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The Polish Election and Ireland… Different, yes, but strangely familiar if you happen to remember the 1980s October 24, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.


For those of us who are interested in politics the recent Polish election is a God send. After all, it’s now months since the General Election, still more months to the Local elections. And Dáil votes have a certain distance to them.

So, here we are. An European General Election with participants literally on our doorstep (and as a writer to the Irish Times noted today, interesting how they are able to organise votes for their diaspora so effectively while we… don’t).

On one level is hard not to breath something of a sigh of relief when one sees that the eccentric Polish Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, lost the election this weekend to the Civic Platform (PO). The last two years of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) government have been something of a roller coaster ride for Poland, and for Europe. And when one contextualises it with the difficulties that Europe had with Austria in the 1990s during the period where the Freedom Party came into power as a governing coalition it demonstrates just how difficult it can be to deal with right populist groups that reach state power.

Because whatever else the PiS are their populist nature is very clear. And this populism – as with most populisms which are not clearly rooted in an ideology – has led to a bizarre approach to government. In the last two years 14 cabinet members resigned or were fired. That isn’t government, that’s chaos.

And what ideological leanings the PiS led government had were very much bound up in the negative. A strident anti-communism that sought a ‘moral revolution’, which is curious in view of the fact that it is almost two decades since Poland began to shift towards democracy. There was a wholesale effort to root out those who had covertly assisted the Communist regime. The problem, as the US discovered with McCarthy, is that those sort of efforts generally are uncontained and uncontainable and sooner or later come into conflict with power groups within the society (I’ve always thought it was telling how McCarthy ultimately was discredited by taking on the Army – an appallingly inept strategy on his part). And, perhaps the PiS forgot a basic rule of politics which is that while people will pay lip-service to the idea of change or radical action of left or right their enthusiasm tends to wane rapidly.

When Lech Walesa suggests that such processes are out of hand it is clear that there is something wrong. A strong tinge of anti-German feeling was submerged in anti-EU sentiment. A staunchly traditional Catholicism informed social thinking. And this was an oddity, because while some of these views were commonplace in various parts of Europe some decades ago and provided meat to some centre-right projects (although not all, and interestingly the centre-right generally has always found the EU reasonably congenial) there was a decidedly dated aspect to their presentation in this decade.

But this is problematic, because they represent, at least in part, a significant section of Polish society. This section is generally rural and socially although not economically conservative. This section has felt abandoned by the economic and social processes which wracked Poland during the 1990s and early 2000s. They are deeply dubious about the EU, very concerned about a society which has liberalised rapidly and consider that ‘liberal’ elites are in charge, elites which have no understanding of their interests. A society where such a significant group feels alienated from the broader society is one in some trouble. And consider that the PiS received around a third of the poll. In a way we must forget the party and see it merely as the latest manifestation of societal interests. And if by the latter term one wants to define it as a ‘class’, well, why not?

That said, to my mind there is something of the media constructed populist right we see in the UK to the PiS. The same tendencies, anti-EU, conservative nationalist and socially illiberal come to the fore. And the Conservative Party has played with these notions in varying degrees. But the difference is that the Conservative Party is – even now – still a broad church where social illiberalism is recognised to be politically a difficult position to adopt openly. In Poland there are historical, cultural and objective circumstances for some taking those positions. It’s not necessarily pretty, but it is comprehensible.

But thinking about it isn’t there also something very very familiar about this election? The tone, the language. In Poland the political spectrum appears to be currently dominated by the populist centre right and the conservative centre right. Now, it’s always a dubious exercise to map national political systems onto other countries, but… here goes.

As the Irish Times reports:

Figures released by the Polish embassy in Dublin show that 73 per cent of those who voted in Ireland gave their support to the victorious Civic Platform (PO) led by Donald Tusk.

A further 9 per cent favoured the Left and Democrats (LiD), an alliance of left-wing liberals and post-communists. Just over 10 per cent voted for outgoing prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s conservative Law and Justice (Pis) party.

Support for the PO was much higher among the predominantly young Irish-based Poles than among their compatriots in Poland, where the overall vote for Mr Tusk’s pro-European party was 41 per cent, compared with 32 per cent for Mr Kaczynski’s grouping.

So, there is a pro-European, socially liberal, ‘progressive’, pro-freemarket party. Then a somewhat splintered, anti-Europe, populist centre right, nationalist and socially illiberal – perhaps even semi-religious – grouping. The left in its various formations (the LiD) is represented by about 10% of the vote. Not huge – just about what the Labour party might expect.

