The Warsaw Voice » Politics » Monthly - June 29, 2015
Politics & Society
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Winds of Change
Political scientist Prof. Andrzej Rychard, director of the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, talks to Witold Żygulski.

Just two months ago, President Bronisław Komorowski was a shoo-in for reelection. It also seemed that the Civic Platform (PO), which has governed the country for eight years, and the other major party, the opposition Law and Justice (PiS), had Polish politics sewn up to the point where there was no room for surprises. But Komorowski failed to secure reelection, the PO seems badly shaken and the Polish political landscape suddenly looks very different. How did all this happen so fast?
I think both politicians and analysts were caught napping to a degree. The processes leading to the surprises we have witnessed did not begin just a few months ago. Sociologists have been saying since 2005-2006 that Poland has reached the end of a phase in its social and economic development. This is particularly important to young people. They feel increasingly frustrated because they find it harder to benefit from the promise that political and economic reforms in the country held out for Poles 15 or 20 years ago. A good education is no longer enough to guarantee promotion and young people find it more difficult to get a job even if they graduated from a good university. Young people are leaving the country en masse and the trend is getting stronger. The benefits from reforms are not being distributed equally and the number of socially excluded people is on the rise. Had Bronisław Komorowski won the elections, we would probably still think that all these processes are separate from politics. It’s a paradox, but the incumbent president’s defeat may have sent a constructive warning to the political class as a whole.

Does the result of the presidential election signal a fundamental change in Polish politics and society?
We don’t know that yet. The PO does not necessarily have to lose the parliamentary elections in the fall. And it’s hard to say to what extent president-elect Andrzej Duda is a sign that PiS is really offering something new. Perhaps this is only a change of language and style, while the party’s platform will essentially remain the same. Once we know the answer, we will know if Komorowski’s defeat signifies a real game changer for Polish politics. Perhaps it does not and PiS will remain the party it has been for the past 10 years, the PO will recover and Paweł Kukiz [a rock musician who, running as an independent presidential candidate, won almost 21 percent of the vote in the first round and is forming a new party] will turn out to be as ineffective as Janusz Palikot [the leader of the Your Movement party, which was hugely successful in the 2011 parliamentary elections, but is now scoring just 1-3 percent in the opinion polls].

What can the PO do to regain its strength?
The PO should above all seek to regain the ability to motivate its traditional voters, especially now that the party is facing a clear threat from the new political project launched by [economist] Ryszard Petru [and his grouping]. The project’s target voters are those who support a liberal market, which means people who have voted for the PO in various elections over the past decade. Mind you, the PO has never had an unequivocally liberal and market-oriented program, so perhaps the threat posed by Petru’s party has been blown out of proportion. Petru lacks an aura of newness about him, unlike Kukiz or even Duda.

The PO needs to find a way to reach out to people who are middle of the road in every sense of the word: from the middle class, to people who are middle of the road in terms of their outlook on life and lifestyles. And to those who are gravitating towards conservatism. I believe the PO would be making a mistake if it tried to take a sharp turn to the right or left. Instead, they should just try to win back the voters they have lost in recent years.

What does PiS need to do to get a double-whammy and win the parliamentary election in October?
PiS has always had a reputation as a party that cannot exist without its leader Jarosław Kaczyński and yet it has been unable to score a major political success for seven years under his leadership. Will Duda’s victory in the presidential election change this? As an observer, I’m more interested in finding an answer to this question than to whether the PO will regroup and rebuild itself. After all, the PO can try to succeed by returning to its origins, taking a step or two back. PiS, on the other hand, needs to show a new face and focus on the future. This gives the opposition party an advantage, as it can use something new to encourage people to vote for it. The PO has neither new faces nor any significant policy changes to offer, while PiS can offer both.

