With a general election only weeks away, and a presidential election early next month, you will often be hearing descriptions of the various political parties as either being right, left, liberal, moderate and so on. But these labels in Poland can be very confusing. (pictured: Andrzej Lepper, Samoobrona)
Take, for example, the leading political party in most of the opinion polls at the moment, Civic Platform. I have seen them variously described as liberal, centrist, center/right, rightist, and even neo-conservative.
The term ‘liberal’ is doubly confusing as it means different things on different sides of the Atlantic. In the United States ‘liberal’ is generally seen as being left of center. To an American right-winger, a liberal is a ‘pinko’ who believes in Big Government. During the McCarthy trials in the nineteen fifties a liberal was a communist (although we should remember that having a significant amount of facial hair in nineteen fifties made you a communist in America).
In Europe, however, a liberal means someone who believes that the government should stay out of most areas of public and private life. To ‘liberalize’ the economy means to roll back state intervention. A liberal in Europe can mean a right-winger who believes in small government.
But what does a ‘neo-conservative’ mean? Does this mean Civic Platform is Poland’s first party of neo-cons? Does this mean that Civic Platform share the foreign policy ideology of a Paul Wolfewitz and Donald Rumsfeld, for example (and are they planning to invade Belerus)? And if they do share this view of the world, then how does that make Civic Platform ‘moderate-centrists?
If you actually take look at Civic Platform’s manifesto it basically consist of liberal (in the European meaning of the term) economic policies – meaning increasing the rate of privatization, and a low, flat tax policy – an idea attractive in many ex-communist countries. But on social issues the ‘liberal’ Civic Platform is relatively conservative – they do not propose to ‘liberalize’ Poland’s very restrictive abortion laws, for instance.
Liberal, free market economics, plus social conservatism are actually policies associated with Margaret Thatcher in her prime in the nineteen eighties. And if you called Maggie Thatcher a centrist-moderate, or even a center-rightist in those days she would have given you a sharp crack over the head with her handbag. Thatcher was a radical right-winger. Period.
Civic Platform, in the Polish context, is often called center-rightist or moderates, but in any other context they would be thought of as simply rightwing.
Confused yet? Well, it gets worse.
Take what have been called the ‘far-right’ League of Polish Families. These are ‘christian nationalists’, with a nationalist pedigree that goes back to the nineteen thirties. Historian Norman Davies has described The League of Polish Families nationalist, forbears as ‘professional anti-Semites.’ So they do sound like typical far-rightists in their choice of prejudices.
But when the League of Polish Families was set up as a political party a few years ago I saw them labeled as ‘christian left’ – whatever that means. For sure, their policies are based on an interpretation of Polish social Catholicism, are isolationists – they hate the EU, for example, as they think that Poland will become inundated with social liberals (in both the American and European meaning), abortionists and gays and lesbians. They also want to restrict the amount of foreign capital in Poland.
So are they left, or right?
The Law and Justice party was set up by the Kaczynski twins, Lech and Jaroslaw. They have been described as ‘conservative’, ‘right wing’, or even, sometimes, ‘center/right’. They have promised to be tough on crime and criminals, even going as far as to bring back the death penalty. These types of anti-crime policies are usually associated with the political right. Economically – and here’s the twist - Law and Justice are, if anything, to the left of the so-called ‘centrist’ Civic Platform, but to the right of the so-called ‘christian leftists’, the League of Polish Families.
Another grouping you will hear of in the coming few weeks is Samoobrona – or SelfDefence, led by the political bullyboy, Andrzej Lepper. This was set up as a kind of farmer’s trade union, protesting against all sorts of things, from liberalization and increased competition from agriculture outside of Poland, to attacks on farming subsidies, etc. At a loss to where to put this lot’s political orientation, journalists have turned to the catchall label of populist.
Populism – which can be either left or rightwing - usually refers to a rhetorical style that appeals to the ‘common sense’ of the electorate and the average man or woman in the street. It asserts that the political elite is corrupt and self-serving and needs to be overthrown by people with ‘common sense’. It also usually incorporates a bit of racism or nationalism thrown in for good measure.
This does describe SelfDefence quite well, but populism is also a label that could be applied to many of the political parties in Poland.
Except, that is, to the Social Democratic Left – a party that was formed out of the old Polish communist party. Policy wise these are basically social democrats, but they are the ones who are being accused of being the self-serving corrupt elite by the populist parties. Law and Justice and League of Polish Families pledge to purge the ex-communists, not just from government, but from the civil service, many other quasi-governmental organizations, the secret service, and so on.
Consequently, in Poland, how far a political party can be described as ‘rightwing’ really comes down to how much they hate the ex-communists.
At a time when left and right are all but loosing their meaning in the west, in Poland, where these labels are quite new to the political scene, they are all but useless. Politics in ex-communist countries is peculiar to ex-communist countries. So using the terminology of left, right, etc, has little meaning outside of the country where the terms are being used.
But journalists will still be using them. And if you think that you are confused by Polish politics, spare a thought for the poor old Polish voter who will have to choose where to put their tick beside a name of a party, or individual, that could labeled as either liberal, centrist, rightists, moderate, neo-conservative, or all of them simultaneously.
And people wonder why turnout in Poland is so low!
A shortened version of this article can be found at the Radio Polonia web site