Election results are often about making fewer mistakes than having many shots on target. Law and Justice (PiS) has constantly tripped over its own legs, yet support for the ruling party remains at a very high level. This is a most demoralising phenomenon for democracy.
Poland will hold parliamentary elections on Sunday 13 October. If the elections had taken place in September, PiS would have entered parliament with 47 per cent of the vote and the Civil Coalition (KO) would again sit on the opposition benches due to a score of 27 per cent. The Left could have entered parliament with 13 per cent, while the Polish Coalition (PSL and Kukiz’15) and the far-right Confederation Freedom and Independence oscillated on the border of 5 per cent.
The President’s shoes
The September polling result of PiS was not a surprise, were it not for the fact that many scandals involving the most important people of the state have come to light.
There were ambiguities with regard to several building plots of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the Jarosław Kaczyński tapes concerning the construction of a skyscraper, a sex worker affair and a plane affair of Sejm speaker Marek Kuchciński, the organised hate campaign at the Ministry of Justice and links between the President of the Supreme Audit Office, Marian Banaś, and the Krakow underworld.
One could have assumed that given the position of the concerned persons and the weight of the allegations, as well as the degree of documentation, these events would have caused a significant decline in the popularity of the ruling party. However, this did not happen.
Law and Justice has not lost any of its support and retains a significant advantage over its competitors. It was enough for party leader Kaczyński to walk in damaged shoes, that corruption proposals passed as “hard negotiations”, to reinforce the image of a modest man.
This year’s PiS election proposal is named “the Polish version of the welfare state”. The whole process of “repairing the state” can be reduced to the first known sentence written in the Polish language, “Let me do the milling and you have some rest”. However, the problem is not what is being told but who speaks to whom.
I will do it for you
PiS is part of a pan-European wave of right-wing populism. However, this is not a typical form of dilettante, anti-system and post-ideological populism, as in the case of the Polish Kukiz’15 or the Italian Five Stars Movement, which quickly began to lose interest of voters.
New populism makes one of the most tempting and at the same time most dangerous offers you can hear: “I will do it for you.” In the state-citizen relationship it is a denial of the principle of subsidiarity, which is the basis of democracy and underscores the project for a peaceful and united Europe.
It is not just a policy of social transfers – which PiS emphasizes in its program as “the foundation of government’s credibility” – but the creation of a culture of suspicion, paternalism and hostility, the interference in the activities of the third sector and the attempt to break the rule of law and all interventions “without any recognition”, As Jarosław Kaczyński said to the Speaker of the Sejm on July 18, 2017, when he took the floor in the Parliament without having the formal right to do so, and then threw charges for the murder of his brother towards the opposition.
PiS wants to be the helm, the sailor, the ship, and preferably the sea for all citizens. It wants to help out its citizens in everything. And that is the problem.
The principle of subsidiarity, inscribed in the constitution of the Republic of Poland and the Treaty on European Union, aims at strengthening the rights of citizens and their communities, assumes that decisions are taken as close as possible to the citizens, which means that the higher levels of government are to carry out only those tasks that cannot be successfully carried out at lower levels. In other words, subsidiarity means support in achieving the common good while maintaining the subjectivity and independence of individuals.
The inverted subsidiarity principle of “I will do it for you” seems attractive because it requires no commitment and releases all citizens from responsibility. The state becomes the sole guarantor and steward of freedom and prosperity.
Let the state turn the millstones while you, citizens, sit down and rest. The state knows better. Take care of your life, home, family, work … you have so much on your mind.
In the long run, any basis for cooperation, self-governance, the ability to pursue common goals and assert rights is being destroyed, and this undermines the foundations of a democratic society. Doing the work of citizens – even if is done in good will – deprives them of their subjectivity and their influence on the shape of the world around them.
Attempts to replace citizens’ responsibilities are taking place continuously. That is the case, for instance, with a top-down change of concept and permanent display of the Second World War Museum in Gdańsk. This occurred despite several years were spent on public and scientific consultations for the museum. Another example is the recent brawl between the government and the local Warsaw authorities over the failure of the Czajka sewage treatment plant.
PiS has relied on the same electorate since the beginning of its existence. The electorate’s unchanging features, however, are not demographic but psychological. Although they are often correlated, these features cannot be reduced to age, place of residence or level of education.
The PiS electorate has traditionally been distrustful and shown a low propensity to cooperation. These are fixed features. Meanwhile, trust is one of the most important values affecting community building. The group most attached to community values – as the PiS narrative wants – is in fact the least likely to create it on a permanent basis.
