Poland: Ruling party loses election amidst workers’ anger

Parliament moves to the right

The 8-year rule of the neoliberal ‘Civic Platform’ government is over. On 25 October, the ruling party was defeated in the parliamentary elections by the conservative opposition party, ‘Law and Justice’. This final blow comes after Civic Platform’s previous defeat in the Presidential elections in May when they also lost to the Law and Justice candidate. There was growing anger since the government was increasingly divorced from most working people’s living reality. Civic Platform rule was one of anti-worker legislation, attacks on the retirement age, and mass privatization.

Despite receiving huge funds from the EU, their government failed to fix structural problems in infrastructure and public services. While spending money on flashy investments, such as high speed trains or sports stadiums, the establishment left local railways, health care and the energy grid in decay. Workers’ discontent with the government peaked after officials expressed out-of-touch ideas, such as “to have a better life it is enough to get a better job and a mortgage” (the President) or that “only a moron or a thief could work for less than 6,000 PLN [about €1,500 euro] a month” according to a Minister of the government (while most Polish workers makes less than one third of that figure!).

This erosion of government support from May to October was also reflected in the workers’ movement. The last two months before the elections saw a great number of mobilisations in different sectors – there was not a week without a several thousands-strong street protest in the capital! In particular, the miners and nurses waged a dramatic struggle. As we warned earlier this year, the agreement between the miners unions’ and the government gave no guarantees to the workers. And indeed, in September the miners faced the perspective of their wages not being paid. The nurses fought for increase in their very low wages. With some determined local strikes and the threat of a general strike, they won ministerial promises. However, the struggle to concretise those promises continues. Other groups, like hospital workers, teachers, foresters, firemen and others, also took to the streets. Unfortunately, these demonstrations were often marked by strong electoral illusions. With very few exceptions of the more combative trade union leaders, the union representatives generally failed to call for further struggles, focusing only on the need to get rid of Civic Platform rule through the ballot box. No perspective of future struggles or generalized strike action was given.

Election result

As a result of this election, Law and Justice – the conservative party with elements of right-wing populism – won a majority that allows it to form a single party government (all previous governments since 1989 were coalitions). The party’s politicians appeared a lot in front of workers’ assemblies and protests, promising the cancellation of the retirement reforms, taxation of the banks and supermarkets, and the introduction of child benefits and tax exemptions for the poor.

These promises can create illusions amongst the working class. However, the honeymoon will be over when their programme of “national capitalism”, inspired partially by Victor Orban’s regime in Hungary, fails workers’ expectations. In that case, it is highly likely that the conservatives will turn to their traditional populist weapon – attacks on women, minorities and the left. There are already talks of introducing “patriotic education” in schools, even for the youngest children. It is worth mentioning that in their previous period in government (2005-07), Law and Justice appointed a nationalist politician as minister of education whose actions led to one of biggest youth protest movements in Poland’s recent history.

Law and Justice claims that their planned social spending (and lowering taxes for small and medium businesses) will be covered with the tax revenue from the banks and supermarkets. However, analysts indicate that in reality the government will turn to quantitative easing policies (after taking control over the central bank in 2016), therefore pumping money into the banks for further speculation, despite their official anti-bank propaganda.

The new parliament has shifted to the right, as did the election campaign. Politicians from every right-wing party used xenophobia and fear-mongering against refugees and immigrants. This is not without root in society. Polls indicate that the majority of youth support right-wing and far-right parties. Even Korwin-Mikke, who failed to get into parliament this time and is known for his reactionary speeches in the European Parliament, holds disproportionally large support amongst young people. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis in southern Europe, there have been growing reports of racist and xenophobic actions in Poland (while the number of immigrants is very low and there was only a small group of refugees coming to the country through a private charity).

