Poland: A success story gone bad?

By Honorata Mazepus & Agata Mazepus.

Poland has been considered an exemplary case of regime change in the third wave of democratisation. Poland’s democratic reforms and development of market economy in the last 25 years were evaluated as one of the top five transitions in the world. How is it possible that since the victory of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) in the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections the news about Poland have changed so drastically? Currently the topics associated with Poland include the crisis of the Constitutional Courtthe controversy over restrictions of abortion lawsthe turmoil over cutting trees in the primeval woodlands of Białowieża Forest, and the purges in the state-owned-companies and public media.

The beginning of “us versus them”

PiS, the winner of the 2015 national election, is not a newcomer to Polish politics. The party currently chaired by Jarosław Kaczyński has its roots in Solidarity, a political movement unique to Central and Eastern Europe. As a representative of independent trade unions, Solidarity emerged in opposition to the communist regime in the 1980s. The representatives of the movement played a crucial role in the Polish transition to democracy, which started with the Round Table talks between them and the regime powers. Two sides of political conflict emerged from these negotiations: the old regime bloc and the Solidarity-based bloc.[1] As a consequence, the most influential parties of the past twenty years are either rooted in Solidarity – PiS and Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform) – or post-communist milieus – Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (SLD, Democratic Left Alliance) and Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (PSL, Polish People’s Party). In Poland, this axis from Solidarity to “non-Solidarity” substitutes the traditional Western left-right cleavage.[2]

Why is it difficult to talk about the left and right in Poland?

In many countries in Europe the industrial revolution led to an organisation of party competition around the left-right axis centred on economic issues. In the Czech Republic, for example, where a high level of industrialisation occurred, party competition was one-dimensional along the economic left-right divide for a long time [3] and the Communist Party had a strong backing in the society. The Polish case is different: an extremely low level of industrialisation in the 1920s meant that the classical cleavage of workers against owners did not play an important role in party development. For this reason, the Communist Party in Poland was very weak [4] and the Soviets had to impose communism on the Polish society after the WWII.

Today, the political left-right competition in Poland is based on an “axis of values” – the struggle of “symbolic left and symbolic right”. The left in Poland is taken up by the post-communist parties (still associated with the communist regime); the right, on the other hand, is tied to religious and traditionalist anti-communist groups (which include both PiS and its competitor PO).

Shifts in political supply and demand

Recently, however, there has been a change: increasingly not only parties and voters challenge the interpretation of the “right-left conflict”, also the unity of the anti-communist coalition is under pressure. Since the mid-2000s, Polish politics is increasingly dominated by the cleavage between the “secular liberal cosmopolitans” and “religious authoritarian nationalists”,[5] similar to what political scientists call the GAL (green/alternative/libertarian) and TAN (traditional/authoritarian/nationalist) dimension of the political spectrum.[6] This shift is facilitated by the establishment of several new parties, such as Ruch Palikota (now Twój Ruch) and Razem. These did not emerge from either old communist elites or Solidarity and represent a cultural alternative to the Catholic-conservative ideas of both PO (Civic Platform) and PiS (Law and Justice). One of these new secular and progressive parties, .Nowoczesna (.Modern), got into the parliament in 2015 election with 7.6 % of the vote. On the opposite side, a new patriotic anti-establishment player, Kukiz’15got 8.8 % of the vote, winning most support among the youngest (18-29).

The second major shift is fuelled by an internal conflict within the anti-communist camp. Initially the programmes of PO and PiS did not differ radically. Throughout the last three parliamentary terms, however, PO established itself as a pro-European, modernising, and less conservative (some refer to it as “permissive”) party, and PiS as the defender of sovereignty with patriotic, nationalistic, and Catholic views. And although this seems to fit into the pattern of the GAL vs TAN distinction, the recent conflict has one additional divisive line—the evaluation of the transition process and its effects.

PiS’s current line of attack on PO and other traditional political forces is to discredit the semi-free elections of 4 June 1989, the hero of Solidarity—Lech Wałęsa, the negotiated transition in general, and the integration of Poland into the EU. To what extent this division constitutes a base for a new coalition or just a new way to signal belonging to the old one is not yet clear.

Why PiS now?

PiS won the parliamentary election in 2005 and ruled until 2007, when the Parliament was dissolved due to corruption scandals of the junior partners in the PiS government. PO, chaired by Donald Tusk, triumphed in the early elections and has been ruling as a major coalition partner between 2007 and 2015. In this period, the most important economic indicators were all showing positive trends (increasing GDP per capita and decreasing unemployment), and Poland was the only country in the EU that resisted recession caused by the economic crisis of 2008. On the basis of these results, PO’s victory in the 2015 election seemed like a logical prediction. So what went wrong?