Okay. It’s not quite Ireland 1981. But it’s not entirely different either. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the vote – particularly amongst voters in Ireland was that it was overwhelmingly (73%) for the Civic Platform. That enthusiasm is very reminiscent for me of a tranche of young Irish voters in the early 1980s who voted for Fine Gael and Garret Fitzgerald then or later. Many subsequently left the country. Granted PO leader Donal Tusk ain’t no Garret Fitzgerald. The latter had genuine centrist social democratic instincts, although these were rather more vague in nature and practice than his supporters might credit him with. Tusk seems to me to be cut from the same cloth as the Progressive Democrats. The situation today is more exaggerated. The PiS garnered a fairly derisory 10% from the Polish in Ireland. That is matching the LiD.

Now, it’s been said, and it is not entirely incorrect, that there were certain aspects of Irish life during the 1950s onwards that were not that dissimilar to the more politically repressive states in Europe. The situation was never quite as bad as some have sought to portray it in retrospect. But it was often far from great and a literal and psychological insularity was its primary characteristic.

But this raises interesting questions. How do the similarities arise? The deadening effect of near-hegemonic ideological or philosophical structures? Religious influence? Social and cultural conservatism? Could it be the influence of the rural on the societal imagination? Conquest and occupation? Consider that both PO and LiS can point to roots in Solidarity.

But let’s be clear about some aspects of this. The Civic Platform is not quite as progressive as one might imagine. They are in favour of a flat tax and their take on labour legislation is not perhaps as enlightened as one might hope for. They too are socially conservative, albeit not in such a tooth-grinding fashion as the PiS. They want to do away with proportionate representation and want the privatization of health care and the economy. Moreover they were close to being coalition partners of the PiS before the 2005 elections. Nor are the PiS as right wing economically as one might think, and certainly far less so than the PO, believing in interventions in the economy by the state (for example they are pro-healthcare). It’s a fascinating conundrum for progressives. On the one hand with the LiS social solidarity might be maintained. On the other with the PO some space would open for societal liberalism. But in either case the shape of the society might be quite different to what progressives would agree with. Heads they win, tails we lose.

The existence of a religious right as a significant political force in the last Polish parliament is also fascinating and troubling. That certainly hasn’t been a feature of Irish political life (perhaps because there was no particular need for one since there was broad societal agreement on the shape of an Irish polity post-Independence). Nor is it fair to paint Fianna Fáil as the PiS. The tenor of the two parties is quite different. More importantly Fianna Fáil was already embedded as a specific element of the Irish polity (as indeed was Fine Gael) and on a political level there was no relatively recent rupture with a pre-existing period as in Poland. But…but… Fianna Fáil certainly lapsed into a populist mode during the 1977 to 1987 period swinging wildly between contradictory ideological poles to no good effect.

And, although determinism can lead to simplistic analyses it is hard not to think that Poland has arrived at a similar, if not identical, situation to that experienced in the Republic after the initial societal liberalisations of the 1960s and 1970s, liberalisations that in Ireland were allied to Vatican II and the broad social and political changes during that period.

Which makes one wonder just how events will unfold in Poland the next ten years or so (incidentally, worth noting that this is something of a shot in the arm for the pro-European lobby).


1. ejh - October 24, 2007

I think there’s a certain space for social democratic politics in Eastern Europe and I’d hope people fill it. Defence of welfare, health care, labour rights, pensions, that sort of thing. I think the comparison with the PDs is an apt one and their sort of politics are in fact rather more popular in Eastern Europe, whereas this side of the continent young people aren’t likely to associate the left with repression nor the right with enlightened social attitudes.

I mention young people especially because they’re not so likely to be concerned with safety nets: not with pensions, not very much with healthcare, and so on. It’s quite easy for a young metropolitan Pole (or Russian, or Ukranian, or Hungarian) to see only the liberal side of rightwing liberalism. However, when they have to pay for their parents’ healthcare it is possible they will start to take a different view and it’s then that a social democratic viewpoint may come more strongly to the fore.

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a blindness to contemporary liberalism, insofar as they never seem to grasp that if you make working people’s living conditions more insecure, even if they are sometimes better off, they are not likely to adopt more progressive social attitudes as a result. I tend to associate this blindness with a general feeling of superiority over the rest of the population, such that they think everybody else is ignorant anyway and therefore do not see their role in engendering that ignorance. I think this is a very widespread phenomenon in Eastern Europe, the progressive and yet arrogant young, and I think there will be a lot of nasty populist parties picking up on the resulting resentment.


