Election PiS in Poland Promises a Welfare State upon Winning the Elections

To understand the election results and its implications it is necessary to distinguish two different layers of Polish politics. At the visible surface of politics, the battle takes places between the two dominant parties, PiS and PO. However, at a “deeper lever”, both parties struggle to react to global challenges, but they do so in diametrically different manners. Whether PO or PiS in government, the past years of Polish politics has seen a steadily growing realisation that politics at the national level becomes increasingly difficult.

Published on balticworlds.com on november 4, 2019

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On October 13, 2019 the parliamentary elections were held in Poland. As expected, the government party, national-conservative PiS became the biggest and retained its majority in the Lower House, Sejm. However, it lost its majority in the Upper House, Senate. In the Sejm elections, PiS got 43,6% (up from 37,6% in 2015), the second was market-liberal KO (Civic Coalition) lead by the biggest opposition party PO (Civic Platform) with 27,4% (up from 24,1% in 2015) and third came the Left with 12,6% votes. Two other electoral committees competing for the seats were the centre-conservative Polish coalition, nominated by PSL, an agrarian party and Kukiz’15 originally an anti-establishment political force converging on centrist political position and the more radical conservative and nationalist Confederation led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke. Prior to the elections, there was much talk that they would set the future course of Poland. Western media has been quick to celebrate the fact that PiS lost its hold over the Upper House but let us face the fact that an incumbent party increased its support by 7 percentage points – and at the same time the turnout went up from 51% in 2015 to almost 62%. This is a victory to be reckoned with.

 

The fact that PiS lost the Senate is an indication that the opposition is still around. The Senate is subordinate to the Sejm and can in effect only slow down the government as long as it holds the majority in the Sejm. However, there are also the presidential elections coming next year – and the president has the veto power over bills (three-fifths majority in the Sejm is required to overrule the president’s veto, and that PiS does not have). Although this was a clear victory for PiS, it does not yet mean that the coming four years would be a continuous jubilee for the party.

 

Poland under the last PiS-led government has consolidated its fame as one of the trouble-children of the EU. PiS has taken control over the judiciary, public TV and radio, rejected EU’s refugee policies but also embarked on drafting a new welfare state. Flagships in this process have been a generous child allowance and a comprehensive plan for “responsible development”. The government promises dignity to the citizens, but human rights organizations worry that continuing PiS rule will continue to clamp down country’s minorities. Critics have pointed out the far-reaching reforms in social policy that are expected to lead to large deficits in the state budget. More cynical voices also note that such reforms undermine the austerity consensus in the European Union. The sense of importance of these elections was reflected in the turnout that was highest since the first free elections in summer 1989.

 

To understand the election results and its implications it is necessary to distinguish two different layers of Polish politics. At the visible surface of politics, the battle takes places between the two dominant parties, PiS and PO. However, at a “deeper lever”, both parties struggle to react to global challenges, but they do so in diametrically different manners: During its time in the government, PO gave up the notion of political power and state as something that can exercise control over global economic forces for the good of the citizens, so forget the well-being of the citizens. PiS, on the other hand, with the help of exceptional political means and performance claimed to take back the control of the state but it knew that this could not be done whilst holding on to liberal democracy, so to the bin with liberal democracy. Whether PO or PiS in government, the past years of Polish politics has seen a steadily growing realisation that politics at the national level becomes increasingly difficult.

 

Technical Strategies

 

In the Sejm elections, a five-percent threshold is applied to parties, but electoral coalitions face an 8-percent threshold. This was detrimental to many smaller parties in previous, 2015, elections that formed electoral coalitions. For instance, the electoral coalition of three smaller leftist parties got 7,6 percent of the vote and thus they all fell out of the parliament. Altogether, over 16 percent of the votes were given to electoral committees whose share of the vote stayed below the threshold in 2015.

