Pol­ish lessons

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer (gwynne7631­[email protected]) has worked as a free­lance jour­nal­ist, colum­nist, broad­caster and lec­turer on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for more than 20 years. He is the au­thor of “Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).”

There is a ten­sion at the heart of pop­ulist po­lit­i­cal par­ties that may ul­ti­mately lead most of them to elec­toral de­feat. They de­pend heav­ily on the votes of the old, the poor and the poorly ed­u­cated — “I love the poorly ed­u­cated,” as Don­ald Trump once put it — but they are also right-wing par­ties that do not like what they call “so­cial­ism.” (Other peo­ple call it the wel­fare state.)

So while they fight the “cul­ture war” against lib­eral val­ues and bang the na­tion­al­ist drum (which is pop­u­lar with these key vot­ing groups), they usu­ally shun the kinds of gov­ern­ment pro­grams that would ac­tu­ally raise the in­comes of their key vot­ers. It doesn’t sit well with the ide­olo­gies of the peo­ple who lead these par­ties, who are nei­ther poor nor poorly ed­u­cated.

A case in point is Bri­tain’s gov­ern­ing Con­ser­va­tive Party, which has made the jour­ney from tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tive val­ues to ra­bid na­tion­al­ism and pop­ulism over the past decade. But at the same time it has pur­sued “uni­ver­sal credit,” a puni­tive re­form of the coun­try’s gen­er­ous wel­fare pro­grams that has left most of its work­ing-class vot­ers worse off and forced some to turn to food banks.

The Con­ser­va­tives have been get­ting away with it, in the short term, be­cause Brexit is an all-con­sum­ing emo­tional is­sue in which the same old, poor and poorly ed­u­cated part of the elec­torate mostly voted “Leave” in bla­tant con­tra­dic­tion to their eco­nomic in­ter­ests.

How­ever, it does not make elec­toral sense in the long term. Pop­ulists al­ways man­u­fac­ture some sort of cri­sis for their sup­port­ers to fo­cus on at elec­tion time, but few oth­ers will work as ef­fec­tively as Brexit. Sooner or later their eco­nomic poli­cies, which hurt the poor, will be­tray them — un­less they heed the Pol­ish ex­am­ple.

In the Oct. 13 Pol­ish elec­tion, the pop­ulist Law and Jus­tice Party won 43.6 per­cent of the vote (ac­cord­ing to the exit polls) in an elec­tion that saw the big­gest turnout since the fall of Com­mu­nism in 1989. That is a full 6 per­cent higher than the vote that first brought them to power in 2015 and will give them an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity in the Sejm (the lower house of par­lia­ment).

The Law and Jus­tice Party is not an at­trac­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion. It cul­ti­vates the na­tional taste for self-pity and mar­tyr­dom (the “Christ of the Na­tions”), and al­ways finds some imag­i­nary threat to “Pol­ish val­ues” that only it can pro­tect the na­tion from. In 2015 it was Mus­lim refugees (none of whom were ac­tu­ally head­ing for Poland); this time it was the al­leged LGBT threat to Pol­ish cul­ture.

In power, it has curbed the free­dom of the press, at­tacked the in­de­pen­dence of the ju­di­ciary and purged the civil ser­vice, re­plac­ing pro­fes­sion­als with party loy­al­ists. Sev­eral times it has been threat­ened with sanc­tions for its anti-demo­cratic ac­tions by the Euro­pean Union, which has the duty of de­fend­ing democ­racy among its mem­ber coun­tries.

Law and Jus­tice’s rhetoric is di­vi­sive and filled with ha­tred. For­eign Min­is­ter Wi­told Waszczykow­ski ex­plained that the gov­ern­ment wanted to “cure our coun­try of a few ill­nesses” in­clud­ing “a new mix­ture of cul­tures and races, a world made up of cy­clists and veg­e­tar­i­ans, who only use re­new­able en­ergy and who bat­tle all signs of re­li­gion.”

So far, so bad, but fairly typ­i­cal of the new gen­er­a­tion of pop­ulist par­ties in the West. What is very dif­fer­ent, and gave Law and Jus­tice its re­sound­ing vic­tory in this elec­tion, is that it ad­dressed not only its vot­ers’ ide­o­log­i­cal con­cerns but also their eco­nomic needs.

Per­haps it’s be­cause the Pol­ish right, sup­pressed un­der Com­mu­nist rule for more than four decades, never de­vel­oped the kind of lib­er­tar­ian, Ayn Rand-wor­ship­ping ide­ol­ogy that in­fects much of the right in coun­tries fur­ther west. Or maybe it’s be­cause of Pol­ish na­tion­al­ism’s long al­liance with the Catholic Church, which ac­tu­ally does re­spect and care for the poor.

At any rate, Law and Jus­tice man­ages to be eco­nom­i­cally left wing even though it is cul­tur­ally right wing. In power, it raised the min­i­mum wage, promis­ing to dou­ble it by 2023, and low­ered the re­tire­ment age. It gave pen­sion­ers an an­nual cash bonus and boosted farm­ing sub­si­dies. (It won most of the ru­ral vote.)

Above all, it brought in the 500 Plus pro­gram, which gives par­ents 500 zlo­tys ($130) a month for each child. It’s pro-fam­ily (which pleases the Church), it en­cour­ages big fam­i­lies (which pleases na­tion­al­ists, given Poland’s de­clin­ing birthrate), and while it doesn’t make much dif­fer­ence to mid­dle-class fam­i­lies, it trans­forms the life of a poor fam­ily with three chil­dren.

And all that money go­ing into the hands of the ci­ti­zens pro­duced an eco­nomic growth rate last year of 5.4 per­cent, one of the high­est in the Euro­pean Union. No won­der Law and Jus­tice in­creased its share of the na­tional vote in this month’s elec­tion.

So if you are not fond of pop­ulism, pray that pop­ulists else­where do not dis­cover Poland’s se­cret. They do need to be cul­tur­ally con­ser­va­tive, be­cause they are al­ways blood-and­soil na­tion­al­ists, but there’s no par­tic­u­lar rea­son why they shouldn’t be eco­nom­i­cally lib­eral. If they want to last, that’s the way they have to go.

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