What are the left’s prospects in the Polish election?

September 17, 2019

Although it came about by chance, a united bloc is the Polish left’s best opportunity for years to make an electoral breakthrough. But it is an unstable marriage of convenience and could be squeezed if the campaign polarises around attitudes towards the right-wing ruling party.

A declining hegemon?

Although it enjoys a strong influence on public debate, in recent years the Polish left has had very limited electoral appeal. For much of the post-1989 period the most powerful political and electoral force on the left was the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5. However, the Alliance has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed at the 2005 parliamentary election following a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. It contested the 2015 election as part of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) electoral coalition but only secured 7.6% of the vote, failing to cross the 8% parliamentary representation threshold for electoral alliances (it is 5% for individual parties). As a result, left-wing parties failed to secure any parliamentary representation for the first time since 1989 and, as a side-effect, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), the country’s ruling party since 2015, became the first political grouping in post-communist Poland to win an outright majority.

Following its defeat, the Alliance elected ex-communist Włodzimierz Czarzasty as its new leader; a controversial figure linked to the so-called ‘Rywin affair’, the first of the high-profile corruption scandals that engulfed the party during the 2001-5 parliament. Many commentators wrote the Alliance off as a cynical and corrupt political grouping whose ageing, communist-nostalgic electorate was literally dying off. However, the party continued to have deep social roots in those sections of the electorate that, due to their personal biographies, have positive sentiments towards, or direct material interests linking them to, the previous regime, especially those whose families were connected to the military and former security services. This is a relatively small, and steadily declining, segment of the electorate but sizeable enough to allow the Alliance to retain its hegemony on the Polish left. The party has 20,000 members, high by Polish standards, and maintains extensive local organisational structures covering most of the country. It also received around 17 million złoties in state subventions over the course of the current parliament.

Following disappointing results in the autumn 2018 local elections, the Alliance contested May’s European Parliament (EP) poll as part of the European Coalition (KE), an electoral alliance comprising nearly all of Poland’s main opposition parties led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), the governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. However, although five of the alliance’s best-known political figures were elected among the Coalition’s 22 MEPs, and the party was keen to contest the parliamentary election as part of a broad anti-Law and Justice pact, the Coalition broke up after the EP poll. Following the departure of the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform was concerned that the Coalition’s political centre of gravity would shift too far to the left, and that the Alliance might nominate high profile former communists among its parliamentary candidates, which could generate a backlash among voters who identify strongly with the anti-communist Solidarity tradition.

Unsuccessful left challengers

At one point, the future appeared to lie with the radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party, which was formed in 2015 and gained kudos among many younger, left-leaning Poles for its dynamism and programmatic clarity. It accused the Democratic Left Alliance of betraying left-wing ideas by pursuing orthodox liberal economic and Atlanticist foreign policies when in office. In the event, ‘Together’ won 3.6% of the vote in 2015 which was not enough to obtain parliamentary representation but meant that it secured around 14 million złoties of state funding, and peeled away sufficient left-wing votes to prevent the ‘United Left’ from crossing the 8% threshold. However, ‘Together’ failed to capitalise on its early promise and attract a broader range of support beyond the well-educated urban ‘hipsters’ that formed its core. It also proved very difficult for the party to cut through with its distinctive left-wing socio-economic message at a time when the Polish political scene was so sharply polarised around attitudes towards the Law and Justice administration. Standing at the head of an alliance of smaller left-wing parties, ‘Together’ only secured 1.2% of the votes in the EP election.

The main opposition grouping not to join the European Coalition was the liberal-left ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) party, launched in February by the former mayor of the Northern provincial town of Słupsk and veteran sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń, who some commentators touted as the Polish left’s saviour. However, after a promising start ‘Spring’ struggled to carve out a niche for itself and became essentially a radical social liberal and anti-clerical party; its 6.1% EP vote share was well below expectations. Then, Mr Biedroń disillusioned many of his supporters when he announced that he would be taking up his EP seat, having previously said that he would stand down in order to concentrate on the parliamentary election, leaving him open to the charge that he had lost faith in his own political project. ‘Spring’ appears to lack any strong ideological core (it avoids defining itself as left-wing, preferring the term ‘progressive’), the party’s finances are said to be in a mess, and it has failed to build up any local organisation with supporters arguing that its decision-making structures are centralised and undemocratic. Nonetheless, for all his flip-flops Mr Biedroń remains the Polish left’s most popular and charismatic leader.

A marriage of convenience?