 

According to the Polish electoral law, it is not the political parties as such that compete in the elections, but electoral committees nominated by the parties. Under the electoral committee of PiS many smaller groupings have occurred for quite some time. In 2019, the smallest parties understood that they are better off if they nominate joint electoral committees thus technically appearing as “one” electoral committee. This strategy proved successful. The Left under the banner of SLD obtained over 12 percent of the vote. PO joined forces with the earlier splinter party Modern (Nowoczesna) and some other liberal parties like the Greens to form a Civic Coalition. Whilst the political and ideological logic behind the Left and the KO is obvious, the same strategy was used by parties coming from rather different walks of life. The former government ally of PO, agrarian and centre-conservative PSL formed an unholy alliance with the black horse of the 2015 elections, once nationalist and strongly anti-establishment, Kukiz’15. In 2015, Kukiz’15 became third with 8,8 percent. Together with PSL’s 5 percent in 2015 the chances were to form a new centrist force, Polish Coalition, between PiS and PO in 2019. However, the calculations did not work out, and the Polish Coalition received only 8,6 percent of the vote. In 2015, Kukiz’15 was entertaining hopes to align with PiS, but as PiS obtained a single-handed majority Kukiz’15 soon found itself pushed in the margins in the Sejm. Much of its initial appeal came from its anti-establishment stances, something that forming a coalition with the oldest political party in Poland, PSL, the epitome of systemic stability and tradition, was bound to undermine. The logic of the Polish Coalition was to break down the bipolar rivalry between PiS and PO. One obvious problem with this strategy was that the ideological, or political, content of this rivalry seemed not matter so much for the Polish Coalition. The aim was to present a middle position, but that missed the point that there is no middle point between PiS and PO, it is the dichotomy, polarity, itself that is important.

 

Yet, the technical reasons to join forces may well lead to new dimensions in Polish politics in some cases. PiS already appears as the clear leader and centre of gravity for value conservative forces that wish to see a strong state in society. PO pools together different “liberal” forces that are mainly interested in economic and procedural liberalism, but not necessarily espouse liberal values as such. Around SLD, different more and less radical leftist forces came together. Whilst the party SLD is best characterised as a social democratic party that belongs to the past, the two other parties, Spring (Wiosna) and Together (Razem) represent new political directions. Spring could be characterised as a contemporary recognition-before-redistribution party. The other new party, Together, under its slogan “Another kind of politics is possible” seeks new political openings aiming at bringing back the worker and working conditions into the centre of economic policy, limiting possibilities for tax exemptions for corporations, and seeing the securing of social justice as the responsibility of the state. The question is whether these three positions evolve into more coherent programmes that unite both economic and cultural/value questions; at present the problem of the opposition has been the focus on one or the other but weakness in combining them.

 

Party Rivalries

 

For a good while, Polish politics has been characterized by a rivalry between the national-conservative PiS and market-liberal PO. In the last two elections that PiS has won, it has presented a concrete electoral agenda focused on especially reforms in social policy. Perhaps the most renowned of these has been the 500-zloty child allowance (500+) introduced in 2016. Initially the policy covered the second and further children, but in 2019 it was extended to the first child also. In the election campaign, PiS confidently called this is “A good time for Poland”. The tax exemption of the young under 26 easies the entry of the young into society, but it also sends a signal that private business, especially bigger corporations, should bear more responsibility for society instead of individual tax payers. As of the coming term, it promises a substantial raise in the minimum salary. It is, however, not just the hand out of money that matters. These subsidies come with a rationale. PiS has been clear that they are the first government in post-1989 to put the well-being of family on the political agenda.

 

The concern for the families’ well-being was also articulated in the education reform, yet another massive programme introduced and implemented with great pace and vigour. It all began in PiS’s wish to reverse the previous government’s decision to put children to school at the age of 6 in order to “even out” their chances and transfer some of the responsibility of upbringing and early education from families to schools. PiS’s countermove was based on the argument that young children need to have the right to be children. This then led to a total overhaul of the educational system, dismantling of the tree-stage system of primary, secondary and upper schools and reintroduction of 8-years long basic school (skłowa podstawowa) and 4 years long upper school (liceum) qualifying for university education. The reforms of social policy as well as in education are not just reforms in the content of policy; they aim at the structures of society and alter the character of the state. Against PO’s “there is no alternative” politics, PiS has shown that a lot can be achieved in a short time.

 

This stands in stark contrast to PO that now forms the reactionary force in Polish politics. Their main election promise – as in 2015 – was that they are not like PiS. This was crystallised in their campaign slogans “The future can be better” and “Cooperation, not quarrels”. PO has also suffered from grey leaders. According to CBOS polls, Grzegorz Schetyna is one of the least trusted politicians in the country. PO is also guilty of gender-washing: they nominated, as late as in September 2019, a female politician, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, as their candidate for the prime minister – a tactic first used by PiS in 2015 with some success, but that was four years ago. PO avoids taking stance in sensitive moral questions, such as the right to abortion or doctors’ right to decline abortion – even when legal – on the basis of their conscience. In questions of European or global relevance, PO willingly sides with Brussels, but it has failed to articulate the importance or value of this position beyond that the EU expects it. The real problem of PO appears to be that they have nothing to say to a society that is increasingly divided into two ideologically different halves: their non-ideological, or better, technocratic position focusing on economic freedoms is eroded by the electorate that look for ideologically committed political stances on the left and right.

