Tribunal. 

The new legislation requires that the Constitutional Tribunal  pass decisions only with a two-thirds majority and with at least thirteen of the fifteen judges present. Furthermore it gives new powers to the President, allowing him to dismiss judges if he makes such an application to the court along with the Justice Minister.  Previously the Constiutional Tribunal could sit with 9 judges present and decisions were passed on a majority vote. 

PiS passed the bill with the votes of their own MPs, with all the other parties in parliament voting against. However, what is interesting is that 31 MPs from Citizens' Platform (PO) did not take part in the voting, raising the question as to whether there is a group of PO MPs who would be prepared to help PiS push through a reform of the constitution itself. Such a change requires that 2/3 of MPs vote in favour, with at least 50% of all MPs present. 

This decision, which has been pushed through just before the Christmas break, is almost certain to be passed by the Senate, which PiS control, and approved by President Andrzej Duda. It is also certain to raise political tensions and divisions in Poland, as PiS seek to tighten its grip on power. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Government Against The Bankers?

A television interview with PM Beata Szydło on Sunday revealed much about the present strategy of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) government.

As expected Szydło presented herself as the more moderate face of the government, in contrast to the more divisive style of the leader of PiS Jarosław Kaczyński (‘Good cop, bad cop’). During the interview, Szydło described her government as being the defenders of democracy against an unrepresentative Constitutional Tribunal that had been unfairly changed by Citizens’ Platform (PO) during the last government. A number of times she said that she wished to sit down with opposition parties and discuss a reform of the Constitutional Tribunal, against the opposition who want to settle matters on the streets. She also claimed that the opposition are spreading fear and hysteria about the present government. In this way she was trying to turn the tables on the opposition, by presenting the government as one that is defending democracy and looking for compromise and stability. And then the next day PiS went and added two late ammendments to their controversial bill on the Constitutional Tribunal that would allow the parliament to dismiss its judges on a joint submission by the President and Jusitice Minister and remove the 30 day application period so that this could be done as quickly as possible. So much for looking for a compromise.

Most interestingly, was the way in which Szydło articulated the division that she believes dominates in Poland today. She stated that the opposition demonstrations organized by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) were organised by and represent the interests of those who have ‘lost their power, privileges and influence’.  Throughout the interview she referred to the leader of the party Modern, Ryszard Petru, as someone (along with the leaders of PO who were on the demonstrations) who represents a ‘privilleged group of finansers’.

Her argument progressed that what this privileged group of society wish to do is to block the social reforms suggested by the present government. Importantly, this includes a proposal to introduce a tax on banks and supermarkets, the vast majority of which are in foreign hands. She then proposes to use this money to fund such things as providing child benefits and raising the income level at which people start paying taxes. She combines all of this, by arguing that this ‘privilleged group’ in society is attempting to block these reforms through, for example, the Constitutional Tribunal. It should also be noted that the right-wing populist Paweł Kukiz (who leads the third largest parliamentary group Kukiz’15 who are an ally of PiS in parliament) said yesterday on the radio that the KOD demonstrations were funded by a ‘Jewish banker’.  

What we have here is a potentially very dangerous divide in Polish politics. PiS are attempting to justify a series of undemocratic measures by arguing that a privileged group of society, representing the interests of international finance capital, wish to block their social reforms. Once again it is the conservative right in Poland that is talking about economic inequality and injustice. All of this cannot just be dismissed as political masquerading. The strategy of PiS is to build up the national base of Polish capitalism and create a more authoritarian political system similar to that in Hungary. Many of its criticisms of the economic system built during the past 25 years are just. It is also indeed true that politicians such as Petru represent the interests of finance capital (Petru is a long-time ally of Leszek Balcerowicz and advised for example on the introduction of the disastrous compulsory private pension scheme in Poland) and that they would wish to prevent such things as a tax on banks. However, there are two main inconsistencies in Szydło’s approach: 

Firstly, is the fact that in her own government the Ministers of Economy and Finance are well known neo-liberals. As yet her government has introduced no pro-social policies and has actually proposed such things as reducing subsidies for the state-subslidised cafes (Milk Bars). During the last PiS government it failed to introduce any significant pro-social reform and continued the course of neo-liberal reform.

Secondly, there is no evidence that the Constitutional Tribunal would block any of these reforms if they were introduced. The government is rather playing a game of ‘what if’ in order to justify encroaching on the democratic institutions of the state. If it really were the case that the Constitutional Tribunal was preventing a government from carrying out the economic policies it were elected on, then it would be right to stand on the side of the government against the Tribunal. As yet, however, this has not occurred.

These issues do however bring up real questions for the opposition movement. Up to now KOD is a non-party movement, which has brought together 10s of thousands of people onto the streets. However, the most prominent political participants have been Petru and some politicians from PO. KOD needs to avoid being marginalised and stigmitised as a movement that represents the views of these politicians and the more privileged sections of society. It should make it clear that it is not taking a stance on the economic policies of PiS, but wishes only to protect the democratic institutions and practices of the state.  Finally, the opposition needs to find room for a range of political and social groups, including those from the the trade unions and the left. Otherwise it will be playing into the hands of PiS and accepting the artificial political divide that it is trying to forge. 