However, although the leaders of the three left-wing parties were, until recently, bitterly critical of (indeed, probably actively disliked) each other, in July they agreed to contest the October 13th parliamentary election as a single electoral bloc. Chastened by its 2015 experience of failing to cross the higher 8% threshold, the Democratic Left Alliance did not want to run as a formal electoral coalition. However, to maintain their identity ‘Together’ and ‘Spring’ did not simply want their candidates to stand on the Democratic Left Alliance party ticket, so it was proposed that the Alliance re-brand itself as simply the ‘Left’ (Lewica). But the name change was not approved in time to register with the State Electoral Commission, so the three parties have to contest the election under the old party name with ‘Left’ as simply the over-arching campaign logo. Moreover, although the ‘Left’ bloc will now only have to cross the lower 5% threshold for single parties, any state subsidies will be allocated solely to the Democratic Left Alliance, with funds passed on to the other two groupings on the basis of an informal agreement with no legal standing; under the electoral coalition formula they would all have been guaranteed a share.

The leaders of the ‘Left’ are trying to present the pact as a synergy of its component parts rather than an opportunistic marriage of convenience. There is certainly a large enough left-wing electorate for the bloc to secure parliamentary representation; the E-wybory website which aggregates voting intention surveys shows it averaging around 11% support. Indeed, the fact that the ‘Left’ is running as a separate bloc could actually increase the overall size of the opposition vote because it can project a clearer and more distinctive programmatic message mobilising a specific segment of the electorate, rather than being diluted in an amorphous anti-Law and Justice pact such as the European Coalition. The performance of the ‘Left’ bloc could, therefore, be crucial in determining the election outcome, particularly whether or not Law and Justice can once again secure an overall parliamentary majority.

Opportunities and challenges

The emergence of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) issue as a salient campaign theme during the summer also gave the new bloc an opportunity to differentiate itself from the liberal-centrist opposition. At the end of July, the ‘Left’ was quick off-the-mark in organising a rally against violence a week after a crowd of football hooligans threw stones and fireworks at participants taking part in the first LGBT ‘equality parade’ in the North-Eastern city of Białystok. In doing so, it outflanked Civic Platform which, concerned not to alienate more socially conservative centrist voters, has tried to avoid taking clear stances on moral-cultural issues and did not endorse the rally. It is difficult to tell just how much the LGBT issue really fires up the Polish electorate (and will be interesting to see the reaction of core Democratic Left Alliance voters, who are anti-clerical but not especially socially liberal) but focusing on it certainly helped the ‘Left’ project a distinctive profile on a highly topical question.

Interestingly, while the LGBT issue gave the ‘Left’ its opening, at the bloc’s programmatic launch it focused more on socio-economic themes such as health care, public sector pay, employment rights, housing, and social welfare. This is understandable given that these are the issues that Poles appear to care most about. But it is difficult for the ‘Left’ to compete on this issue axis because in Poland less well-off, economically leftist voters tend to be older and more socially conservative, so often incline towards parties such as Law and Justice that are right-wing on moral-cultural issues but also support high levels of social welfare and greater state intervention in the economy; and the ruling party has delivered on most of the high profile social spending pledges on which it was elected. At the same time, the kind of younger, better-off, social liberals who in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well. Tellingly, at its programmatic launch the ‘Left’ avoided the question of whether it would fund its spending programmes through more progressive taxation.

Moreover, the ‘Left’ could be squeezed if the campaign polarises around the ‘pro- versus anti-Law and Justice’ divide and potential left-wing voters coalesce increasingly around Civic Platform as the strongest opposition party. In previous elections, Civic Platform ‘borrowed’ a substantial number of potential centre-left voters who supported the party solely as the most effective way of keeping Law and Justice out of office. In this campaign, Civic Platform has also tried to attract such voters by: adopting some more unambiguously left-wing policies on moral-cultural issues (for example, making its first official promise to introduce same-sex civil partnerships); and placing a number of well-known left-wing politicians in prominent positions on the candidate lists of the party-led Civic Coalition (KK) electoral alliance, such as pro-abortion activist Barbara Nowacka who was the public face of the ‘United Left’ coalition in the 2015 campaign.

Finally, while the ‘Left’ bloc will probably hold together until the election what happens next is in many ways more important. If the bloc fails to cross the threshold it will fall apart very quickly, but a small parliamentary caucus, which is likely to be dominated by Democratic Left Alliance deputies, could also easily split or be cannibalised by larger parties. Moreover, policy disputes and problems of coherence and identity could actually intensify if the current anti-Law and Justice opposition parties were to form what is likely to be a weak and unstable coalition government, which probably would not implement much of the ‘Left’’s ambitious programme.

A critical election

This election will be a crucial test for the Polish left. While the ‘Left’ pact has come about somewhat by chance, it represents its best opportunity for years to make an electoral breakthrough. The bloc is not competing to win, or even emerge as the main opposition grouping, but does have a chance of becoming the first credible left-wing alternative to the right-wing and liberal-centrist duopoly that has dominated Polish politics for the last 15 years. Its performance could also be crucial in determining whether Law and Justice can secure another overall parliamentary majority. But if the bloc fails in such promising circumstances it will show that the Polish left‘s prospects are even gloomier than previously imagined.

This post originally appeared on the Polish Politics Blog. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the British Poles Portal.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe? (Routledge, 2012)

Photo: DrabikPany

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