Political analysts name several factors that stand behind the overwhelming victory of PiS in 2015. PiS ran a skilful electoral campaign that removed the less popular chairman of the party from the frontline and introduced new faces as electoral candidates (Andrzej Duda and Beata Szydło).[7] Also, the party created a climate of distrust and suspicion with exaggerated tape scandals involving politicians of its main competitor PO and with conspiracy theories about the presidential plane crash in Smoleńsk in 2010. In addition, PiS used the rhetoric spreading fear of ‘islamisation’ of Polish society, linking it to the EU’s refugee policies. Finally, the party might have attracted voters by its promise of a monthly 500 złoty benefit for each child.

Yet, there is a more straightforward explanation of the PiS victory than populist appeals to whatever people want to hear. First of all, only 51 % of Poles voted in the 2015 parliamentary election. If only half of the people with the right to vote expressed their preferences in elections, it is very tricky to make statements about larger social processes on the basis of their results. Moreover, because of the threshold of 5 % for parties and 8 % for coalitions, 16 % of votes cast for the smaller and new parties did not count towards the final distribution of seats in parliament. Many of these “wasted” votes were cast for parties emphasising issues that were neglected by PO, such as civil partnerships, LGBT rights, environment protection, and improvement of health care and education. Both the negligence of half of the Polish electorate and the electoral system worked in favour of PiS in this electoral round.

What’s on the horizon?

Some of the controversial policies of PiS faced regular mass protest. The danger is that the protests continue to find supporters mainly in large cities among the middle-class, highly educated parts of the population, while PiS will use the next years in power to polarize Polish society. PiS tries to strengthen loyalty among its coalition partners with the rhetoric of division between good sort against “worst sort of Poles”, and with providing access to state rents and benefits.

With national and international observers worried about the rise of populism in Europe and the state of democracy in Poland, two final points seem of general importance. First, populism led to a further decline of the importance of party programmes in elections (especially along the left-right or any political scale for that matter). Moreover, it became a standard, rather than the exception, to mobilise people by appealing to whatever seems to be in demand at a given moment (be it TAN values or child benefits). Second, as the example of Poland shows, democratic elections have the power to legitimise non-democratic governments. Better systemic checks and balances might prevent this kind of governments from turning a democracy into an autocracy. If the political system cannot be changed within one parliamentary term, then voters can always punish the rulers for their behaviour in the next election.

 About the authors

Honorata Mazepus has worked on her PhD thesis at Leiden University. She is interested in what motivates individuals to approve, obey and support political authorities and institutions. She holds an MA degree in International Relations with the focus on Eastern Europe (University of Poznan, Poland) and an MSc degree in Political Science Research Methods (University of Bristol, UK).

Agata Mazepus is a freelance journalist and student of the MA International Relations joint degree program ‘Europe in the Visegrad Perspective’. She lived and studied in all four countries of the Visegrad Group and is interested in Central and Eastern European history, politics, societies, and culture. Find her on Twitter.


[1] Wojtasik, W. (2011)  Lewica i prawica w Polsce: aspekty ekonomiczno-społeczne, Oficyna Wydawnicza “Humanitas” – Wyższa Szkoła Zarządzania i Marketingu w Sosnowcu, 62.

[2] Szczerbiak, A. (2003) ‘Old and new divisions in Polish politics: Polish parties’ electoral strategies and bases of support’, Europe-Asia Studies, 55(5), 735.

[3] See, for example: Mansfeldová, Z. (2013) ‘The Czech Republic’ in Berglund, S. (ed.) The Handbook of Political Change in Eastern Europe, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 225.

[4] Rohrschneider, R. & S. Whitefield (2009) ‘Understanding cleavages in party systems issue position and issue salience in 13 post-communist democracies’, Comparative Political Studies42(2), 280-313.

[5] Zarycki, T. (2015) ‘The electoral geography of Poland: between stable spatial structures and their changing interpretations’, Erdkunde 69 (2), 114.

[6] Marks, G., L. Hooghe, M. Nelson, and E. Edwards (2006) ‘Party Competition and European Integration in the East and West: Different Structure, Same Causality’, Comparative Political Studies, 39 (2), 155– 175.

[7] Markowski, R. (2016) ‘The Polish parliamentary election of 2015: a free and fair election that results in unfair political consequences’, West European Politics (in press).

Title picture: ‘ProDemo Rally’ (Bydgoszcz, 19 December 2015) by Jaap Arriens, Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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