Unfinished Transition and the crisis of Liberal-Democracy in Poland

By Marcin Zaborowski

Until recently Poland has been seen as a model example of a transition to democracy and market economy. The economy has grown without interruption for 29 years, which is the longest for any country in Europe after the end of the Second World War. When Poland launched its transition in 1989, its GDP per capita was lower than that of Ukraine. Today, Poland’s GDP per capita is four times higher than in Ukraine and Poland has become a primary location of economic migration from Ukraine. After the turbulent 1990s, in the 2000s the politics seemed to have stabilised in Poland and became dominated by centrist parties led by predictable politicians well versed in western norms and languages. In 2004 Poland joined the EU and become the biggest net beneficiary of EU funds. The population in Poland remains pro-European and overwhelmingly supportive of EU membership.

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However, in autumn 2015 the Poles elected a government of a Law and Justice (PiS) party that questioned the post-1989 liberal consensus, is critical of the EU and preaches conspiracy theories. In all democracies, accidents happen and it was widely expected that PiS will burn out in the process of governing and Poland would re-join the liberal-democratic mainstream. However, after four years of governing the popularity of the PiS party has grown. If the polls are correct than PiS will win the elections on the 13th of October and most likely it will form another government. This begs the question: what happened that the Poles continue to support the party that questions the fundamentals of Poland’s post-1989 transition?

The answer to this question lies in the economy and the sense of personal welfare. Whilst undoubtedly, as argued above, Poland is much wealthier today than it was 30 years ago the fruits of this transition have not been equally shared. The transition has produced a successful middle class and has objectively raised a standard of living for most people, but it has also left some sectors of the population economically deprived and full of anger. These sectors of the population were successfully mobilised by the PiS party, which remained disciplined and broadened up its appeal during the four years of governing.

Most importantly, the PiS government embarked on generous social programmes that reach most families in Poland and make tangible difference to the well-being of those that were left out in the process of transition. The social programmes include generous child-benefit, which mean that families with 2 children have annually an extra 3000 euro per year. There is an additional 13th pension for all pensioners and no income tax for those who are under 26. During this campaign, PiS is putting forward more promises, including raising the minimum wage and lowering income tax for most. During the last 4 years, PiS delivered on all its social promises so the expectation is there, and they will continue to deliver in the future too.

Many Poles are disturbed by PiS’s disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law. Many do not like the conflict with the EU and the curbs on media freedom. But at the end of the day, people are motivated first and foremost by their economic well being and there is no denying that this has been improved for many and especially for those that were overlooked in the transition process. After 30 years of conservative economic policies Poland is going through a redistributionist moment. If this trend continues it means that the biggest challenge to PiS in the future will not come from the liberal-democratic parties but from the left, which is expected to fare well in the incoming elections.

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