The pendulum theory of Polish politics

I was first introduced to the pendulum theory of politics two years ago, when carrying out my fieldwork in Poland. In the context of my research, this “theory” goes something like this:

When politicians pursue unpopular proposals – restriction of abortion laws, for example – they will soon find themselves voted out of office in favor of parties with the opposite political agenda.

Law and Justice (PiS) deputies used this reasoning, to justify their inaction in reference to several anti-abortion initiatives sponsored by ordinary citizens. And while it makes sense that politicians pursuing policies contrary to public opinion will soon be voted out, this “theory” has been misused by PiS deputies in several important ways.

First of all, the widespread outcry – both domestic and international – had not stopped Kaczyński and his party from restructuring Polish courts. PiS was more than willing to engage in highly controversial reforms even if the result was future electoral defeat. Secondly, politics is not deterministic. Restricting abortion – or any other policy – does not automatically lead to electoral failure. Causation is much more complicated than that. Finally, when rejecting or stalling anti-abortion proposals, PiS deputies have ignored many of their most loyal supporters (link). Thus, the probability that Law and Justice will not do as well in the next election actually increases.

There is no law of politics, and the pendelum theory was obviously used as a cheap explanation for why PiS deputies would not touch abortion. This in turn explains why the Polish pro-life movement and PiS have been increasingly at odds. Kaja Godek – arguably the most prominent pro-life figure on the Polish political scence – has been very vocal in her opposition to PiS, and even announced her candidacy for elections to the European Parliament.

The pendulum theory is easily falsifiable, and thus not a theory. This does not mean, however, that it tells us nothing. The basic insight is this: mobilization leads to counter-mobilization. And while the pro-life movement is correct in criticizing PiS for its inaction and for not fulfilling its campaign promises, the movement and its members are yet to come to terms with the consequences of their political activity. Poland is a Catholic religious monopoly if there ever was one. In recent years especially, the country has experienced an increasing turn to the right. With few exceptions, left-leaning and feminist groups have not been very influential. But the continued pressure exercised by the pro-life movement has lead to mobilization on the left side of Polish political spectrum. This includes everything from small and radical groups that vandalized several Catholic Churches to formation of new political parties.

The pendulum “theory” is better understood as a model that illustrates a basic mechanism (i.e., mobilization leads to counter-mobilization). As far as abortion policy is concerned, PiS has made many promises that the party promptly ignored once in power, while the pro-life movement exerted a lot of energy that is yet to translate to policy impact but has re-energized groups seeking to liberalize abortion. The mobilization counter-mobilization mechanism suggests that both PiS and pro-life groups are likely to incur political costs in terms of increased political opposition. This is already true of the latter actor, and it might affect PiS during the 2019 parliamentary election.

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