 

The problem of national politics revolving around the rivalry between two dominant parties is that the solutions the parties offer – in order to continue with the competition – tend to involve the exclusion of the other party. To borrow Chantal Mouffe’s terminology, the parties see each other in antagonistic terms, and cannot thus imagine a political future where their competitor could have any legitimate place: PiS as a party exists to keep PO at bay and vice versa. This also means that many policies proposed by the parties are precisely designed against the other party, not to society at all. Hence, many policies – education being one example – have zigzagged through the post-1989 history depending on the ruling party and which societal and economic interests have gained hold over the government. The effect of the rivalry and connected quest over the state is that increasingly the governing party also becomes the state and consequently changes in the ruling party follow with fundamental shifts in the organisation of the whole state bureaucracy and the relationship between the state and the citizens. It is in this context that PiS promise of a welfare state should be analysed.

 

From Economy to Values

 

Although many commentators – and Polish voters alike – are growing tired of PO’s avoidance of ethical questions, there is certain logic to it. Adam Michnik once argued that that free markets are necessary in Poland, not because they would enable democracy per se, but because free markets could “privatise” and “commercialise” the romantic Polish soul prone to all forms of fundamentalism.[1] Consequently, the strategy of PO has been to deliver “warm water on the tap” (polityka cieplej wody w kranie).[2] There are two problems with such politics. One is that geographically investments in Poland have been heavily concentrated on the big cities and Western parts of the country, which are closer to the markets in Germany and the rest of EU. The second is that in 2010s “warm water” may not suffice as the foundation of a social contract between the ruling party and the citizens. Warm water is a basic need for modern life; Polish citizens strongly feel that they are entitled to more than warm water from their government. Emphasising competitiveness, low taxes on enterprise and cooperation with the global economic actors has led to a situation, where PiS could easily galvanise voters by defending their human dignity. In September 2019, in a speech delivered in PiS party convention in Gdańsk, the city of historical Solidarność demonstrations, the de facto head of Poland and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński defended the plans to double the minimum wage with reference to historical fight of “ordinary workers” for solidarity. However, this time the solidarity of higher wages also delivers a message of rejecting the “postcolonial concept of Poland as a land of cheap labour,”[3] something PiS has alleged that PO is guilty of. He continued that the rise in minimum wage is part of a broader politics so that “all Poles could live well.”

 

There is more to these calls than just populism. One great challenge of Polish economy is not its competitiveness in comparison to other countries, but the fact that so few people are working whilst unemployment remains low. This means that far too many are outside the productive society, on a sick leave, early pension, in part time employment. According to the latest ILO statistics (2018), the labour force participation rate in Poland is 56 percent, whilst unemployed is at 3,9 percent. For comparison, in Sweden labour force participation rate is at 73 percent (with 6,4 percent unemployment). In Poland, a good 40 percent of the population is excluded from the labour market. Saskia Sassen in Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014)[4] argues that contemporary capitalism is characterised by expulsion of unnecessary individuals – be it from the labour market, houses, geographic areas or possibilities of political influence. As a symbolic gesture against such expulsions, under PiS government, the historical shipyard in Gdańsk was bought back by the Polish state in 2018. The purchase was a part of so called Morawiecki Plan, Strategy for Responsible Development that aims to make the economic gains of Poland to benefit “all citizens, not just a few.”[5] PiS shows that the state is not only there to serve and secure the markets, but to give the citizens a sense of dignity and historical continuity. Will the nationalisation of the Gdańsk shipyard bring along responsible development remains to be seen, but it certainly can contribute to the feeling of worth among the citizens.

 

The flagship of the emerging Polish welfare state is undoubtedly the 500-zloty child allowance: according to CBOS polls, 79 percent of Poles know the policy and its contents; another 19 percent have heard about it but could not account for its intricacies.[6] If the aim is to reach out to the population, PiS has certainly succeeded.

 

Much of the broader picture of the development of welfare policies, particularly those related to families and children, can be characterised as a steady erosion of social democratic principles where family and working life are combined. Instead, different policies supporting (or ignoring) the family in need have emerged. Policies have been government and expert designed often excluding feminist and leftist interest groups. The challenges have concerned the falling birth rates and the balance between appalling rates of women in employment, unacceptably low coverage of crèches and preschools, and increasing child poverty.

