Poland: A Rightwing Spiral

Photo: chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński. Photo credit: Piotr Drabik via Flickr

Following a decisive election win for Poland’s nationalist parties, Dominik Sipiński considers what the country’s move to the right means for its people and for Europe.

Last December, Chilean Victor Baeza was severely beaten by two local youngsters in the old town of Poznan, one of Poland’s most prosperous and liberal cities. The assailants yelled at him to ‘get the fuck out of Poland’. They only left when Victor managed to say, in fluent Polish, that he has been living in the country for 10 years.

Over a two-month period, similar attacks – one on a Syrian cook, one on a Palestinian student – were reported in the same city. In Krakow, two Polish gay men were beaten. The perpetrators claimed they were ‘afraid of gays’.

Such events happen everywhere, but in Poland the problem is more systemic. On National Day, 11 November, between 50,000 and 100,000 people marched across Warsaw under a banner of ‘Poland for Poles’, denouncing open-border policies and chanting anti-Muslim slogans. This happened just days after a rightwing party achieved a landslide electoral win. The nationalist and populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by the charismatic figure of Jarosław Kaczynski, gained 37.6 per cent of the votes, winning enough seats to form a majority government.

Another 8.8 per cent of the vote went to Kukiz ’15, a movement led by once-popular rock star Paweł Kukiz. It is campaigning for the introduction of single-seat constituencies and consists of a mosaic of politicians, including nationalists and former neo-Nazis, some of whom were among the organizers and speakers at the 11 November march. As time passes, the likelihood of a split in the movement increases, and with it grows the chance of extreme nationalists having their own parliamentary caucus.

No leftwing party won any seats in the October elections. The largest of them, United Left, fell just short of the eight-per-cent threshold for coalitions after an incoherent campaign full of internal quarrels. Newly founded Podemos-like party Razem (‘Together’) achieved a surprisingly good result of nearly four per cent – but it was not enough to get any of its candidates elected.

‘The right clearly has an advantage now,’ says David Ost, professor in political sciences at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an expert on the post-communist Polish transformation.

After winning the elections, the Right quickly stepped up its rhetoric. Within weeks, its top politicians made numerous anti-refugee, anti-migrant, anti-German and anti-EU comments. All of these groups, according to PiS and Kukiz ’15, threaten the national integrity of Poland in one way or another. The warm relations Poland enjoyed with Berlin and Brussels under the previous government have cooled down.

Poland’s swing to the right is supported by more numbers than just the electoral outcome. In a 2014 European Social Survey, 9.5 per cent of Poles identified themselves as very rightwing, nearly three times the average of 2.9 per cent.

Rightwing rhetoric

But sociologists tone down these alarmist conclusions.

‘We need to differentiate between politics and society. What is happening right now in Poland is much more an outcome of the political process than the actual views of the population,’ claims Maciej Gdula, a sociologist from the University of Warsaw.

Gdula goes on to explain that Poles have little, if any, reason to fall for the rightwing arguments. The country is ethnically homogeneous – in the last census, from 2011, only 1.5 per cent of the population declared a non-Polish nationality. There is also little religious diversity, with some 88 per cent of the citizens declaring themselves to be Roman Catholic.

The main migrant group is Ukrainians, many of whom speak Polish and are well integrated, and migrant numbers are nowhere near the million claimed by Prime Minister Beata Szydło during a hearing in the European Parliament.

‘Most Poles have never had any contact with immigrants, besides maybe when they were buying a kebab,’ says Gdula half-jokingly.

Poland itself is also the largest country of origin for economic migrants in Europe – with an estimated million in the UK alone.

The country is prosperous economically. Its GDP grew by some 60 per cent between 2004 and 2014 and did not decline even during the global financial crisis. The unemployment rate has dropped from around 20 per cent in 2003 to less than 8 per cent now.

‘There is no real reason, economic or cultural, for Poles to be afraid of immigrants. In this country the fear is purely imagined,’ says Gdula. ‘I am far from subscribing to the belief that these views originate from real processes, such as poverty or joblessness. There are no real tensions here. Poles believe they deserve help from the EU and are afraid that this will be taken away, even though there is no such risk from migrants.’

However, he agrees that the rhetoric of rightwing politicians has mesmerized many Poles into believing in the ‘dangerous other’ – be it migrants, homosexuals or non-Catholics.

The rhetoric of rightwing politicians has mesmerized many Poles into believing in the ‘dangerous other’ – be it migrants, homosexuals or non-Catholics

‘Nowadays, the Right has got the easy answers, not the Left. Due to that, it has been able to reach out and convince those who normally do not care about politics,’ explains David Ost. He claims that the Left has become an easy target to attack, and PiS capitalizes on that.

Gdula also believes that the key to the electoral success was not a sudden rightwing shift of the population. Rather, PiS and Kukiz ’15 were able to benefit from the weakness of the liberal and leftwing parties and their leaders. Gdula points out that in the summer of 2015 more than 50 per cent of the population were in favour of accepting refugees. Had the Left been able to reach those people, the rightwing turn may not have happened.

Rafał Pankowski of UNITED network organisation “NEVER AGAIN” Association talks about the recent increase in hate crimes in Poland

Founding myth

On top of that, Kaczynski managed to build on the particular history of the Polish anti-establishment movements. The country has never had strong leftist organizations, mostly as a result of the persistent anti-Soviet Union mood – communism and socialism have been compromised, especially among the group they claim to empower. The workers’ organizations tended to be conservative and rightist, explains Piotr Arak, a socioligst at Polityka Insight, an analytical centre. This has been further exacerbated by the strong role of the Catholic Church as the axis of resistance during the Cold War.

‘Rightwingers, and Kaczynski in particular, have since the very beginning of transformation believed that Polish society is indeed vehemently rightwing. This widely held perception, a founding myth even, is fundamental to understanding the current behaviour of the government,’ says Miłosz Wiatrowski, a historian at the College of Europe in Warsaw.

But even those who believe that Polish society is not as rightwing as it seems worry about the future. With no Left represented in the parliament and the PiS and Kukiz ’15 dominating the public rhetoric, there is a real risk of a rightwing spiral.

This process is made worse by the political takeover of the state-owned media. PiS quite openly admits that national TV and radio need to play a larger role in the so-called ‘historical policy’ – a catch-all phrase for building on a nationalistic reading of Polish society.

‘Polish society, like every other, is a process; it follows the leaders. This process will increase and, in the current situation, the Right can increase its influence over the views of the population,’ warns Gdula.

Attacks such as the one on Victor Baeza are still a rarity, and most Poles still condemn them. But as the radical Right grows in strength, while the liberal and left circles lack strong leaders, talk about Poland’s turn to the right might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Dominik Sipiński is a journalist, political scientist and photographer based in Poland, writing about politics, conflicts and travel.

newinternationalistReprinted by kind permission of New Internationalist.  Copyright New Internationalist. www.newint.org