Cultural and political preferences that make Poles so different will help the country grow – argues the director of an economic think tank newly established by the Polish government.

Foreigners who have lived here often say that Poland is difficult to compare to other countries. To an outsider, Polish politics might sometimes be perceived as bizarre, the economy might seem unstructured and the society deeply divided.

However, the Polish economy has grown quickly since 1989, avoiding any recession so far, and the new Golden Age for the Polish society is on the way because of the left-leaning policies implemented by a conservative government.

A troubled past haunting the present

Poland is a country soaked in history. The effects stemming from the annexations of Poland by the 18th century Central and Eastern European empires, the time under communist rule and even the political divisions from the beginning of the 1990s still have an impact today, haunting the current political debate.

History is to Poles as important as the present. They feel proud and self-righteous due to the fact that Poland did not surrender during World War II, share memes on the internet underlining the bravery and steadfastness of their ancestors during wartime – often in comparison to other occupied nations that gave in to the Nazi occupants.

Moreover, because of the ten-century long relationship with the Catholic Church, the tie between the crown and the church in Poland is different than in other Western countries, and religious identity is still important to 90% of Poles who define themselves as Catholics. This often leads to a very black and white worldview and limits political choices for the Polish society. For those who adhere to this approach, the morality of political actions does not depend on the possible consequences but on whether they fulfil a righteous duty.

Many Polish politicians believe that there is a supreme principle of morality, which creates a polarised political debate of left vs right, and right vs wrong. This brings about political decisions that to many may seem irrational or immoral but are considered moral from the right-wing standpoint.

The right-leaning present, with strong economic growth

Poles have held on to a deep and notable inferiority complex for many years. The Germans coined the term “polnische Wirtschaft” as a derogative and mocking term describing a state economy characterised by chronic shortages, hyperinflation, corruption and abysmal living standards.

In comparison, Polish workers felt less capable and, in accordance with this, were paid less. In 1992, only 47% of Poles would say that a typical Pole performed well at their work; at the same time, 88% thought a typical European worked well. Today, due to Polish migration trends, the opening up of borders and the rather astonishing economic growth, currently 81% of Poles would agree that a Pole performs well at work, compared to 75% saying the same thing about a European. The self-confidence of Poles has developed, and the vast majority of the country, for the first time, is happy and self-assured.

In the recent years, Poland has become Europe’s growth engine being the only economy in the European Union to avoid recession during the 2008 global financial crisis. In July 2018, the European Commission increased Poland’s 2018 GDP growth forecast to 4.6% from its previous estimate of 4.3% issued in May, which means that in the EU only Malta and Ireland will grow faster. The above has helped the Poles gain confidence and self-esteem in themselves and the quality of their work.

Nonetheless, Polish society remains different from the most of its European peers. Poles have a stronger right-wing orientation than the rest of Europe.

According to the European Social Survey from 2016, about 31% of Europeans and only 22% of Poles define their views as leftist. Centrist views are declared by 30% of Poles and 32% of Europeans. What distinguishes Poles is that 48% of them would place themselves to the right of the centre, while on average in Europe only 37% of residents see themselves this way.

The distribution of views on the left-right axis in the case of Poland is the closest to the Hungarian, Estonia, Ireland and Lithuania populations while the Norwegians, Swedes, Germans and Spaniards have the most distant political views to those declared by Poles.

A social-liberal future

At present, Poland ranks 6th among the economies of the European Union, and they are using this moment to combine the deepening solidarity stemming from the social policy of the state with the greater competitiveness of the economy.

Poland’s new development model is based on the Strategy for Responsible Development, presented in 2016 by the then-deputy PM and Minister of Development, Mateusz Morawiecki, who currently is Poland’s Prime Minister. Its key elements are the strengthening of the role of Polish capital in the economic structure of the country, in order to build a pro-export and pro-innovative economy, to reduce the impact of external shocks to the economy as well as increase the social security of the society.

This last component is necessary due to the negligence of previous years, in which a large part of society was left on its own and 58% of Poles believed that the government should play a more active role in the economy. This policy mix is not popular on the liberal side but stripping Polish politics of the right-wing rhetoric you would get reasonable social-liberal, social-democratic or Christian democratic approaches presented in many other European countries and which promote a welfare state.

Polish politics can be complicated; I know that because I am a Pole. Einstein, Feynman and Hawking concluded that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously. This is the same case with Poland, it is deeply rooted in the past, with unresolved historical issues, dreams of glorious endeavours and a sense of righteousness defying any odds. Yet, it also is in the present – where it has developed rapidly; during the years 1989-2017 Poland’s GDP per capita grew by 135%, which places it among the fastest growing countries in the world.

However, it is also focused on the future – by trying to implement a strategic plan. Every country needs an economic policy which has to be well thought out, sound, appropriate and achievable. For the first time in more than a decade, Poland is trying to build its economy based on social market principles with a mix of Christian values. Here, the past, present and future do co-exist as the physicists thought.

Piotr Arak is the head of the Polish Economic Institute.

Piotr Arak

Central European Futures

Over the past several years, it has become ever more apparent that the post-Cold War era of democratic reform, socio-economic development and Western integration in Central Europe is coming to an end.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German-Marshall Fund of the U.S..

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