 

At the time of its inception in 2016, 500 zlotys was about one fifth of the median salary in Poland. Obviously, its aims are much greater and broader than getting fertility rates up. There is little conclusive evidence that such an allowance would impact fertility rates and clearly PiS also knew this. Even if the policy originally was drafted to increase fertility, Kaczyński already in October 2016 – six months after it took force – argued that its main purpose is to fight misery. The effects of the 500+ policy are to be seen primarily in the reduction of poverty levels among families with children. In opinion polls, the programme enjoys high rates of approval (81%). The main opposition comes from those with university degree (28% opposes it) and those with over 2000-zloty net monthly salary (31%).[7]

 

Whilst the idea of using family benefits to fight poverty can be traced back to the 1970s, the novelty of the 500+ is its universality; previous family benefits have been means tested or employed through tax reductions. Its universality strikes a new chord in the tradition of Polish family benefits politics where the economic left has traditionally tried to combine family and work (but failed) and the liberal right has tried to force mothers to work by cutting other means of subsistence and the conservatives have bedded the woman’s place at home. As 500+ is not affected by means testing, it may well function as a universal safety net for families. It also provides support to those families that lack steady income and earnings big enough to benefit from different tax exemptions. Current research often points out the benefits of direct cash transfers as emancipatory and non-stigmatising social policies that provide steady income in the case of fluctuating incomes becoming more and more common under increasingly precarious labour markets. Polish economy has grown steadily despite the global economic crisis. In a country of an average 4% annual GDP growth, diminishing public debt and low unemployment one could also see the increase in social benefits in order.

 

Critics, however, are quick to point out that it is big enough to incite mothers to stay at home. The scarcity of crèches and preschools is often cited to support this claim. There is also some statistical evidence from OECD that the share of unemployed women that move from unemployment to economic inactivity has increased following the implementation of 500+.[8] At the same time, ILO’s employment-to-population as well as Polish government’s employment statistics show that the overall employment rate of women has steadily increased. It is true that economic inactivity because of “family or household responsibilities” has increased since 2016, but it is equally true that the number of economically inactive because of inability (“tried every known method of job search”) or impossibility (“convinced of impossibility to find work”) of finding job has decreased dramatically 2016.[9] The causality between women’s economic inactivity and 500+ may not be as straightforward as OECD’s study let us understand.

 

The problem with such solutions as nationalising the Gdańsk shipyard in order to boost economic development or introducing child allowance to fight poverty is that the means and ends do not always coincide. On the other hand, politics is about communication to and with the citizens. PiS has been very good at tacking onto the popular currents and proposing according policies. It has also swiftly picked up extreme, if not outrageous policy plans, like the one coming from a Catholic lobby that likens sexual education in schools to promotion of paedophilia, in order to indicate its radical, revolutionary, aims. However, this would not be the first time when PiS with some fanfare embraces a policy on sexual education, abortion, women’s rights and in quiet withdraws from it as the pressure grows or waters down the bill into a minor adjustment. It is most likely that this will be the fate of the sexual education bill too. On the other hand, PiS’s advances and popularity rely heavily on its rhetoric of reform: there has been a reform of education system, of family policies, of pensions, of taxation. At one point the reforms have to slow down. Latest by then, a decent public discussion on social values is necessary. This may turn out to be difficult in a country where the state is conventionally seen as a mean to advance partisan interests. A greater separation between the state and political parties would be needed.

 

Programmes like 500+, or Morawiecki Plan are means to communicate with and forge an electorate. If PO promoted politics that benefited the big corporations, PiS has found its electorate around the families in need. The popularity of 500+ has consolidated a new source of supporters of PiS – those who need economic transfers but would not perhaps be convinced by the party’s ideological postulates only. 500+ is so popular that it has become practically irreversible now. Even if the other parties have now pledged to preserve 500+, the previous record of political parties overhauling their competitors’ policies is too long to convince the electorate easily. For PiS, 500+ is a way to undermine PO’s “there is no alternative” -rhetoric and form new kinds of bonds between the state and the citizens – and extend and consolidate its support base in society.

