When the Polish national elections came to an end in October 2015, Radek and Ania Szwed looked on hopefully. The right-wing PiS—short for Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or the “Law and Justice” party—emerged in a landslide victory, grabbing 37.5 percent of the vote and a parliamentary majority. With the presidency also under PiS’s control, it was the first time one party had complete dominance over the government in Poland’s 25 years of democracy. “PiS promised us one thing…that things would improve for people like us,” Ania explained when I visited her and her husband at their home in Unisław, a village in north-central Poland.
The Szweds are longtime, if prudent, supporters of PiS. They think that it, more than any other party in Poland, has politicians with good ideas who are working to help Poles in the ways that matter to them. After many years of rule by other parties, the Szweds are glad that PiS was given a chance. “People wanted changes, wanted something to change for them, and voted for PiS…[so] that they could live and function better,” Radek said.
He was not alone in thinking this: PiS had appealed to a wide array of voters, largely due to its promises of economic relief. The party promised to implement a social-welfare program called 500+, which would provide families a monthly subsidy of 500 zlotys (roughly $125) for every second and subsequent child. PiS also promised a national employment program that would create 1.2 million jobs, curbing unemployment and giving young people an incentive to stay in the country. In 2014, 17 percent of the population was at risk of poverty; without welfare, that number would have been almost 44 percent. A national unemployment rate of around 10 percent in 2015—20 percent for young people—meant that many Poles struggled to get by. Electoral maps show that most of the eastern, poorer regions of the country voted for PiS, while the western, more industrialized areas tended to support other parties.
A couple of years ago, the Szweds moved to Unisław from nearby Bydgoszcz, a city of almost 400,000 people, to provide their three children with some open space and quiet. The Szweds continue to spend a large chunk of most days in Bydgoszcz—Ania as a nurse at the Center of Oncology, and Radek as a public-administration official at a regional government office. While they consider themselves part of the middle class, their lives are not without hardship. Some years ago, when Radek was out of a job, the family was under significant strain; even now, with both of them working in the city, the commute, which takes them across the Vistula River, is long, and their days are very busy. Radek and Ania hoped PiS would enact changes that would make a difference in their day-to-day lives, like lowering taxes on children’s clothing and offering paid maternity leave. More basically, Radek said, “people thought that when PiS [came] into power, they would raise their incomes.”
That PiS managed to draw so many new voters to its side with promises of direct cash subsidies and other left-leaning economic reforms is somewhat strange. Since 2007, the national government had been led by the center-right PO (Platforma Obywatelska, “Civic Platform”). Under PO’s rule, Poland was considered a success story by many economists: The gross domestic product grew at an average of 3 percent annually; European Union funds helped to revamp the nation’s infrastructure and build schools; and the country saw one of the highest rates of foreign-capital investment in Europe. Each time I visited Poland during that period, it seemed like there was a new airport, a finished highway, or a remodeled coffee shop to marvel at and explore.
Yet many Poles, the Szweds included, felt left out by these flashy accomplishments of a growing economy. To integrate Poland into the EU and make it competitive to foreign companies, PO relaxed labor regulations and offered tax breaks and other economic incentives to foreign businesses. Though these policies were meant to create jobs, for many they amounted to an attack on workers’ rights and livelihoods for the benefit of Polish employers and foreign capital. For example, when Amazon set up a few warehouses in Poland in 2014, workers soon learned that they were among the lowest-paid Amazon employees in Europe.
PiS capitalized on these growing concerns in a couple of ways. First, the party had enjoyed the support of Solidarity, Poland’s largest union, for several years, which placed it on the side of the workers in people’s eyes. The union had famously fought PO over its support of so-called “trash contracts,” which absolve employers from providing employee benefits. In addition to its economic-aid programs, PiS vowed to increase the minimum wage, which it did in July 2016, to 12 zlotys an hour—around $3. More importantly, it could direct attention to the problematic legacy of PO’s tenure while ignoring the positive gains—and it had no recent record of its own for opponents to scrutinize.
Just three days after assuming control of the government, PiS began to chip away at the power of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in Poland. First, it refused to swear in five judges recently nominated by the outgoing PO, despite the court’s ruling that three of the five were legally nominated and should be sworn in. After appointing its own judges—with the president swearing them in at a closed ceremony in the middle of the night—the PiS-led Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament, passed a series of amendments that made it harder for the Constitutional Court to issue judgments and act as a check against the other branches of government. When the court ruled these amendments unconstitutional in March 2016, the Sejm ignored the verdict and pushed ahead anyway. Around the same time, PiS fired a swath of journalists and civil servants from the opposition and filled the positions with people of its choosing; it also seized control of various public-media institutions and expanded its own surveillance powers.