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Far-Right Nationalists in the Polish Parliament.

One mistake often made by observers of Polish politics is to describe the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) as being a far-right nationalist party, similar for example to Le Pen's National Front in France. Although, PiS often use nationalist rhetoric, they are rather a right-wing conservative party. However, in the Polish parliament there are now a number of openly far-right wing nationalists who were elected on the Kukiz'15 slate.

There are 9 MPs connected to National Movement, including its President Robert Winnicki. During the election campaign, those candidates from Kukiz'15 wishing to have the public support of the National Movement had to sign a 'nationalist declaration' - which included the clause that candidates should support the 'tightening of the prsent immigration policy and maintaining the ethnic cohesion of the nation'...'support for the defence of every innocent human life from the moment of conception' and the 'militarisation of the nation' through 'the construction of shooting ranges' and the 'universal access to arms'.  51 nationalists stood on the Kukiz slate, with 9 of them having first place on the electoral list.

There presently seems to be some moves towards the nationalists dividing from Kukiz'15 and forming their own separate parliamentary group. This could be made up of 18 MPs from the National Movement and other far-right MPs connected to Kukiz'15.

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Curse of Living in Interesting Times

If a week in politics is a long time in politics, a few months is a life time. Events are moving at such a pace in Poland at the moment that it is difficult to keep up with all that is happening. I shall be reactivating this blog in an attempt to provide updates on the news, relay discussions and debates (particularly those taking part on the left) and provide some analysis of what is occurring.

The story of the past couple of weeks has been recounted numerous times (I recommend this article in Social Europe as a decent summary of events in English although it is already somewhat out of date). In short, PiS became the first party at the parliamentary elections in October,  to win an overall majority in a parliamentary election over the past 25 years  (for my analysis of the election results see here). The Presidential and parliamentary election campaigns were led by some of the party’s most uncontroversial figures (including the current President Andrzej Duda and PM Beata Szydło), with an emphasis on introducing social reforms such as increasing child benefits and reducing the pension age. The party also plugged into the rising hostility to refugees, with the leader of PiS Jarosław Kaczyński warning that refugees could spread infections and arguing that Poland should not end up like Sweden, where he said Sharia law existed in some areas.  

Once in power some of the party’s most controversial and radical individuals were appointed into top ministerial positions. The President pardoned theformer head of the anticorruption agency (who before appeal faced three years in prison for abuses whilst in power), and then put him in charge of the police and intelligence agencies. The new Minister of Culture then called for a play in a theatre inWrocław be cancelled as it was ‘pornographic’ and a presenter on publictelevision was temporarily suspended after clashing with the Minister during an interview. 

 Most controversially, the government has questioned the legitimacy of the current Constitutional Tribunal. The President refused to administer the oath of 5 judges to the court appointed by the previous parliament; and then the new parliament elected 5 new judges to replace them, 4 of which were sworn in that night by President Duda. Formally this was carried out in response to a controversial decision by the former Citizens’ Platform (PO) government, which breached democratic practice by electing two new judges to the Constitutional Tribunal to replace those whose terms end during the current parliament. Consequently, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the appointment of these two judges was unconstitutional but that the three others (whose term started in the previous parliament) should remain and that the annulment by PiS was illegal. To date the government has refused to publish this ruling in the Journal of Laws, meaning that it has yet to come into effect. This leaves the country in a constitutional stalemate. Kaczyński has argued that the Consitutional Tribunal wishes to block the reform program of the new government; that it is acting against the law and that there should be a thorough reform of the institution. PiS have now put forward a new set of proposals to reform the Constitutional Tribunal, that include increasing the full line up of the Tribunal from 9 to 13; that most decisions will have to be made with a 2/3 majority; that judges will be sworn in by the speaker of the house and not the President and that the Tribunal can be moved out of Warsaw. As PiS do not command a large enough majority to change the constitution, their tactic seems to be to undermine neutralise an institution that it believes is politicised and hostile to it. (A decent summary of the whole crisis in English can be found here.)

Two large demonstrations were organised last weekend. On Saturday the newly formed Committee to Defend Democracy (KOD) led a demonstration of tens of thousands from the constitutional court to the parliament. This was made up of those protesting against the government’s decisions, and included representatives from the main liberal and left parties as well as from the previous ruling party PO. The day after, PiS organised their annual march on the anniversary of Martial Law, in a large show of support for the government. There has since been controversy about which demonstration was the largest (with the Police estimating the KOD march as being two times smaller than the Warsaw government had). What is clear is that both sides have managed to mobilise huge numbers of their supporters onto the streets.

Although PiS has lost some support sine the election, they continue to lead in most of the opinion polls. Poland is now divided in two. Some in the opposition are calling for the President to face a Tribunal for his actions and that there should be early elections. In turn PiS claim that the old corrupt elite are preventing the government from carrying out its democratic mandate. Controversially the leader of PiS said in an interview:  “In Poland, there is a horrible tradition of national treason, a habit of informing on Poland to foreign bodies. And that’s what it is. As if it’s in their genes, in the genes of Poles of the worst sort.”

The lines have been drawn.