A lack of trust easily turns into a tendency to believe in the existence of hidden forces driving the world. One example of the practice of distrust can be witnessed in the conspiracy theories that were conjured up after the Smoleńsk tragedy.
The traditional PiS slogan “It’s worth being Polish” has recently been supplemented with the phrase ‘”It’s worth making Poland last”, suggesting the existence of a lethal threat. The ruling party, using a known method, points its finger at all potential internal and external enemies: migrants, LGBT groups, “street” and “abroad”.
The populists’ ambition is not so much to build trust as to consolidate distrust.
And this is what PiS does masterfully. First, it sows the seeds of doubt, and then carefully cultivates what grows out of it: watering, pruning, exaggerating. The loss of trust is progressing in multiple directions – in relation to the state, international organizations, adjacent countries, foreigners, people of a different religion or sexual orientation, state institutions, science, the third sector, private individuals, neighbours, colleagues. At the end you lose confidence in yourself.
PiS needs an enemy, it must fight someone, overthrow the system and defend against the other. PiS does not exist without an enemy. That is why it is in a constant war with all who are not its followers. For Law and Justice, discord means treason. As a result, even when in power, it behaves as if it were the opposition. This attitude especially has its consequences for the international arena, because Poland is still not familiar with agency in political affairs.
It is not the economy, stupid!
It is hard not to get the impression that, despite subsequent scandals, PR disasters and obvious contradictions between declarations and action, it is PiS and not the KO that sets the tone of the election campaign and effectively knows how to convince the Poles.
PiS started with the slogan “A good time for Poland”, without any “buts”, without “maybe”. The sign has a heart inscribed with a voting symbol against the background of Poland.
KO decided to use an election slogan that expresses some hesitation: “Tomorrow can be better”. Only a a few have noticed that the Polish name of the “Civic Coalition” (ed. “KoalicJA OBYWATELska”) project contains the distinguished phrase “I citizen”, which should be at the centre of the entire message.
Poles assess the state of the economy and future forecasts well, and PiS willingly uses it. Few people actively remember about street protests in defence of women’s rights or the constitution – events that mobilized thousands of people to break out the comfort zone of their homes and to speak out on community matters.
“We have gained something priceless in democracy – that is, credibility. Because without credibility there is no democracy” repeats Jarosław Kaczyński at every opportunity. “Credibility” is undoubtedly the key word of the PiS election campaign. And in support of it are 500 zlotys, which every month supports the household budgets of many rich and poor Polish families.
Despite the consistently built image of a total disinterest in money, both the president Kaczyński and PiS have by no means a repulsion for money. But economic and material matters are only the background for the party’s message. The accent in the phrase “a Polish version of the welfare state” falls on the word “Polish”. PiS has long focused on what other parties are the weakest in – identity and spiritual matters.
“Not everything depends on income, the economy, the economic situation – said Jarosław Kaczyński in Legionowo on 26 September – justice is important, our spiritual situation is important.”
In the final run to the elections PiS conducts an intensive voter mobilisation campaign. A higher turnout usually has favoured the result of the Civic Platform, yet, all indications are that in the upcoming elections a higher turnout means a greater victory for PiS.
Studies of the electorate show that PiS voters have been optimistic about the future and feel less alienated since Kaczyński’s assumption of power, while their willingness to cooperate and readiness to trust others is low, and the acceptance of authoritarian solutions is relatively high. However, PiS has the largest negative electorate and the result of Sunday’s elections will largely depend on its voter mobilisation.
Poles are individualists, which is confirmed by, for example, surveys of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), where they perform worse in teamwork and collaborative problem-solving. Meanwhile, democracy is a team game. Attempts to build it alone mean a radical change in the rules of the game.
PiS is right to argue that “the election is not won by lying on the couch.” A life that ends in the private sphere (Gr. idion), in a house with a white picket fence, is “idiotic”; it is a denial of freedom. “Man is not only idiotes, but also polites.” Hence, one does not win elections lying on the coach, but first and foremost, does not participate in community life.
Democracy is easy to lose by a walkover. A lack of interest and civic engagement of those who have democratic values at their hearts, combined with a lack of trust in societal life and international relations – is the worst scenario for Poland and Europe. It opens the door for “helpful” forces that start with a new definition of citizenship but end with a new system of government.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. It was first published in Magyar Narancs.