Poland: "Expect a fightback"

Submitted by AWL on 22 July, 2020 - 6:46 Author: Interview with Ana Oppenheim
Ana Oppenheim and Rosa Luxemburg

Andrzej Duda of the radical right Law and Justice party has been re-elected as Poland’s president, defeating the liberal conservative opposition’s candidate Rafał Trzaskowski 51%-49% in the second round.

Ana Oppenheim spoke to Sacha Ismail about the election and struggles in Poland. Ana is a Polish-born socialist who lives in the UK. She is a member of the Labour Party and the Polish left party Razem, an activist in the Labour Campaign for Free Movement and has just been elected to Momentum’s national coordinating group.

Poland was due to have its presidential election in May, but with the pandemic campaigning was impossible, no rallies, no canvassing. The opposition actually didn’t want the election, because it would have meant Duda on TV constantly saying how well the country was doing, with everyone else at a disadvantage. And of course there were concerns about safety. There were proposals for a fully postal vote, but postal workers were opposed on grounds of safety, workload and the possibility of harassment given public opinion against the election. They talked about a strike. In the end the government simply declared the election would be postponed, and there was wide support for that.

By the time we got to June, the virus was relatively under control – Poland entered lockdown early – so things could go ahead. Early polls had showed Duda winning overwhelmingly, perhaps even in the first round. As things progressed, the polls got tighter and tighter, with increased support for the liberal opposition candidate Trzaskowski. He’s a standard centre-right liberal, close to David Cameron or perhaps the right of the Lib Dems. His party, Civic Platform, are centre-right conservatives, but he’s on the more liberal wing.

Trzaskowski has previously been outspoken for LGBT rights; as mayor of Warsaw, he signed a pro-LGBT declaration last year which has sparked a huge right-wing backlash in other parts of the country. During the election however he retreated, saying he believes in respect and rights for everyone but equal marriage and adoption rights are too extreme.

It’s important to understand that Duda won through a campaign where homophobia was the main theme. It has created an extremely alarming atmosphere in Poland. Previously the right’s main enemy was migrants and refugees. But in the last year and half, since Trzaskowski’s declaration, they have focused on homophobia. We’ve seen physical attacks on Pride marches, in one case even a terrorist attempt, and stepped up violence more generally. Many local authorities, mainly in the East of the country, have declared themselves LGBT Free Zones.

So it’s a very dangerous time. Law and Justice will control both the government and the presidency again. It’s not unlimited power but it’s close to it. We’re starting to see escalated attacks on gay rights, not just spreading homophobia but legislative attacks. Abortion may come up again. They’ve already used the pandemic to increase sentences for illegal abortions, along with other crimes, and I’m sure there will be renewed pressure for a complete ban. More widely, Duda’s narrow victory may scare them into more radical assults on the rule of law, democracy, media freedom and so on.

The vote for the more radical far right doubled, didn’t it?

Yes, from 3 to almost 7% [and from under 500,000 to over 1,300,000 votes]. They’re called Confederation – they united for last year’s European elections, bringing together a range of extreme-right people from extreme free marketeers to Catholic fundamentalists focused on LGBT and abortion rights to actual fascists. Their key demographic is among young men.

What were the other demographic divides in the election?

As previously we have East vs West, where the West is more progressive and liberal and the East more conservative; and urban vs small towns and villages. A new phenomenon, which we’ll have to follow to see if it’s a trend, is a generational divide. Older people are more likely to be with the right, younger people are more liberal, though with that far-right constituency among young men. Young women are more likely to be left-wing. Believe it or not, the far right has had arguments about whether it actually wants women’s votes!

A lot of the UK media coverage plays up the statist, interventionist and even pro-working class economic policy of Law and Justice. What’s the reality?

They have certainly introduced some measures to improve people’s quality of life. The most famous one is the Family 500+ child benefit program. It has lifted a lot of people out of poverty but of course it’s also a pro-childbirth and nationalist measure. There is some debate on the left about our exact attitude to such programs. Then they’ve increased public spending, they’ve increased pensions – pensioners are a key demographic for Law and Justice. But it can only really be called redistributive in the context of social democracy being so weak.

