Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Farce After the Tragedy


The Smoleńsk air crash on April 10 2010 was reminiscent of 9/11. Not because of its scale, the number of people killed, its international significance nor the straightforward fact that this was an accident and not a deliberate attack. Rather it was similar because from that moment on it felt as though everything had changed – that politics in Poland would never be the same again.


During the week following the tragedy Polish society did what it does best during a time of crisis – it united. A nation grieved for the near 100 victims – from all sides of the political spectrum – who had fallen in an accident whose symbolism was all too evident. But within a week this had changed. Firstly, the media exceeded all boundaries of taste and responsibility, bombarding viewers with its endless coverage that verged on an exploitation of the tragedy. This was accompanied by some on the conservative right using the crash for their own political gain. The victims became 'martyrs' and on the edges of the political debate conspiracy theories were aired. However, the major rupture in society's unity came when it was announced that Lech Kaczyński would be buried in Wawel Castle, a place previously reserved for kings and national heroes.

Another political cloud hung over the mourning society. The Smoleńsk tragedy had inadvertently handed the ruling Citizens' Platform (PO) party almost total political power. Not only had the President of Poland been killed, but also high ranking figures such as the President of the National Bank of Poland died in the crash. When Lech Kaczyński was in the Presidential Palace some of the most liberal economic policies of the PO government had been vetoed – such as the proposal to 'commercialise' (it seems we're no longer able to say privatise) the health service. Lech Kaczyński was not from the left and his social rhetoric was generally just that – rhetoric. However, he – more so than his brother Jarosław – had often sought to win the support of sections of the left – as shown when he employed former Solidarity left-winger Ryszard Bugaj as one of his economic advisers. Therefore, although when in government his party the Law and Justice party (PiS) had forged ahead with a liberal economic programme, having Lech Kaczyński as President at least provided some political balance in circumstances where the left was virtually absent. With this equilibrium now destroyed, the neo-liberal vultures began to circulate and urge a speeding up of 'essential reforms'.

It was in this context that the presidential election campaign began. In the presence of terrible floods in many areas of the country the campaign started in an eerie and almost surreal atmosphere. Rather than PiS candidate Jarosław Kaczyński deploying his normal aggressive tone of conservatism, he adopted the language of conciliation and compromise. He built upon the personal sympathy that was felt for him and this seasoned political campaigner changed his political image almost beyond recognition. This pulled the rug from under his rival Bronisław Komorowski's feet. PO's political strategy had previously been to build upon the fear of a return of Jarosław Kaczyński and PiS to power – reminding the electorate about PiS's project of building a Fourth Republic in Poland (a project that PO incidentally had initially supported.) However, with Kaczyński now occupying the centre ground of the political discourse, Komorowski's campaign seemed unsure, unclear and full of self-inflicted errors.

As we move towards the second round of elections the farce intensifies. Two conservative right-wing parties are undergoing political gymnastics in an attempt to win the support of SLD voters. Kaczyński has announced that the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) are no longer 'post-communists' but rather just the left (sic) and that on economic issues PiS should be regarded as being left-wing. All this comes from someone who as Prime Minister had even suggested banning the SLD as a party and who had led an offensive against all those associated with the previous system. Concurrently, after months of denegrading the SLD leader Grzegorz Napieralski, PO are now trying to lure him by presenting themselves as being culturally liberal and hinting at the possibility of a future PO-SLD coalition government. Thankfully Napieralski has refused to back either of these two right-wing candidates in the second round of elections.

Both PO and PiS are desperately trying to draw a clear political line between themselves. Kaczyński is endeavouring to return to the political divide of 2005 and present PiS as being the party of the 'losers' of the transition and PO as representing the 'winners'. In recent days Komorowski has gone on an offensive against PiS – moving away from his previous tactic of spreading fear, to revealling alleged quotes made by Kaczyński when he was Prime Minister that he would support the eradication of EU subsidies for farmers in order to fund a European army. This is obviously potentially damaging for a candidate whose support comes mainly from the countryside. As an aside it is amusing to note how PO followed this up by claiming that PiS's alliance with the British Conservative Party in the European parliament is an example of how PiS align with political forces who are against agricultural subsidies. During the British election campaign the Tories were also attacked for their alliance with PiS.

On Sunday we shall know who the next President of Poland will be, which will then take us towards the parliamentary elections in 2011. One thing is for sure: the present farce in Polish politics is bound to continue as long as it is dominated by two parties from the conservative right.

Monday, 28 June 2010

First Round of Presidential Election Results

The first round of presidential elections took place on Sunday 20th June. No candidate emerged as an outright winner and a second round between Citizen Platform's (PO) candidate Bronisław Komorowski and Law and Justice (PiS) candidate Jarosław Kaczyński will take place next Sunday 4th July.

