Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Polish populism?

The mainstream media and political parties label any idea outside the narrow confines of the political centre as ‘populist’. It’s become a meaningless term of abuse.(photo: Roman Giertych and Andrzej Lepper - two Polish 'populists')

Populist parties join Polish government, EU Observer
Poland's foreign minister quits over PiS coalition with populists, Monsters and Critics

Put ‘populist’ and ‘Poland’ into google and 477,000 entries will pop up. It seems we have entered the populist age.

All the above headlines refer to the new coalition agreement between the ruling Law and Justice party, the ‘populist’ Self defense party, and a few from the ‘populist’ League of Polish Families.

But it’s not only they who are the populists, apparently.

In October last year, after the parliamentary and presidential elections were won by the Law and Justice party (PiS) and the Kaczynski brothers, the BBC reported that there was, High hopes for Poland's populist leader – meaning, not Andrzej Lepper or Roman Giertych, but President Lech Kaczynski.

Many were calling PiS populist back then and in one interview Kaczynski went out of his way to declare that he ‘was not a populist’. He regarded the label as an insult. And he was right to think so.

Since then the populist tag has usually been confined to Lepper, Giertych etc.


Populism is generally taken to mean rhetoric or ideas that paint the political elite as out of touch with the masses, is corrupt and self-serving and should be replaced by the common sense of the people.

So, if crime or terrorism is increasing, and if ordinary people think that stiffer prison sentences (or capital punishment) would have a deterrent effect, then the populist policy would be ‘tougher on crime’. If opinion polls show that people feel that the EU is to blame for economic woes then the policy should become more euroscpetic.

If that is how populist is being used today then yes, Lepper is a populist, but so is Kaczynski. Even the name of his party, Law and Justice, taps into people’s fears that Poland is falling apart and becoming more and more crime ridden because of communist/liberal influences.

Kaczynski’s whole programme, therefore, is populist.

But how about opposition parties like the so-called ‘liberal’ Civic Platform? They promise that what the country needs is an unfettered free market to combat the protectionism, state interference and high taxation which are to blame for Poland’s problems.

That, surely, is just a kind of middle class populism.

George Bush (and Blair) have tried to claim – as their support in the opinion polls plummets - that security is the number one issue for the US and the UK. So, increased state spending on security and defense, a crackdown on civil liberties and the invasion of other countries are justified because ‘the nation and our way of life is under threat’.

That’s a very populist rhetoric.

The truth these days is that, in this post-ideological world of managerial politics, where policy is driven by focus groups, all parties have become populist.


Anonymous said...

Using the word "populist" saves you from the tiresome chore of finding out and explaining what the party or politican in question's policies actually are.

Lynn said...

Interesting observation.

Chris Borowski said...

From a journalistic perspective, I must say that the first comment is right on the money. It's easy and mostly clean to call somebody a populist. Because the other alternative for somebody like Lepper would be what? Neo-communist? Opportunist?
And League of Polish Families? Religious Right? I prefer Religious Wrong.

beatroot said...

Clean? Populist?

It has the connotation of manipulation of the 'common people's' base desires and fears. It means playing to the gallery, saying and doing things for effect.

I think it's just a) a the established parties fear of their isolation from voters, and b) lazy journalism, and confusing.

sonia said...

Actually, the term "Polish populism" seem slightly redundant, like "wet water" or "cold snow"...

Gabriel said...

Oh... I just called Lepper a populist on my new blog, But I guess for the Swedish reader it's OK, combined with "peasant leader", when referring to him en passant.

Eugene Markow said...

You may want to read an interesting analysis on Lepper in a May 25, 2004 article by Lily Galili in "Haaretz" entitled `I'm no fascist'.


Here are some items from that write-up:

Haaretz describes Lepper as a "...populist politician with an anti-elitist platform...".

"Called by some a neo-fascist, Andrzej Lepper insists he is just looking out for the interests of his countrymen."

A surprising comment in the article describes Lepper's technique " the populist style that is also very familiar in Israel, he sandwiched together the hostile media and the intellectuals...". So, if part of the current governmental coalition (Lepper) can in fact be considered to be "Populist", then Poland isn't obviously alone in including this element in its political sphere. Some parallels can also be drawn to Amir Peretz, the populist leader of Israel's Labor Party. The Washington Post recently described him as a "...populist in his politics, dynamic on the stump. Even the moustache that his opponents cite as evidence of everything from ethnic radicalism to a resemblance to Joseph Stalin sets Peretz apart from the Israeli founding fathers...". And he was voted in as well. So, should only Poland be condemned for having somebody described as a populist, if that may be the correct term, in a position of authority?

Haaretz goes on to mention: "Lepper is often equated with Joerg Haider in Austria or Jean Marie le Pen in France. This comparison applies only in part. Haider and Le Pen built up their careers on xenophobia, but in Poland there are no foreigners to hate."

In the interview, Lepper states:

"...first they depicted me as Lenin, then as Stalin and Hitler and now mostly as Haider and Le Pen. I'm not a fascist."

When asked whether he was anti-semitic, he replied:

"Not at my party there are all kinds - those who identify themselves as Jews, Ukrainians, Belarussians, and even a doctor from Bangladesh. And then they say I'm a fascist. I am a social leftist and a proud national Pole. Only Poland's interests are important to me. So what? Hasn't Ariel Sharon said that Israel is what is most important to him?"

I suggest you read the article in full. It makes one wonder, is populism more common in world politics than we think, in the countries we least expect?

beatroot said...

And that's my point, Eugene - we live in an age on populism beciase the old left/right thing has collapsed.

When the French said Non to the EU constitution commentators brushed it away as a 'populist' vote (meaning that the vote went against the establishment).

It was just people saying no to something that they didn't like.

There is little real difference between PiS, Samoobrona and LPR...the coalition will not hold however, becuase the persinalities involved are too different - not the political outlook.

It's true about the Samoobrona doctor from Bangladesh!

But Lepper is an anti-Semite....

Anonymous said...

That's a great story. Waiting for more. » »

Anonymous said...