Besides Law and Justice and Civic Platform (in their new role as the largest opposition party), some new parties entered parliament: ‘Kukiz’15’ and ‘Nowoczesna’. The first one is a new right-wing, populist political movement led by a former rock-star. His newly-elected group of MPs includes far-right nationalists, notorious homophobes and even politicians associated with neo-fascists. The latter party, Nowoczesna, was established just before the election by a radical neoliberal who is a respected figure in the financial sector. The victory of Law and Justice and the sudden success of these new parties shows that workers’ anger is looking to fill the political void, yet tragically it is being channeled in reactionary directions. Unfortunately, the trade union bureaucracy adds to this confusion – the Solidarność union supported Law and Justice candidates (and locally even Kukiz’15 candidates).

The left

A big surprise for some, was the fact that the ex-social democrats from the Democratic Left Alliance did not re-enter the parliament and therefore there will be no left parties of any sort in the next parliament. Despite the joint vote for the Democratic Left Alliance and Razem (see below) being around 11%, strict electoral laws require parties and electoral alliances to exceed a threshold keep them out of parliament, thus distorting democratic representation. This is a massive blow for the Democratic Left Alliance – a party that sat in every parliament since 1990, was in government twice (with 41% electoral support in 2001) and had a presidential candidate who won two consecutive elections. This historical defeat came despite attempts to put new make up on the old corpse, by putting at the head of their electoral campaign a politician formerly linked to the radical left. Despite being formally supported by the mass trade union federation, OPZZ, the Democratic Left Alliance did not regain workers’ trust. They paid for years of neoliberal practices, corruption scandals, promoting policies of war and unconditional support to American imperialism (including participation in the Iraq war and alleged creation of CIA torture houses in Poland) as well for their very weak and right-wing campaign in the presidential election earlier in May.

On the other hand, a new left formation – Razem (Together) – ended this campaign with success. Razem, which held its founding congress just this spring, came from nothing to win over half a million votes (3.6%) – an unprecedented score for the extra-parliamentary left in Poland. That was not enough to enter the parliament, but it is enough to get millions of zloty in state funding for political parties. In their campaign, Razem focused on some pro-worker reforms such as ending “trash contracts”, increasing the minimum wage, taxing the rich, and strengthening the trade unions and Labour Inspection. They advocated a social housing programme, a 35-hour working week, and limiting the salaries and number of terms for politicians. Their message was boosted just a few days before the vote, when one of their spokespeople took part in a TV debate and afterwards, despite being completely unknown to the public, scored approval ratings way higher than all the other candidates.

However, Razem’s political shortcomings are apparent as well. The party’s leaders base their ideas on the capitalist Nordic states, ignoring the fact that the welfare system once created in those countries has been in the process of being dismantled for 20 years. They are inspired by the popularity of Podemos and Syriza and try to use their language – party leaders ask themselves at public meetings “is a different capitalism possible?” rather than “is a different world possible?”. While promoting public services and publicly-owned industry, they are evasive on the issue of nationalization (in their programme the state helps fund cooperatives and buys shares in future industries). Razem’s programme seems to be oblivious to the fact that capitalism at its present stage is unwilling to maintain workers’ welfare in the richest imperialist countries, let alone to introduce it in peripheral capitalist states! Reports also speak of Razem candidates in different constituencies watering down their housing programme, advocating “assistance” to employers. Also, the party’s foreign policies are full of illusions in the EU and western imperialism in general.

Even before the elections, Razem saw an unprecedented influx of several thousand members – mostly youth, students and middle class professionals (who however, often work on precarious terms). We can expect the membership to grow in the aftermath of this electoral success. If Razem wants to use this success in order to build a real left alternative, it must participate in struggles and build a working class base.

Members of Razem should discuss the experience of Syriza in Greece, the Jeremy Corbyn phenomena in the UK and the fate of the Portuguese left etc. Alternatywa Socjalistyczna (CWI in Poland) wants to be a part of this discussion to help the fresh layers come to the necessary conclusions of the need for a revolutionary socialist programme. A programme for a publically-owned, democratically planned economy and a socialist Poland in a socialist Europe.

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November 2015