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.