2. WorldbyStorm - October 24, 2007

You’re absolutely right about young people. It’s kind of scary really. But interestingly I’ve seen exactly the same mentality amongst Irish friends of mine who left and stayed in the UK or the US. “Unions are an irritant”, job mobility easy, ‘work hard play hard’ etc, etc. Everything is great until they hit their mid 30s, settle down a bit and take a long hard look at the situation around them. Although in fairness those in the US tend to have a fairly jaundiced view of the US healthcare system…

I also completely agree with you re contemporary liberalism. That superiority is something one sees time and again. And as you say, the real ‘outcomes’ are down the line. PiS Mk II in 2017 or whatever…


3. ejh - October 24, 2007

Sometimes I wonder whether the whole generation gap hasn’t been turned around, to some deegree at least. There’s so many teenage libertarians on the internet and young people won’t join unions. And whereas it used to be having kids and settling down that took people away from political awareness and made them more self-centred, now perhaps it has the effect of teaching them that job security and state-provided healthcare and education are really important….


4. ejh - October 24, 2007

With which bit are you struggling?


5. ejh - October 24, 2007

Eh? Why does my posting come before the one to which I responded?


6. Craig - October 24, 2007

” I tend to associate this blindness with a general feeling of superiority over the rest of the population, such that they think everybody else is ignorant anyway and therefore do not see their role in engendering that ignorance. ”

I don’t quite follow what you are saying here… could you clarify?


7. Garibaldy - October 24, 2007

I’d have thought Polish society was much further to the right than Irish society was even in the 1960s or 1970s. The church is much more central to religious identity, and as the popularity of that fascist priest’s programme shows, more central to political and cultural life. Ireland in the 1930s might be better.


8. WorldbyStorm - October 24, 2007

I don’t know guys… one article in Magill over the last couple of years that rang true with me was about the way in which religious observance in Ireland vanished overnight, as it were between 1970 and after. I think that we may over emphasise the depth and traction of same in societies. And remember, that in each generation it will be different. Ireland in the 1960s, even more recently had a core of people who were extremely devout – in ways which I or probably you wouldn’t identify with at all.


9. ejh - October 25, 2007

This might sound glib, but television programmes, videos and other media can displace religious observance very quickly ince they become widely available. They provide a focus and rhythm to one’s life and they also provide somewhere in which to ask and discuss the questions of everyday life. I don’t think they necessarily inhibit churchgoing and the experience of the US would suggest otherwise. (Then again there’s not the same reaction aginst the church in the US because there wasn’t one Church with a repressive social role and a dirty history.) But they do mean that the church can’t really maintain its centrality and that in itself makes a large difference to churchgoing as a duty.


10. WorldbyStorm - October 25, 2007

In the US it is arguable that you see two dynamics, one where elements of the media are co-opted by religions and integrated into them and secondly where there is a sort of submerged societal push against religion (perhaps because some religion scan seem pretty repressive in their contemporary manifestations). I’m always taken, as a fan of certain musics, by how silly the discourse can be as regards religion – think of Marilyn Manson, etc. But if I were 16 and lived in a religiously observant community this would I suspect be a perfect way of expressing an oppositional stance (however facile). Your thoughts on duty are interesting. State centrality – where observance came from the top, as in Ireland (but also from the bottom up) – is one thing. But it seems shallow, doesn’t it. At least in retrospect.


11. Garibaldy - October 25, 2007

I meant to say the church is much more central to national identity, not religious identity. The numbers of young Poles in London, for exa,ple, going to mass is striking. Catholic churches filled to overflowing etc We’ve all heard the cliches. But they’re true. So what I meant by the 1930s comment was huge observance, social and political influence of the church, and catholicism as an expression of nationality.

As for the disappearance of religious observance in Ireland since 1970. I think we need to remember that while it was declining, it took the sex scandals to reduce observance to 50% where it is today. Without something similar in Poland, I can’t see it falling as rapidly. And I wouldn’t be too surprised if a lot of the youngish people who have darkened a church door in years in Ireland do so once they have kids.


12. Eagle - October 25, 2007

I agree with Garibaldy. The Church is a central part of Polish identity, partly due to its role (and maybe the myths about that role) in bringing down communism. I think it’s analogous to the way Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism were one and the same in the early 20th century.


