A note from Poland

Almost a month has passed since my return to Poland. It is always strange to be back home, at least initially, but then I somehow adjust like an old fish entering familiar pond. But Poland is changing. The country I left behind in 2005 no longer exists and the improved standard of living is hard to miss.

Driving on a highway from Cracow to Katowice, most cars I see are nice or luxurious. The once ubiquitous “maluch” (Fiat 126p) is nowhere to be found. Poles are well dressed, unemployment is low, and the economy is growing at a rate of about 4.2 percent. Although people complain, they admit that their wallets are doing OK. Some are doing very well.

Some time ago I made a bet that PiS will win parliamentary elections this fall but it will not rule without a coalition party. I think I will lose that bet. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) won election to the European Parliament couple weeks ago. This was a surprise, considering that they ran again a coalition of parties that were favored in polls before the election day. In fact, this fall PiS might even get enough seats to amend the current constitution, because smaller parties will have a very hard time obtaining the 5% threshold.

Although PiS is accused of populism, the real failure in Poland has to do with the inability of liberal parties to propose a program that would be at least semi-appealing. I often say that the Civic Platform Party (PO) and their friends seem to run a workshop entitled “how not to win ever again.” PO’s achievements include sending kids to school early, raising the retirement age, and increasing taxes. PiS rolled-back these policies after assuming power, while introducing their flagship program, the so-called 500+.

The outlook for liberal parties in Poland is bleak. If the economy is doing well, people tend to vote for incumbents. Some left-wing parties try another strategy which entails focusing on moral issues like gay rights and abortion. The Catholic Church is not as strong as it was in the early 1990s, but most Poles are still quite orthodox in their faith. Promoting LGBT legislation might appeal to some voters in bigger cities, but that is not enough. These parties need to appeal to a “median voter” which in Poland happens to be more religious, conservative, and probably authoritarian than in other European countries.

Political scientists tend to assume that political parties are rational. They are supposed to adjust their behavior to the situation they find themselves in. However, I am left wondering how much more losing PO has to endure before they realize that few people are buying what they are selling. It is hard to win when you do not know what you stand for, and yet that is exactly where PO and other liberal parties are at right now. The recent rise of populism has focused our attention on PiS and other authoritarian parties. However, scholars should not overlook liberal parties and their failures. Their inability to offer a viable alternative to right-wing governance is both striking and frankly, embarrassing.

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