These actions provoked intense domestic opposition and international condemnation. Tens of thousands of Poles marched in demonstrations organized by the newly formed KOD (Komitet Obrony Demokracji, “Committee for the Defense of Democracy”), and the European Parliament passed a resolution declaring that it was “seriously concerned that the effective paralysis of the Constitutional [Court] in Poland endangers democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
When I brought up these concerns with the Szweds and other PiS supporters, they seemed unfazed. Many admitted the Constitutional Court fiasco was misguided (one supporter called it a “tactical mistake”), but they were quick to point the finger back at PO and the liberal media for sensationalizing the conflict. That they placed such trust in PiS and didn’t seem concerned with the potential abuses of power speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the party’s message, which had always been about more than short-term economic relief and improvements in working conditions.
PiS leaders had for a long time marshaled a commanding vision of what it would take to make the Polish nation great. In their view, there were many forces—some apparent, others hidden—that had betrayed Poland up to this point and continued to pose a threat to its people. At the top of the list was PO and the other previously governing parties, which PiS asserted had enriched themselves at the expense of the people and, more generally, caused damage during their rule. In May 2016, PiS officials launched an audit of PO, claiming that the party had stolen 340 billion zlotys ($88 billion at the time) from taxpayers in its eight years of governing. The evidence for these accusations is shaky, but it’s hard to deny the effect it has had on PO’s public image.
This line of attack struck a chord with many Poles, who have felt increasingly alienated since the massive economic transformations of the 1990s. When Poland was turned into a Soviet satellite republic after World War II, it industrialized quickly, relying on its vast deposits of natural resources and postwar labor to build factories and a national infrastructure. Full employment, often in one of the state-run monopolies, produced a variety of Polish goods that were sold domestically and throughout the Eastern bloc. “Maybe they didn’t have such freedom [in the ’70s], but there were more factories and houses,” Radek said. Speaking about her experience in medicine, Ania added that while hospitals used to be poorer, it took less time to get an operation. “Now it takes a year to see a cardiologist or an optometrist. [To get] knee surgery, you have to wait two to three years.”
But Communist rule came with limited freedoms in every public realm. Occasional uprisings were put down quickly, sometimes violently. Things got worse as time went on; bureaucratic corruption and widespread inefficiency led to economic crises and further social unrest. Beginning in 1988, a series of Solidarity-led mass strikes pressured the Communist government into negotiating with key members of the trade union turned social movement—which led to semi-free elections the following spring, and political independence a year later. At the time, millions of Poles eagerly awaited the transition to capitalism and its promise of prosperity.
To usher in the new economic system, the government cut public spending, increased interest rates, and liberalized foreign trade and investment—so-called “shock therapy.” The effects were immediate, and appropriately shocking. Unused to the vagaries of the global market, with its cheap Third World labor and highly competitive Western companies, a number of Polish firms collapsed, leaving many unemployed. The jobless found little assistance from the government, and credit was tight. Strikes ensued.
Meanwhile, privatization passed the reins of Polish capital from the state, with its army of bureaucrats, to another kind of elite: Those with some standing in either the Communist government or the Solidarity movement often emerged from the transition as owners and managers of large firms. In theory, anyone could take part in the process and unleash their entrepreneurial spirit. In practice, most people didn’t have enough savings to take part in the buyouts—and, in any event, many of the exchanges took place behind closed doors.
The Communists “had access to capital and used it to create their own firms…. The people that managed to do these things in the early ’90s, they’re doing good, they’re living fine,” Radek opined. “But the people who didn’t grab hold of some of this wealth early on, they’re struggling, and I think it’s these people who voted for PiS.”
The transition destabilized social relations as well as economic ones. Under communism, there was a kind of social cohesion, often buttressed by the Catholic Church, in opposition to the detested state bureaucracy. But as wealth inequality rose, so did social resentment. “The sense of injustice as a denial of equal opportunity, a deep-running conviction that one is deprived of equal access to socially available goods, is…a powerful mechanism triggering social critique,” writes Leszek Koczanowicz, a professor of philosophy and political science. PiS captured this bitterness and directed it against its opponents. The party provided a narrative for this staggering upheaval and promised to improve living conditions for millions of Poles, to fight for their rightful inheritance—even if it required angering the EU or circumventing a few laws.
One huge question now is whether PiS can ever effectively carry out its plan—and what will happen if it can’t. It’s unclear how far the party can—or is willing to—go to improve working conditions and labor power in Poland. Increasing the minimum wage is no substitute for strong unionized workplaces; meanwhile, Solidarity is a ghost of its former activist self. Radek pointed out that the changing economic landscape makes unionizing more difficult. The Lenin shipyards in Gdańsk, where Solidarity was formed, employed 17,000 workers at the time of the first protests in 1980, making strikes easier to arrange and very disruptive. Now, Radek said, even employees of the same company are split up among various branches and departments, preventing effective organizing. This suggests that if PiS wants to make a real impact on working conditions, it may have to significantly alter the structure of capital in Poland. And since economic interests have long transcended national boundaries, especially in the EU, such a fight would probably require the support of like-minded parties in neighboring countries—yet PiS’s antagonistic foreign policy makes this less likely.
