The fight for political survival of the government party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), has entered a new phase as the party’s leadership demands the resignation of Prime Minister Leszek Miller.
Miller resigned as the SLD’s chairman at the end of February after disastrous opinion poll revealed that the party’s popularity had sunk to 10%.
The party’s standing in the polls is the lowest for any government party since the reintroduction of capitalism to Poland in 1990. Three years ago the SLD formed a coalition with the Union of Labour after they had polled 42% in the 2001 elections.
The collapse in support for the SLD is a result of growing anger at the neo-liberal reforms, dissatisfaction with the EU-enlargement process and a reaction to a never ending series of corruption scandals that SLD ‘barons’ have been involved in.
It is unclear if Miller will bow to demands that he resign as Prime Minister. He wants to enter the history books as the PM who brought Poland into the EU and, therefore, might stay on until the 1st of May or after the European elections in June. In hanging on to office he might deliver the final blow to the SLD. Different high functionaries, including the SLD speaker in the house of parliament, have threatened to leave the SLD and set up a competing ‘social-democratic’ party. The SLD’s record in government has been less than impressive and it is very unlikely the party will recover.
Although economic growth has recovered to 3.7% in 2003 and is expected to reach 4.8% in 2004, unemployment has risen to 21% over the last year. The SLD government, like the governments before it, has continued with an economic program of consolidation of the traditional heavy industries. In the Polish mining industry, which is the second biggest in Europe and used to employ 450,000 workers in the beginning of the nineties, this has meant the shedding of more than 300,000 jobs in the last ten years.
The closure by the SLD government of another 4 pits in Silesia in September last year was answered by a wave of workers protest including a march on Warsaw (for more information see the articles on this website; Poland: Protest against governments plans to restructure mining industry, 4 October 2003 and Poland: An explosion of class struggle, 19 October 2003).
Workers in the steel industry face a similar situation and entry in the EU will accelerate this process as profitable companies are privatised and bought up by multinationals, and others are forced to close. One business commentator predicted that another 15% of Poland’s steel industry will be put up for privatisation in the next few years.
The new treasury minister, Zbigniew Kaniewski, has promised to accelerate the government’s privatisation program as a result of pressure from the ruling class and as an attempt to guarantee extra revenue for the government. He announced a fourth attempt at the privatisation of PKO BP, Poland’s largest retail bank.
As a result unemployment is growing, at the same time the government is embarking on a grand reform program of benefits and social provisions. The Hausner plan, named after the current economic minister Jerzy Hausner, aims to cut 30 bn Zlotys (6.2 bn Euros) in social spending and another 20 bn zlotys in administrative costs by 2007.
The official reasons for this are firstly that Poland needs to raise extra funds to pay a membership fee and co-finance EU assistance projects (sic) from the national budget when it becomes a member of the EU on May 1. Secondly Poland’s public debt in relation to GDP is growing alarmingly close to 55%. If it reached 55% in 2005 then, according to the constitution, the 2006 budget could not have a deficit (the deficit is currently over 5%) which would require immediate dramatic cuts in social spending, regardless of the social costs.
The key points of the Hausner plan are to push up the retirement age for women to 65, excluding more people from having disability pensions and excluding more people from the right to have the minimum pension. Under the new rules people have to have worked for 25 years and be over 65 to have the right to claim a minimum pension. In a desperate move to prevent the complete destruction of the SLD’s support in the polls most of these measures will be implemented after the 2005 general elections.
The Hausner plan is a huge attack on welfare and social security. Capitalism has very consciously set out to destroy labour laws and social security, push down wages and undermine the living standards of the working class in general. For years the ruling class in Poland has upheld the idea that the neo-liberal reforms where nothing but the necessary transition pains which would create the conditions for improvement. According to the ruling elite, securing entry into the European Union was equally necessary and would open the door to Western European living standards for the majority of the population. For a long period during the nineties Polish people were ready to accept this and wait patiently for improvement. This has not happened and now consciousness is changing rapidly.
Disillusionment with the European Union
In a devastating opinion poll last week only 10% of the Polish population believed the EU would keep its promises to Poland. There is huge resentment of the way Poland, and especially the working people of Poland, have been treated by the EU countries prior to accession. Many, and especially young, people were looking forward to the possibility of free travel and the chance to work in one of the EU countries, even temporarily. In the 2003 referendum the pro-EU parties used the argument that joining the EU would give Poles a better change of finding a legal job in the EU countries soon after enlargement.
Now that most of the 15 current members of the EU have imposed labour restrictions there is a feeling of betrayal. The political pressure from public opinion is such that high-level functionaries in the Polish government have come out with scathing statements threatening to take retaliatory measures by restricting the access to its labour market to existing EU members. The British newspaper The Independent (12/03/04) quoted a government official who said: “One option that we will seriously consider is ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’.”
Poland’s 2.7 million farmers, most of them running small farms, fear for their survival. The deal struck on direct subsidies for farms means that a Polish farmer will only get one quarter of what a French farmer receives.
More and more people realise that with the accession of Poland to the EU the ruling classes of Europe are in a win-win situation. With average wages in Poland of $600 a month many Poles will come to Europe and skilled workers will be used as cheap labour to drive down wages inside the EU. The domestic economy will be forced to compete against neighbours, inside or outside the EU, like Ukraine or Slovakia, where wages are still lower and conditions still worse.
