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