13. WorldbyStorm - October 25, 2007

But does that mean Eagle and Garibaldy that then it might take a further eighty years (or at least some decades) for the bonds that exist between Church and Identity to detach? Or to put it another way, does that mean that Polish society is in a sense going through dynamics that we saw in Irish society in the 1900s onwards? Timothy Garton-Ash wrote in todays Guardian about how political parties in Poland and elsewhere in the former Eastern Bloc appear to have very short shelf lives compared to those in Western Europe (bar Italy). Is that too part of some dynamic?


14. Garibaldy - October 25, 2007

I doubt it will take 80 years in a world with much more communication, and with the possibility of returning from emigration much easier. People who emigrate tend to lose their faith easier than those that stay at home, historically speaking. I think Poland is going through similar dynamics (recent independence, finding a place in the world, etc) but in radically different circumstances (the EU being one for a start).

As for the parties, I don’t know whether it’s a dynamic or an oddity just. I would want to think about it in comparison with other countries in the area, and I don’t think it’s the same there. What the reason could be is that large segments of political opinion agree, and what we are seeing is the result of ambition and opportunism in societies where party politics has not yet bedded down. But that’s guesswork.

Generally, I’m not sure what to think about Poland. Nice people, supposedly a nice place, but with a very large nasty element hovering not far from the surface. If the economy goes, I wouldn’t be astounded to see the rise of extreme right parties.


15. WorldbyStorm - October 25, 2007

I’m just thinking about what you’re saying on a number of fronts. I suspect that you’re correct and that social change will be much faster than it happened in Ireland. One interesting aspect is the way in which yet again Europe has become a sort of shorthand for progress, despite the fact the PO is not anywhere near as Europhiliac as one might imagine. Great expectations often lead to great disappointment, unless the sheer vagueness of the idea of ‘Europe’ means it is difficult for those opposed to it to get a clear grip on it. Perhaps the system is an oddity. I wonder though is Poland going through as rapid a period of development as Ireland did in the last ten years. Clearly not if people are leaving it.

Re the last point. Yes, but then again to some degree these elections discredited formations that might provide the spine of the far right… and it has to be said that with the political dial already pushed so far to that end it’s hard to see enormous space for such parties to rise easily. As with the UK situation in the 1980s the more mainstream right parties could easily steal their clothes.


16. Garibaldy - October 25, 2007

Quite possibly the mainstream right could easily steal their clothes. I just think that the radicalisation of the entire right there is not at all inconceivable. The stuff over the crosses at Austwitcz, the comments of the party that just lost (which lost presumably not because it was too right wing) on a range of issues etc worry me.

I think that we have forgotten just how ugly those places (like the Ukraine and the Baltic states) were in the 1930s, and how the reactionary elements never totally disappeared, and gained respectability once the USSR et al collapsed. The teaching of history in a lot of these places is disturbing in the extreme. I hope the EU and economic development makes them more liberal, but it’s not inevitable. If Europe disappoints as you say there could be more problems.


17. ejh - October 26, 2007

That last paragraph rings true and of course we’d be far more likely to remember this is the mainstream media didn’t ignore it in favour of the simple “modernisation” story whereby who is pro-West is progressive and who is not, is not.

Which picture is complicated, of course, by the fact that many of the people who are pro-West are progressive, sometimes courageously so: but the people they put in power are often rather more cynical.


18. WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2007

Which leads to even more important questions as to why there were such extreme manifestations of nationalism and reactionary thinking in those places. Were they a holdover from the 19th century, or did they develop in the early 20th century? I just don’t know enough about that area.


19. WorldbyStorm - October 26, 2007

That dislocation between people and those who represent them seems to me to be a crucial aspect of contemporary politics. It’s overdone sometimes – again to further political agendas, but it is an actual dynamic.


20. Garibaldy - October 26, 2007

On the dislocation thing, a lot of people on the left like to think that secretly everyone agrees with them but for some reason either doesn’t make it to the polls, or is fooled close to election day. The reality is we live in a very right wing society still. Similar points apply to every country, be it Bush and the Americans or the attitude in the former socialist countries.

As for why those countries where so reactionary in the first place. A large part of it is anti-semetism. There is an argument that the Jews in western Europe assimilated but that in eastern Europe they maintained a separate identity in customs, dress etc, thus marking them out as easy targets. The extermination of the Jews in places like Latvia, Ukraine etc with the extremely active participation of the locals. There are also issues of competition with other nationalities, peasant societies and the strength of religion etc. On the timing, I would say that they were the product of both longer term trends and the particular circumstances produced by WWI and the absolute explosion of right-wing paramilitary violence in the years afterwards that saw millions killed.
These things didn’t just disappear in 1945. Which helps explain why the Soviets and their allies acted the way they did.


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