Poland’s involvement in the Iraq war
Just days after the Madrid bombings and the announced by the PSOE leader Zapatero that Spain might withdraw its troops from Iraq by June 30 unless UN troops take over, the Polish president Kwasniewski joined in to give US president Bush a second unpleasant surprise. Kwasniewski commented that he was uncomfortable “with the fact that we were deceived by the information on weapons of mass destruction” (International Herald Tribune, Friday March 19, 2004). Poland has 2,460 troops in Iraq and commands the 9,500 strong multinational force in south-central Iraq which includes the Spanish contingent. Kwasniewski repeated this comment at several press conferences and hinted at the possibility that Poland might redraw its own troops months at the beginning of 2005; a few months ahead of the agreed schedule.
The Polish president has identified himself as the main spokesperson for Polish-US relations. His comments are as much a reaction to the shift in Polish public opinion towards the war in Iraq as they are an attempt to put Poland more in line with the sentiment in Europe, only weeks before Poland joins the European Union.
A poll last week found that 53 percent of the population opposed involvement in the occupation of Iraq. The bombing in Madrid and the fact that Poland has been named as one of the next targets for an Al-Qaida type of attack has made people nervous.
Another reason for the remarks may be Polish disappointment that wartime loyalty to the neo-conservative administration in the US has not let to more Iraqi reconstruction contracts for Poland or to an easing of US visa requirements for Poles – points Kwasniewski recently raised with Bush.
Kwasniewski is catching the same disease that has flattened Prime Minister Miller and the SLD government. In late January 2002 his approval rating was as high as 80% and he was seen as the ‘politically neutral’ father of the nation, untainted by alliances or scandals and only guided by what was best for Poland. Today, reproached for not delivering the goods, his approval rating stands at 54%.
Western commentators claim that the SLD’s problems date back to its formation from the remnants of Poland’s Stalinist party. Most Senior SLD members were CP apparatchiks (Miller was a member of Jaruzelski’s politburo) and have long standing ties to that part of the ruling bureaucracy, the overall majority, who turned their coats when capitalism was reintroduced. They jumped on the band wagon of privatisation, went into business and got extremely rich off their old connections. The party’s local chiefs, or barons as they are called in the Polish media, are the best example of this. In Pomerania a party baron became the subject of an investigation over the theft of 30 million Zloty’s (£ 4,1m) and money laundering.
The loudest and longest running corruption scandal is the Lew Rywin affair in which Miller himself has been implicated. Lew Rywin, co-producer of films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist is accused of having solicited a £13,8m bribe from Adam Michnick, a newspaper publisher, in return for changes to a media ownership bill that would allow Mr. Michnick’s Agora publishing company to own a television station. Rywin insisted he had been acting “on behalf of the group taking power”.
Poland’s political crisis
“We are like a man who wakes up every morning with a hangover which is the only thing he is interested in” Krysztof Martens, an SLD baron, on the crisis in the ruling party.
The Western commentators are guilty of wishful thinking when they blame the SLD’s ties to former Stalinist apparatchiks for the political shambles the party finds itself in. The political instability and the lack of confidence in the countries elite is not the exclusive problem of the SLD, nor is the problem exclusively of the SLD’s making.
The collapse the SLD is experiencing a rerun of what happened in the run up to and the aftermath of the 2001 elections. Only then the victims were the parties that made up Jerzy Buzek’s outgoing government. Solidarity Electoral Action took less than 6%, failing to win a single seat in parliament, and the neo-liberals of the Freedom Union, having left the government the year before, did not recuperate and got only 3%.
The point is that the continuous anti-working class and anti-poor reforms over the last 15 years have undermined all the ruling parties as soon as they took office. Although capitalism is firmly reintroduced the bourgeoisie has been struggling to create a stable political instrument through which to rule. This political crisis is becoming more intense as the illusions that capitalism will bring Western European living standards to Poland are being undermined and the social base for the parties representing the ruling class is melting. In the absence of a party that genuinely represents the interest of the working class a huge vacuum is opening up. For the moment this vacuum is filled by unstable, populist formations like Samobroona (Self-Defence of the Republic of Poland) led by millionaire pig farmer Andrzej Lepper, or reactionary formations of the extreme-right like the ‘League of Polish Families’, or the ‘Law and Justice party’.
The ruling classes of Europe and Poland are hoping that the collapse of the SLD as a political formation will deliver a majority to the Civic Platform (PO), the main opposition party of the bourgeois-right, in the next elections. They stand at 26% in the polls, closely followed by Samobroona with 24%. The most likely scenario in the short run however is that Poland returns to the situation of the early nineties with a succession of unstable minority governments. These governments will have to deal with extremely difficult economic circumstances as they try to protect the interests of Polish capitalism against foreign competitors and the working class and poor of Poland. From the combination of the powerful traditions of the working class in Poland and the upsurge in workers struggles will come the realisation that the fight to defend living standards, employment and benefits has got to be taken on the political plane.
Only a mass party of the working class can begin the struggle to defend the majority of the population against the greed and economic interest of the ruling minority. In the rebuilding of the organisations of the working class the ideas of democratic workers management and control of society, of democratic planning of the economy and of genuine socialism will resurface as the only programe capable guaranteeing the development of society and expropriating the expropriators.