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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » October 29, 2010
Liberalism Reborn?
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Liberalism Reborn?
October 29, 2010   
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Janusz Palikot, one of Poland’s most colorful and controversial MPs, is launching a new party after quitting the ruling Civic Platform (PO). He hopes his Support Movement will transform Polish politics and prove a viable coalition partner for the PO after elections next year.

The 3,000-strong crowd that filled Kongresowa Hall in the center of Warsaw Oct. 2 held their breaths as the opening theme from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey announced the entrance of Janusz Palikot, political celebrity no. 1 in Poland this fall.

Palikot, born in the eastern city of Lublin, a philosophy graduate and a businessman who made a fortune selling vodka, entered politics in 2005. He has served almost two terms as an MP from the Civic Platform (PO) party, earning himself a reputation as the most controversial politician in the country. His colorful public appearances were often compared to art performances and strongly criticized by politicians from different political parties, including his own. He once came to a press conference with a toy gun and a rubber sex toy to talk about rape charges against police officers. This year, after a political crisis following the tragic death of President Lech Kaczyński, Palikot decided to leave the PO in search of an independent political career.

Why did he do that, especially at a time when the PO’s approval ratings have been consistently high for months?

Andrzej Celiński, a former culture minister in a left-wing government and one of the special guests at the Congress, insists this was a bad move. “Two weeks before the congress I told him not to leave the PO,” Celiński said. “He would have a lot more influence if he stayed in the ruling party.”

But others praise Palikot’s decision to go it alone as one of his main strengths. Prof. Magdalena ¦roda, a panelist at the Congress and a professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw, said, “Polish politics is stable in the bad sense of the word. I think Palikot will prove to be a disruptive force in this stuffy political environment of ours.”

reat expectations...
¦roda certainly was not alone in her hopes. An atmosphere of enthusiasm enveloped Kongresowa Hall that day, with heated political debates going on until Palikot appeared in the aisle. He faced a crowd of people with mixed expectations as he climbed the podium to unveil his 15-point manifesto. While some came to hear him talk about abortion, same-sex partnerships and separation of state and church, others were drawn to his anti-red tape agenda. Still others came to voice their protest, sometimes in a brash manner—in which case they were immediately dragged out by private security guards. As the dissenters were being removed, Palikot briefed those gathered on his 15-point agenda divided into five sections: separation of the church and state, anti-red tape legislation, equality proposals, political system reforms, and the “Modern Society” program.

The manifesto, received enthusiastically by the audience, was followed by a panel discussion.

“We ought not to forget the very first article of our constitution, which states that the Republic of Poland shall be the common good of all its citizens! All its citizens!” bellowed Ryszard Kalisz, an MP from the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party, to much applause from the audience.

Prof. Agata Bielik-Robson, a scholar from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, focused on what seems to be the crucial issue—the political identity of the Support Movement. “Janusz Palikot has built his politics around Aristotle’s famous dictum that politics is concerned with happiness,” Bielik-Robson said. “The Support Movement manifesto is the only clearly liberal voice on our political scene.”

...and fears
Most political commentators and conservative politicians disagree. Drawing attention to the anticlerical points on Palikot’s agenda, they label him a leftist. The tendency to mistake liberals for leftists may be due to the imbalance in the country’s political scene, which over the past five years has been dominated by conservative parties, following the SLD’s spectacular defeat in the 2005 elections.

However, paradoxically, it seems that the lack of “clearly liberal voices” in Polish politics is coupled with an impressively large group of liberal voters. The Support Movement boasts 10,000 registered supporters (and counting) and public meetings with Palikot in cities such as Cracow, Wrocław and Katowice, two weeks after the congress in Warsaw, were overcrowded.

Left-wing politicians like Kalisz seem to be aware of Palikot’s potential as an imminent threat to their political existence and are trying to show there is a clear difference. “We need both political and socioeconomic equality,” said Kalisz, pointing to the lack of economic proposals in the 15-point agenda. “Economic issues are fundamental for any left-wing or leftist-liberal party.”