It doesn’t appear that the party is headed in that direction anyway. Last October, PiS approved a plan by the German auto company Daimler to build a €500 million ($551 million at the time) Mercedes engine plant in Poland, and Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that he was also in talks with Toyota and American manufacturers. Such moves on PiS’s part attract praise and provide jobs in the short term, but they do little to solve the structural problems of the economy, such as a lack of Polish-owned businesses and poor labor-protection laws.
Though PiS had only been in power for eight months when I spoke with the Szweds, they were already mostly disappointed with what the party had done thus far. Granted, there were some promises that it had kept, like the 500+ program, which Ania and Radek benefit from—but they had hoped that PiS would do more to directly improve their lives. Instead, it seemed to be repeating the mistakes of PO: “The party gets to power and puts its people in the good positions; [they] replace directors, ministers… most people are left behind,” Ania said.
In the larger scheme of things, the Szweds aren’t asking for much: slightly higher incomes, more time off from work, and a return to a comfortable, dignified life in which money is not all-important. They have concerns for Poland’s hungry and homeless (some people say that poor and hungry children “don’t exist in Poland,” Ania noted, “but I know” they do). They have contempt for corrupt politicians, the super-wealthy (“I have this idea that those who are rich don’t care about everyone else,” she added), and the dominance of corporations and the market. (“In Poland, we have only corporations. Everywhere it’s just Nestlé, Nestlé, Nestlé”—again from Ania.) Along with millions of Poles, the Szweds voted for PiS in the hope that the party would improve these and other aspects of life in Poland. If PiS is unable or unwilling to address important issues, what can they do?
After a brief period of widespread political participation and high voter turnout in the early 1990s, dissatisfaction with the government and increased economic strain created, as Koczanowicz puts it, a “bipolar model of social awareness.” Either people forgo political participation, deeming it a waste of time (which explains the consistently low voter turnout since then), or they view the government as an abstract, far-off entity that will solve problems on its own and doesn’t require much in the way of involvement besides the occasional vote. There is little room for the kind of active political engagement in which people work directly with elected officials to attain the things they want—and challenge them if they’re not satisfied. When I asked several PiS supporters about the possibility of beginning a wider movement or organizing a protest, most didn’t see the point. “If we don’t agree with something, we don’t go strike or protest because we’re afraid they’ll fire us,” Ania said. “People will be afraid to do anything so they won’t lose what they already have.”
There are those who disagree, however, such as the left-wing party Razem (“Together”). Formed in May 2015, it managed to gain 3.6 percent of the vote in the election that October—just shy of the 5 percent required to gain seats in Parliament. Razem—most of whose supporters are between 25 and 40—rests on a broadly social-democratic platform that supports higher taxes on the rich and other forms of income redistribution, in addition to marriage equality and welcoming refugees. Unlike other Polish parties, however, Razem stresses political engagement on the part of its supporters; it was partially responsible for organizing the “Black Monday” protests last October against a total abortion ban. Perhaps more important, it is building a transnational movement by connecting to people and political groups in other countries, such as Sweden and Germany.
Nevertheless, Razem has a long way to go before it can amass enough support to challenge PiS electorally; its socially liberal views may turn off many voters looking for an alternative to PiS. Indeed, though PiS’s proposed economic reforms brought many new voters into its fold, for years it relied on a core base of conservative support. Since its founding in 2001, PiS has tightly aligned itself with key Polish values: allegiance to the nation, faith in the family, and a commitment to the Catholic Church. Over the years, it solidified its position on the right by vocally opposing LGBTQ rights, abortion, Islam, and “gender ideology”—i.e., feminism—while supporting the Catholic Church and honoring the nation’s long history of military struggle.
Unsurprisingly, over time, that rhetoric has crept further into the actual practices of the party. During a brief stint in power from 2005 to ’07, representatives of PiS said that LGBTQ demonstrators “should be hit with batons” and that PiS rule “will indeed be for [homosexuals] a dark night.” PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński warned that Muslim refugees bring “all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which…while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here.”
Over the short term, Poles will likely continue to face challenges to creating a more inclusive country (such as the proposed abortion ban), and parties like Razem and its supporters should continue to organize against them. And Poles may not get many more breaks from PiS’s economic policies. However, what the progression of PiS also signals is a longer-term problem for itself and any moderately right-leaning party in Poland. David Ost, a political scientist who specializes in contemporary Polish history, thinks the party has already pushed further right than Kaczyński is comfortable with or believes in. But PiS has no choice, Ost argues, lest it appear soft in comparison with any number of smaller, rising right-wing parties, which garnered a combined 13 percent of the vote last year. As long as the movements underpinning these parties continue to grow, Ost says, PiS has to make sure that “the only thing to its right is a wall.” This is why parties like Razem have room to be the rock on PiS’s other side.