 

Critics have argued that the bread and circuses tactic of PiS alienates the citizens from politics, making them content with economic benefits and less and less interested in the (democratic) procedures of politics. They have also argued that the money put into 500+ are away from other social investments such as education or health care. Yet, the negligence of democratic procedures has a longer tradition in Poland. Year 2015 was not the first time when the public service was tuned to align with the ruling political party. During the first term of PO government in 2007-2011, the head of the public service was under constant dispute until a favourable candidate emerged half a year before the parliamentary elections in 2011. Similarly, PO and PSL championed in promoting their members and sympathisers to significant state administration positions. Political party membership has been the easiest and fastest means of advance – under PiS as much as under PO and PSL. PiS continues the trend, perhaps taking it further than any other party before.[10] But talking about the form of politics – there we observe continuity irrespective of the government. 500+ is in line with PiS’s attempt to consolidate its grip over the state and centralise power to the government. Child allowance is paid from the budget of local government. There is a government subsidy to the local government, but this does not always cover all the expenses or arrive in time keeping the local government busy. Many local governments, Warsaw among them, have reported that the government has not transferred enough for the child allowance payments. In a canny way, 500+ has also become a means for the central government to exercise some control over local governments’ budgets. The rhetoric of formal procedures aside, no political party in Poland has been willing to see genuine engagement from citizens or civil society. PO silenced them by moving power to private corporations; PiS keeps them away by feeding disgruntled citizens with money.

 

The New Citizen

 

PiS reforms have shaken the state, extended central government’s grip over the local governments, but also clearly put the family in the centre of political subjectivity in Poland. Beneficiaries of social policies include families with children, those in the central government and state bureaucracy rather than those in local government, and those sympathetic to PiS rather than those hostile or negligent. The fact that social policy became the key election issue can be interpreted in two different ways. For some, it means that bread and butter are more important than democratic values in Poland. There is some truth to this, but it can also be formulated in another way: given the long-lasting negligence of bread and butter, the form of liberal democracy had to yield to a more socially just polity. Perhaps unintended and still in the making, but one long-term consequence of the social policies now implemented is that citizens – or at least families – in Poland have legitimate needs not catered for by the markets that the state and society have the capacity and responsibility to look after. I have argued throughout that social policy in this context is not only about cash handouts to buy votes. It is that too, but above all these cash handouts come with a message, that of a welfare for families, dignity for low income takers, and an identity boost to those who feel strong about national and traditional values. The Polish citizen, after the experience of 500+, knows that there is a possibility for a more caring state, państwo opiekuńcze as one rendition of “welfare state” goes in Polish, and that the citizen can demand more than just warm water from the state. In the best case, 500+ and other investments in social policy give rise to a feeling of political subjectivity, one that dares to demand and one that is willing to hold the state accountable for its (in)actions. At least by now, the opposition should know that promising just the form of liberal democracy does not suffice as the election strategy.

REFERENCES

[1] Michnik, Adam (2014), The Trouble with History. Morality, Revolution, and Counterrevolution, New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] Tusk: Wolę politykę ciepłej wody w kranie, Wyborcza.pl (20 Sept 2010), http://wyborcza.pl/1,75398,8397290,Tusk__Wole_polityke_cieplej_wody_w_kranie.html

[3] Kaczyński: odrzucamy postkolonialną koncepcję Polski jako kraju taniej siły roboczej, Gazeta prawna.pl (12 Sept 2019), https://www.gazetaprawna.pl/artykuly/1429923,kaczynski-odrzucamy-postkolonialna-koncepcje-polski-jako-kraju-taniej-sily-roboczej.html

[4] Sassen, Saskia (2014), Expulsions. Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Cambridge MA: Harvard UP.

[5] Plan Morawiecki, czyli billion złotych na inwestycje I 5 głównych celów, Wyborcza.pl (16 Feb 2016), http://wyborcza.pl/1,155287,19636509,plan-morawieckiego-czyli-bilion-zlotych-na-inwestycje-i-5-glownych.html

[6]  Gromada, Anna 2017, Rodzina 500+ jako polityka publiczna, Seria analizy. Polityka społeczna, ekonomia, Warszawa: Instytut studiów zaawansowanych.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Magda, Iga, Kiełczewska, Aneta and Brandt, Nicola (2018), The ”Family 500+” Child Allowance and Female Labour Supply in Poland. OECD Economic Department Working Papers No. 1481.

[9] Statistics Poland, Economic Activity of the population (average annual data 1996–2018), causes of professional inactivity.

[10] Matyja, Rafał (2018), Wyjście awaryjne. O zmianie wyobraźni politycznej, Kraków: Karakter.

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