Politics as Usual
September 28, 2012
Prof. Andrzej Rychard, director of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), talks to the Voice’s Witold Żygulski.
Various political parties in Poland have announced plans to step up their media exposure and public relations efforts now that the vacation season is over. Do you think Polish politics is in for a major shakeup this fall?
I think these kinds of expectations are typical following the vacation season. It can be partly attributed to the fact that many groups are tired—for various reasons—of the existing situation. The fatigue of the opposition results, of course, from being out of power for many years now. The governing coalition of the Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) has been in power for a second term and so far there are no signs indicating that they may lose their grip on power. Consequently, the opposition is trying to devise methods to wrest the reins from their hands.
The public may also be somewhat tired and angry that the PO has failed to meet its election promises. On the other hand, it may be reassuring for the public that, although the government has not met all of its promises, it has not promised anything that could inspire fear, either, in contrast to the previous coalition led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party. As a result, the public is not clearly demanding change, though it is obvious that support for the ruling coalition is dwindling.
The economic crisis, which has so far been present in Poland mainly in the form of public discourse rather than economic reality, is yet another factor behind all this talk about political change in the autumn. Many believe that the global crisis will finally catch up with Poland. Remaining “a green island” in a sea of crisis may turn out to be much more difficult in the coming months. Consequently, there are expectations that the government should do something—take some spectacular measures.
Despite the three factors I have mentioned, I do not think any radical change on the Polish political scene is likely to take place anytime soon. Neither do I believe in the recently proposed ideas of a “government of experts.” These ideas are poorly calculated politically. However, the government will certainly be trying to pre-empt possible moves by the opposition, as indicated by Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s plan to deliver a major policy statement. Politicians and the media have called this statement, in a rather unfortunate phrase, a new policy speech. Unfortunate, because this term suggests that his first policy speech will be somehow rendered invalid. Meanwhile, the point is to report on what the government has already done of the things the prime minister promised in his first policy speech, what has caused the delays and what the government is going to do in the near future. Perhaps we will see some small changes in the government lineup, but no radical change should be expected.
I do not expect any earthquake. But I am sure that most conflicts between the government and the opposition will be transferred to the economy. Economic issues will be the main sphere of political confrontation. This is already shown by the remarks made by politicians from parties such as PiS, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and Solidarna Polska. What surprises me is that politicians from the Palikot Movement are keeping mum on economic issues.
Do you think that debates on controversial social issues such as legalizing civil unions, the depenalization of soft drugs, and in-vitro fertilization will subside in the coming months once economic issues take center stage?
The PO definitely feels most at home talking about economic issues. One reason is that there are no significant differences of opinion on these issues within the party. In contrast, the PO does not have a common position on controversial social issues—individual PO politicians have been known to submit to the parliament bills on in-vitro fertilization, for instance, that contradict one another. It comes as no surprise then that the party’s strategy will be to continue the debate on the crisis and emphasize that it is the PO that can best protect Poland from it. Of course, there is a danger in this strategy. If the crisis turns out to be severe it will be easy for the PO’s political rivals to point out what the party has failed to do, despite being in power for a long time and having a healthy parliamentary majority.
How is the ruling coalition doing? Is it more a marriage of convenience or is it based on some genuine community of views?
Using the term “community of views” would certainly be an exaggeration. Especially when referring to parties that often have no views at all.
Both the PO and PSL are often ambivalent on many issues. This is why the PSL is the most convenient coalition partner for the PO. This is not to say that I cannot imagine a different coalition. Both the SLD and the Palikot Movement could become partners for the PO under certain conditions. This shows how much the situation has changed in Poland since 2005, when a ruling coalition of the PO and PiS was considered to be the only natural coalition after the elections. Today, these two parties are the fiercest political opponents.
What, in your view, will be the opposition’s strategy in the coming months?
I think that PiS, which is still the most important part of the opposition, will be trying to enter territory where the ruling coalition will find it more difficult to fight them—I mean the arena of economic debate. As long as it was focusing on symbolic and religious issues and the investigation into the 2010 Smolensk air crash [in which Polish President Lech Kaczyński was killed together with all the other members of the Polish delegation on board], PiS was a very convenient opponent for the PO. But a pragmatic PiS, proposing a debate on the country’s economic development and on ways of counteracting the crisis, is a much more difficult opponent. The PO had an monopoly in this field for several years, but is now beginning to lose this monopoly. This has resulted in some PO politicians getting jittery. One example is a recent remark by Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski, who has compared the economic ideas of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński to a pyramid scheme. The comparison was quite inaccurate. What’s more, it was a tactical mistake, as it unintentionally brought to mind the recent Amber Gold financial scandal [in which—according to the opposition—PO politicians or their family members may have been involved.] This was a paradoxical reversal of roles—previously PiS concentrated on scandals of every sort while the PO mainly spoke about economic issues. I think that if the PO wants to stop the PiS offensive in its tracks it should stick to the economic debate and talk about the social and economic development of the country. After the public’s initial delight that the PiS leader has finally started to talk economics instead of scandals, there will come a moment of reflection on what he really has to say about economic issues. And in this area, the PO has much more experience, better achievements and more renowned experts. So the party should be able to maintain its advantage easily. Speaking about the opposition, one should add that a section of the public is showing fatigue with the bi-polar PO-PiS political set-up. Surveys show that people are still waiting for a “third force” to break the monopoly of the two large political groups.
Who could become such a “third force”?
Until recently, it seemed the Palikot Movement was a shoo-in. Janusz Palikot, the leader of the party, astutely noticed some emerging new social needs and tendencies and more secular, modernist or even postmodernist trends. But it is increasingly clear that he has failed to build anything of importance on this basis. No coherent broad program has been developed and Palikot Movement politicians, including Janusz Palikot himself, acted from one campaign to another. Initially, this was attractive from the media point of view, but it soon turned out that nothing of substance followed. Recently, the Palikot Movement has been silent. Its politicians are not taking part in the ongoing economic debate. This may prove that they are at home only with issues related to values and ideology. However, there is every indication that these topics will not dominate political debate this autumn.
What about the leftist parties in Poland? Does the SLD still stand a chance of attracting more supporters?
I think that the SLD, in its current form and with its current leadership, will see its political support shrinking. We have seen the same faces in Polish politics for years, and this is especially striking in the case of the SLD. The party’s leader, Leszek Miller, has been an active politician for four decades, symbolizing—to put it in diplomatic terms—a “continuity of certain political standards.” This continuity no longer translates into rising approval ratings. Instead, it is a sign indicating that the leftists represented in parliament do not have any new ideas for the development of the country.
It is worth noting that, looking at what Polish political parties are saying and doing, there is no genuine leftist party in Poland and nor is there a truly rightist party. This traditional division has not been seen in Polish politics for years.