A Richer Poland Is No Country for Liberals

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In Sunday’s national election, Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party will without a doubt come first by a large margin. If it can secure a majority, as it did in 2015, Poland’s shift toward nationalism and conservatism and away from liberal democracy is likely to become as lasting and profound as Hungary’s. But the party of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is not winning on populist rhetoric. Its strength comes from a strong economic record and a history of keeping important social promises.

In 2015, Law & Justice, known as PiS in Polish, won almost 38% of the vote, well ahead of the then discredited ruling party, the Civic Platform, by promising generous social spending. After building a majority in parliament, it delivered by introducing what it called the 500+ program: Families started receiving 500 zlotys ($128) a month for the second child and each consecutive one. For low-income families the benefit kicked in after the first born. The payment, equivalent to about 12% of the average gross wage in 2016, changed the lives of many poorer Polish families.

Law & Justice’s opponents argued the government would only be able to fund the generous giveaway with big deficit spending. But the nationalists proved to be sound economic managers. By improving tax collection and slapping additional taxes on the financial sector and the highest incomes, the government actually cut the budget deficit to 0.4% in 2018 from 2.7% in 2015. In large part thanks to increased consumer spending, Poland’s economic growth sped up to 5.1% last year from 3.8% in 2015.

The biggest constraint on growth today is a labor shortage. Unemployment is down to 3.3% from 8.2% at the beginning of 2015. But this shortage has driven up wages, which has contributed to Poles’ increased feeling of prosperity. To keep the wage growth from getting out of hand, the government has relaxed visa rules for workers from neighboring Ukraine, whose economic mismanagement has provided Poland with a near-unlimited pool of relatively cheap labor.

In July, the government expanded the 500+ program, making the monthly payment available to all families with children from the first born. Again, it faced criticism. Detractors say the program has failed to increase birth rates (the government disputes that), pushed some 100,000 women out of the workforce and squandered money on helping families that didn’t need the support while burdening others with tax increases. But none of these arguments make much sense to voters, and they don’t seem to have any major objections to Law & Justice’s plans for more taxes and social contributions during the next legislative period. 

The 500+ program functions, in effect, as a kind of universal basic income which provides security and — an important word for Poles —dignity to people in constrained circumstances. It’s an achievement Law & Justice’s rivals can’t hope to match. 

In fact, the opposition has struggled to present a coherent alternative. No one talks of rescinding the current social programs. The Civic Coalition, which includes the Civic Platform and smaller liberal parties, promises improvements to the health and education systems, but there’s no reason for voters to believe it’ll be better at fixing these than Law & Justice. 

During the European Parliament election earlier this year, Law & Justice faced a serious challenge from the European Coalition consisting of the Civic Platform, other liberals and leftists. They joined forces to try to sell Poland’s highly pro-European Union voters, on the idea of a more EU-friendly government. They argued that Law & Order’s controversial judiciary reforms, which have greatly increased the government’s influence on the courts, could push Poland to the periphery of EU decision-making and deprive it of the bloc’s cohesion and agricultural funding, an important factor for economic growth. 

But the strategy failed: Law & Justice beat the European Coalition 45% to 38%. Now, the European card can no longer be played. Current European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen owes her job in part to eastern European leaders, including Morawiecki, who staunchly refused to endorse the candidacy of Dutchman Frans Timmermans, the official who had led the EU attacks on Poland and Hungary for subverting the rule of law. Von der Leyen, eager to heal the EU’s east-west divisions, is likely to soft-pedal the issue. The departure of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a Law & Order nemesis, as president of the European Council, also means there will probably be less pressure from Brussels on Morawiecki’s government.

Without the “European” umbrella, the Civic Coalition and the Left are running separately in Sunday’s election. They poll 27% and 14%, respectively, to Law & Order’s 47%. The governing party is closer to a majority than in 2015. But the majority can prove elusive if it doesn’t get enough additional seats from votes cast for parties that fail to get over the 5% support barrier. Then, the possibility arises of a shaky anti-Law & Order coalition or a weak Law & Order minority government backed by ultranationalists. The party will have to work frantically to draft other parties’ legislators into its ranks and build a majority.

If Law & Order succeeds, a second consecutive term in power will mean more than a chance to run the country. It will likely lead to profound change in the Polish elite. “A Law and Justice second term will further shake-up the more informal hierarchies of power, influence and prestige that currently exist in the public sphere,” Aleks Szczerbiak, a political science professor at the University of Sussex, recently wrote on his Polish politics blog.

Concretely, that means it’s likely that staunch Law & Order opponents will become disappointed and leave the country or turn apolitical. More pragmatic ones will seek to make peace with the nationalists in order to remain relevant. There are signs that Law & Order will move against Poland’s lively private media, many of which are owned by foreign corporations and hostile to the nationalist government. The party’s control over the civil service and institutions such as the widely watched state television will become entrenched.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a Law & Order ally whose example in both ideology and economic management has been important for the current Polish leaders, is in his third consecutive term now. His country has already undergone such change, with the ruling party, Fidesz, now pulling all the informal strings, including in the media, courts and business. The Hungarian opposition is institutionally weakened and only capable of mobilizing in the bigger cities. In Poland, Law & Order is trying to secure such an outcome, too, working quietly in the provinces through the Catholic Church and spreading the wealth through social transfers.

In short, Law & Order is close to a victory that could cement its influence and build its illiberal values --  a highly selective nationalist memory policy, opposition to gay marriage, a dim view of broad media freedoms — into the fabric of Polish society and institutions. Only a sharp economic downturn can undo this. But economic forecasts are still relatively rosy for Poland, despite weaker prospects for the EU as a whole. Unless the opposition can figure out how to deny Law & Order a majority, Poland will be no country for liberals for a long time to come.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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