Parliamentary math
Palikot knows his math as well as his PR. Aiming at a 7-12-percent showing in the 2011 parliamentary elections—as he announced at a press conference after the congress—he is bound to navigate between liberal and left-wing voters.

“Clicking is real,” he began his Oct. 2 speech, referring to the thousands of internet users who had signed up for the Kongresowa Hall event on Facebook and were now gathered in the hall. “And I am surprised to see that, especially because my colleagues in the PO have told me otherwise.”

As an experienced politician, however, Palikot knows the non-zero-sum game of politics. The Civic Platform will likely win the next elections and the Support Movement would be a natural coalition partner for it. But this would require Palikot to stop drifting and finally declare himself a liberal.

In order to succeed in any political quest, party structures are needed. Knowing that, Palikot embarked on a tour around the country. Meetings in Cracow and Częstochowa (two cities that are considered conservative strongholds) as well as Katowice and Wrocław drew capacity crowds. New membership declarations were filed, and Palikot declared the tour a success.

Success is something the party, which is now awaiting its official registration in court, desperately needs, because time is scarce—for both Palikot, who is declaring a plan to leave politics in two years and the Support Movement as a whole as it braces itself for its first convention this November and parliamentary elections in less than 12 months.

People leaving the congress venue seemed not quite sure as to what they have seen. Although they may have been confused, many certainly believed that a change is about to come. Whether Palikot will succeed is not yet known, but it may very well be that what the audience saw at the Kongresowa Hall Oct. 2 was the rebirth of classical liberalism in this country.

Krzysztof Rowiński

Andrzej Celiński, unaffiliated MP, former culture minister in a government led by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD):
I came here as an observer. I think Palikot is trying to gather people by showing them the poor state this country is in today. A country where political parties have built high walls, keeping ordinary people out of public affairs. I think it is crucial to understand that the country must never be closed to its citizens. Today the country is closed.

Prof. Magdalena ¦roda, philosopher, feminist, panelist at the congress:
I came to support Janusz Palikot because of his strong pro-equality stance. I have my reservations, especially with regard to economic issues. For instance, I’m not a fan of the flat-rate tax idea that he supports. But it seems to me that the equality issues taken up by Palikot are extremely important today—the rights of women, counteracting social exclusion and discrimination. We live at a time of economic consensus in Poland and we are not going to change it. But it turns out that working within that consensus, we can actually change the unequal treatment of citizens. Women need this change badly.

Prof. Agata Bielik-Robson, philosopher, panelist at the congress:
Janusz has become a new exponent of liberal interests, which have been forgotten in Polish politics. The decision to support the Movement is not only motivated by particular points of the program, but is in fact a fundamental choice: a question about the future of society in Poland. Either Poland remains a pre-modern country, where tradition and community always have priority over the individual, demanding subjugation and conformism, or something budges and Poles, as individuals, find the courage to emancipate themselves.

Ryszard Kalisz, MP from the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), panelist at the congress:
I came here to discuss issues that are important to Polish people. Today, our politicians are focused on themselves, while citizens need somebody who would talk about their problems, using their language...
I would like the political debate to focus on the people’s issues, not party issues.

Palikot’s 15-Point Manifesto

1. Taking catechism classes out of schools
2. Legal abortion and free birth control
3. State-subsidized in-vitro fertilization
4. Better sex education in schools
5. No public funding for the Church

6. Declarations signed by citizens instead of certificates issued by public administration
7. “Silence means consent” rule—people can start doing business after notifying the authorities unless they hear otherwise from public administration
8. Absolute transparency and availability of official documents

9. Civil partnerships—for both same-sex and different-sex couples
10. Equality of wages and gender quotas

11. Rotation of political posts (including those of party leaders) and no state subsidizing of political parties
12. First-Past-the-Post voting system.
13. Abolition of the Senate, number of MPs to be cut to 300, abolition of parliamentary immunity

14. Free internet access
15. 1 percent of budget to be earmarked for culture
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