Even if PiS takes over power after the elections, its new face symbolized by Duda will not necessarily prevail. It is just as likely, or perhaps more likely, that the new-look PiS was just an election campaign tactic and that all its controversial leaders such as Antoni Macierewicz [the PiS deputy leader who insists that the Polish presidential plane crash in April 2010 was the result of an assassination plot], who disappeared during the presidential campaign, will soon be back. Should that happen, the political standing of Duda, who formally is an independent figure, will be much weaker.

When PiS governed Poland from 2005 to 2007, the changes it introduced were mainly about ideology and phraseology.

PiS did not have time to begin institutional changes that, as everything seems to indicate, were clearly intended to centralize power. If PiS returns to power, such ideas may be revisited and this, in my opinion, would be extremely dangerous, as Poland would shift to a less liberal democracy.

Whether PiS can succeed depends on the PO’s ability to rebuild its strength. The PO’s standing, in turn, depends on how the new president performs and how he tackles the first serious political questions and decisions he is faced with. The same applies to Kukiz, who, together with Duda, has brought a lot of positive energy to Polish politics. The two are like a breath of fresh air. Now it’s time to put them to the test as real politicians and, to a certain extent, this will influence the future of the PO.

How will they be tested?
President Duda will need to find a fit between all those promises he made during his election campaign and the social and economic reality in Poland. He will have to make adjustments in line with the actual capabilities of the country. At the same time, he will have to convince his supporters that he’s doing his best to do what he declared he would do. Probably he will also try to show he can rise above party politics and will not allow his presidency to be steered by Kaczyński as the proverbial backseat driver.

Kukiz, in turn, will need to work on forming his new party and find people to help him organize regional party structures for his supporters. That’s going to be very difficult, I have to say. In politics, you don’t have many people who came out of nowhere, who have no history as public figures. Kukiz is charismatic and authentic and has never been a politician of any kind. All of that makes him exceptional, but the people who gather around him are not like that and they never will be. Kukiz’s clean political record was one of his chief assets before the elections but, judging by media reports, he is starting to draw people to him who were formerly members of various parties, including those who would like to forget what they did in the past. There’s no way that the media will forget, though, and neither as a result will the public.

Are Western European journalists right when they argue that Polish foreign policy will produce new rifts within the EU if PiS comes to power?
I believe such concerns are unfounded. For all their Euroskeptic rhetoric, the people in PiS in charge of foreign policy realize that, in the current political situation, Europe, though uncertain and somewhat conflicted, is still the best and safest place to live in. So I think any radical reorientation is highly unlikely. You can hardly imagine anyone willingly engaging in conflicts with our European partners knowing how complicated and uncertain Poland’s relations are with its neighbors to the East. Anyone who is a realist to any degree can understand how risky such an attitude is.

The results of the presidential elections and current opinion polls show that the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) may fail to make it into parliament in the October elections. Do you think that is possible? It would be another shock: these two parties have been in the lower house for the last 26 years, over which period they have been in power several times.

It absolutely is possible. The winds of change, symbolized by Duda and Kukiz, may drive these two parties out of parliament and, possibly, make them disappear in their current form from the political landscape. If that happens, a colossal structural change will take place in Polish politics, proving that voters have changed. The message the SLD is sending out is reaching few people these days. The PSL, in turn, has evidently ignored the changes that have taken place in rural communities, and as a result it has handed its former supporters over to PiS and other parties.

Trying to predict the makeup of the future parliament, we cannot tell if the new trends in Polish politics will last until the autumn elections. Kukiz, who claims to be against the establishment and yet wants to become part of it, is definitely not the first politician to do so. We have already seen Andrzej Lepper [the founder of Samoobrona, a peasants’ movement that became a political party, and deputy prime minister in the PiS-Samoobrona-League of Polish Families (LPR) government coalition of 2006-2007] and Janusz Palikot do the same. I believe both possessed much greater political skills than Kukiz, but he, on the other hand, beats them when it comes to being authentic. Lepper needed a long time to work his way up, but his success was relatively short-lived. Palikot became successful overnight, but frittered it all away almost as fast. So it’s not certain that Kukiz’s instant success will last all the way to the elections.