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Peace, Quiet, and Kaczynski

The leader of Poland’s conservatives is riding a wave of populist sentiment that is washing across Central Europe.

by Martin Ehl 13 August 2013

Whether it’s the influence of the silly season, the unusual heat wave, or the successful campaign of nationalist populism across Central Europe, international media such as The New York Times and El Pais, have again started to pay some attention to the leader of the Polish conservatives, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.


After a few years in the majority in Poland, the liberal part of the media has been trying to pretend that Kaczynski definitively discredited himself in a direct election a few months after the death of his twin brother, the late President Lech Kaczynski, in 2010, and that his party, which most of its younger, promising politicians with at least some opinions of their own have fled, has no future.


But the results of the latest opinion surveys show that Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Law and Justice (PiS) party aren’t dead and buried. For instance, according to research conducted by the Homo Homini polling agency and published earlier this week by the daily Rzeczpospolita, the PiS would triumph if elections were held now, taking 33.8 percent of the vote, compared with 25.6 percent for the governing Civic Platform of Prime Minister Donald Tusk.


Commentators usually have two explanations for Kaczynski’s growing support: fatigue with Tusk’s government and a long-term economic slump. The strong hand of the state and its associated securities is luring voters into the arms of the conservatives, whose grouchy and protectionist foreign policy often looks anachronistic in a uniting Europe and whose ideas in economic policy are rather unrealistic.


However, the Poles are far from alone in their political tastes. Support for the kind of politician that Kaczynski represents – a populist who offers the security of the state and “protection against liberalism” and fluctuations in the global market – has been prevailing throughout Central Europe, and thus has actually become the norm.


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who fights the loudest against (perceived) foreign dangers, is well-liked by Kaczynski and his faithful, and they often take him as a model. In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico has won parliamentary elections, and next year he will probably also take home the presidency with his promises of social security. And the recent addition to this family of populists who love the strong role of the state is Czech President Milos Zeman with his proposals for massive state investment, including in an Oder-Elbe canal, which incidentally every Polish politician must love, whether conservative or liberal.


That the Polish conservatives have a strong position in the countryside and in eastern Poland is widely known. In rural parts, the PiS competes with the Polish People’s Party, which is now part of the ruling coalition. Kaczynski has a strong influence on one other group of voters, workers in the Polish manufacturing industry, but they are a heterogeneous bunch for whom the conservatives must vie with the former communists, namely the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD).


The new Polish think tank Polityka Insight has examined this group, composed of roughly 2 million people, in relatively detailed fashion. The typical representative is a man around 40, who earns less than the average Polish wage and who most of all appreciates a “little bit of peace and quiet” as we would say in the Czech Republic. These people simply don’t want to stress over things, at work or at home.


The Polish unions are rather strong in state companies, but most manufacturing employees work in private companies, where the unions have little influence, so it's a disparate group that is politically difficult to control. They are more conservative than the rest of society except for the rural poor. “Their political influence is minor, but for PiS and SLD industrial workers represent a definite part of their electorate,” wrote the author of the analysis, Piotr Zakowiecki.


Understanding precisely the thinking of such an “average Kowalski” – as they call, in Poland, the prototype of an ordinary Pole – is the most important thing for any election results in the country. The liberal and urban electorates are perhaps growing, but in their preferences they are fickle and not so disciplined politically. Farmers, for their part, have their special status with special taxes and social security disbursements. (It’s important for Czech politicians to know in the context of any dispute about the quality of Polish food products that the food-processing business has the greatest influence by far on employment in the Polish manufacturing industry).


If we don’t count the September referendum on recalling the liberal Warsaw mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, which Kaczynski’s conservatives initiated, the next election awaiting Poland is those for the European Parliament in the spring. Parliamentary elections won’t be until 2015 – not only in Polish politics a long time.


But if Kaczynski continues to adopt the restrained tactics that he’s shown in recent months, to prevent Tusk from contrasting himself with the intemperate statements of his rival, and if he maintains the image of the mournful brother, and if the Polish economy doesn’t radically emerge from the depths, then he has a clear chance at victory. Those set to help him win are precisely those who like social security and “calm” – just like the souls who support Orban, Fico, and Zeman.


Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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