Both Komorowski and Kaczyński dominated the elections winning nearly 80% of all votes cast. This shows how Polish politics continues to be dominated by two parties from the right, with the left remaining a minor player on the political scene. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) candidate Napieralski won nearly 14% of the vote, while the Peasants' Party (PSL) candidate Pawlak scored a disastrous 2.5%. The votes for the 3 main candidates were broadly reflective of the support their parties gained in the 2007 parliamentary elections. However, Napieralski's vote came as a surprise to many commentators as he began the campaign with opinion polls showing support for him in low single figures. Therefore, Napieralski initially emerged as the success story of the elections, with both Komorowski and Kaczynski trying to win the votes of the left electorate (more on this to come in future posts.)

Let's take a closer look at the breakdown of the votes for the 3 main candidates, through examining how votes were cast according to age, education, and place of residence (figures compiled by SMF/KRC and published in Gazeta Wyborcza 21.06.2010).

If we begin by comparing the votes of Komorowski and Kaczyński then we can immediately see a clear trend and divide in Polish society. Komorowski won a majority of all the age groups in Poland, but his vote was particularly high amongst young people – especially within the 25 – 34 age group. Furthermore, Kaczynski scored better with middle aged and elder voters, although not so with voters aged 60+. Likewise with regards education Komorwski won the support of the majority of voters across the spectrum. However, again this majority was larger amongst those with a higher level of education – winning the support of over a half of all voters with a university education. The biggest divide amongst the Polish electorate can be found when we compare votes according to place of residence. Here, Kaczyński actually won a majority amongst those living in the countryside, although he lost in the cities. Komorowski won over 50% of the votes in the large and medium cities.

This geographical divide is especially stark when we look at a map of how Poles voted in the country as a whole, which can be found here: The extent of the divide between western and eastern Poland in this map is striking and shows a deep rift that runs through Polish society. This axis has been intensified by the socio-economic effects of the transition to capitalism (in media jargon Polska A and Polska B) but also is derived from Poland's historical uneven development, particularly its partition prior to World War One.

Napieralski's vote is interesting due to the fact that it differs in its social composition from the 'core' SLD vote. Napieralski managed to win more from younger voters than older voters, who were once considered the SLD's standard electorate. Napieralski's voters were also relatively well educated and spread fairly evenly across towns and cities.

The presidential election is now heading towards its second round and the outcome is hanging in the balance. Both parties are seeking to expand their vote, partly by competing for the votes of the SLD (see next blog post). However, this election could be decided by who manages to successfully mobilize its core electorate . During the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections PiS, who won these elections, ran campaigns that countered PO's openly neo-liberal economic programme and appealed to a section of those frustrated with the transition. Accordingly they managed to create a political divide around those supporting a 'liberal' Poland and a 'social' Poland. However, by the 2007 elections the appeal of this approach had worn off; not least because PiS had failed to deliver on its economic promises, introducing, for example, a more regressive taxation system. In contrast, in 2007 PO sought to unite society against PiS, whose government had been ridden with conflict, extreme conservatism and political aggression. PO were therefore able to mobilize large numbers of people who were opposed to the anti-democratic and political divisive policies of PiS. The attempt by Komorowski to repeat this tactic and by Kaczyński to return to his 'pro-social' economic rhetoric are having a limited impact and increasingly it is becoming difficult to draw a clear political line between these two conservative right-wing parties.


On Sunday we shall know the result. At this moment I would predict a Komorowski victory. But then again I always call elections wrong!

Welcome

Welcome to Beyond The Transition. Through this blog I hope to be able to relay information and give commentary and analsis on what is broadly termed Central-Eastern Europe (CEE). By this I mean the former state-socialist countries in Europe who accessed the European Union in 2004 and 2007. In particular I shall concentrate on events in Poland - a country in which I live and work.

For the past 20 years CEE has been undergoing a transition from 'communism' to capitalism. This transition has now largely been completed, with these countries integrated into the global capitalist system. This does not suggest that these societies will no longer go through large socio-economic or political changes. Neither does it imply that all the social structures and relations, inherited from the previous system, have been fully transformed; nor indeed that they will not be further reformed or even disappear. Yet, what it does indicate is that the general form of capitalism has already been established in the postsocialist countries and that their populations are now living in ‘really-existing capitalism’.

Of particular interest is how these countries have been affected to the current global economic crisis and also at how this is impacting upon the project of EU enlargement. as this blog will be dedicated largely to Poland we shall start by looking at the current presidential elections here.

Anyway, I hope you'll visit from time to time, find something of interest and perhaps even leave a comment.