The Long Decline of Polish Social Democracy

The traditional left's neoliberal role in power has paved the way for the Right, explains Maciej Krzymieniecki

Magdalena Ogórek: no Rosa Luxemburg

Whenever you ask a Polish person about the left in contemporary Poland, they’ll most certainly tell you about SLD. The Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (Union of Democratic Left) formed first as an electoral alliance in 1991 consisting of the SDRP (Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland), PPS (Polish Socialist Party), trade unions, feminists, unemployed and many other groups within the working class being pressured into an unprivileged position after the free market transformation.

Despite carrying the baggage of ex-Communist politicians in its cadre, the SLD managed to win some extraordinary results in the Polish legislative and presidential elections since 1991. In 1993, just two years after its creation, it formed a coalition government with the agrarian PSL party, beating the Christian-Liberal Democratic Union. The government lasted until 1997, but the SLD-UP electoral alliance won again in 2001 with a 41% landslide victory. In the 2005 election, the SLD lost 30% of it’s voters, winning just over 10% in total. As of today, the party polls between three and four percent. Its youth wing has already been disbanded in many major cities and SLD has lost control over some councils while dozens of SLD politicians on local as well as national level are leaving the party and continuing as independents.

How did this happen?

The economic and political legacy of the SLD can be compared to the one of New Labour in the United Kingdom. After several attempts of trying to form a government, the SLD has continued to betray the working class through continuing Balcerowicz’s plan1 of mass privatisation and deregulation, disastrous policies causing soaring unemployment, allowing the clergy to take massive amounts of power, the wealth gap getting bigger than ever, biggest immigration wave since 1945, and right wing foreign policies such as joining the EU and sending the country into war in Iraq. One of its major political policies included the introduction of an optional poll tax in 2004 allowing the rich to win a massive tax break of only 19%.

As opposition, the party has learnt nothing. One of its senior members, MEP Janusz Zemke, has criticised Syriza for wanting to raise the minimum wage while General Secratary Krzysztof Gawkowski refused to congratulate Alexis Tsipras as he saw him as being “too far on the left.” However, the party didn’t have any problems letting the CIA set up private Guantanamo-like prisons on Polish territory during the Iraq war. For the presidential elections, SLD has nominated Magdalena Ogórek, a pro-business candidate who is less left wing than Ed Miliband as she passionately promised to increase the army spending, lower the corporation tax and other policies which even the far-right politician Korwin has publicly endorsed. Ogórek won 2.4% of the vote in presidential elections, yet the party’s ex-Communist leader Leszek Miller refused to step down as leader or admit fault in the party’s prospective policies.

The massive loss of popularity and dishonouring the name of the left on the Polish political arena has led to a growth in far right. The candidate of the warmongering conservative PiS party, Andrzej Duda, has won the presidential elections while Christian Right musician Pawel Kukiz – whose only point in his programme was to introduce an FPTP (first past the post / “winner-takes-all”) electoral system – has won 20% of the vote. It is quite likely that in the parliamentary elections later this year there will be no left-wing representation in the Polish parliament, even if its just in the name, as the SLD isn’t predicted to pass the minimum threshold of 5%.

A number of new left wing parties are being formed to fill the vacuum of left wing reformism. Razem (a social-liberal party), the Greens and Social Justice Movement Party want to form a new coalition based on social democratic principles, just like the SLD did in 1991. Except this time, the people don’t seem too fond of re-branded left-wing populists taking power again, especially since the fringe parties are considering running with the SLD as one force of the left. Where will the voters turn? More and more young people raised in religious and patriotic indoctrination started in 1989 and upheld by the right wing IPN institute are voting for Kukiz, the National Movement and KORWiN, respectively being right-populist, fascist and Tea-Party like conservative on the political spectrum.

There is virtually no relevant left wing movement in Poland at the moment, and it’s quite depressing to watch from abroad as a Pole living in the UK. The experience of the SLD will definitely make people think twice before they let “left wing” populists take power again. The SLD went from 41% to 3% in just over 10 years. It would be far from truth to describe Poland as an inherently right wing nation. Back in 19th century, Engels described Poland as the “most revolutionary Slavic nation” following the successes of the PPS and SDKPiL2. Historically, Poland supplied the revolutionary movement not only with leading the legendary strikes from 1905 onwards but also with the likes of Rosa Luxembourg, Felix Dzierzhinsky and Ludwik Hass. After the experiences of a right wing Bonapartist dictatorship in the interwar period, the experiences of Stalinism, post-Stalinism and the betrayal of SLD, the Polish working class is currently filled with scepticism as well as growing frustration which could cause a political earthquake in Eastern Europe. It is the most challenging task of the Polish left to stop letting the rage be hijacked by reactionary right wing politicians.

Notes

  1. Poland’s program of “shock therapy” in the post-1989/91 Soviet bloc.
  2. Polish Socialist Party and Social-Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania – at the time, the country’s two socialist parties, with the PPS more inclined to Polish nationalism and the SDKPiL in line with international Social Democracy.
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