They’ve not tackled zero hours contracts, which are increasingly prevalent, public services have remained badly underfunded, they’ve not been supportive of the unions and they actually strengthened the rights of employers. There is no question of them reining in the wealth and power of the rich. At the same time, there are a lot of people who are understandably afraid of more neo-liberal policies if Law and Justice lose power.

The biggest power the president has is a veto on parliament, so our hope was that a centre-right president would be able to veto homophobic and other authoritarian measures, but not be able to veto public spending as the left MPs would help vote against and reject the veto. I do think if there was a centre-right president and parliament things would probably go in an even more neo-liberal direction.

What’s Law and Justice’s attitude to the EU?

They are soft Eurosceptics. They don’t want to leave, but they want to limit the influence of the EU on domestic policy, which they regard as dangerously liberal and cosmopolitan – pro-LGBT rights and too pro-refugees, supposedly. They work with other regimes like Orban’s Hungary. And they work with the Tories – they saw the Brexit vote as an expression of British sovereignty, in the same way the Polish people are trying to exercise their sovereignty, in their narrative.

We're approaching the 40th anniversary of the birth of Solidarnosc [the mass workers' movement of 1980-1]. Is workers' struggle a visible force in Poland?

The memory of Solidarnosc is very much alive, and people on all sides try to claim it as theirs. In mainstream politics it’s presented as a pro-democracy movement and often a pro-capitalist one. Outside the left, which is very much not mainstream, no one presents it as distinctively working-class struggle. It’s also sometimes seen as a Polish nationalist movement, and the Catholic church also claims it as theirs.

In terms of workers’ struggles now, unions are not a major force even in the sense they are in Western Europe. Trade union struggles are overwhelmingly in the public sector. Last year there was a big teachers’ strike, with solidarity actions including by schools students, and that educated a layer of people about unions, although so far it hasn’t won all its demands. The huge majority of private companies have no union presence whatsoever.

Workplace organising and working-class struggle is not necessarily the main theme even for the left. People in the organisation I’m part of, Razem, do talk about it and try to do some organising but it’s still a bit of a fringe topic.

Some unions are very conservative, by which I mean socially conservative and pro-government. The union that claims to be the successor of Solidarnosc – though there is really no comparison to Solidarnosc when it was a mass movement – is pro-government and for example opposed to LGBT education.

In terms of Catholic church’s influence, why do you think Poland has gone in such a different direction from Ireland, for instance?

I don’t know enough about Irish politics to make that comparison in an informed way. In terms of Poland, church involvement in politics is very ingrained in the country’s history and identity. In the time of Solidarnosc the church was seen as an ally and established its image as a “pro-freedom” force. The country is very heavily Catholic, with a high percentage of church-goers. So the church is very confident to intervene politically.

The left is overwhelming secular and argues for the church to get out of politics. The centrist liberals are much more reticent about this. When I say get out of politics, I don’t just mean in terms of general influence. In 1993 there was a “Concordat” through which the state made an agreement with the church which includes tax exemptions, funding of some Catholic institutions, but also for example influence over education. The left often calls for an end to, or renegotiation, of the Concordat, and defunding of the church.

Can you say more about the left in the election?

Ok, so there’s an electoral coalition called Lewica, the Left, which last year brought together three different parties. There’s the old social democratic party, SLD [Democratic Left Alliance: though since February it’s officially been called New Left], which has its roots in the reform wing of the ruling Stalinist party; Razem [Together], which is more radical left; and a new movement Wiosna [Spring]. Wiosna is broadly social democratic but mainly focused on social issues like women’s and LGBT rights, to some extent climate issues too. It’s also something of a personal vehicle for its leader, an openly gay politician called Robert Biedroń who was the presidential candidate this time.

Razem is the most socialist, the one where there is most space for discussion about anticapitalism and alternatives to capitalism.

The three parties have different constituencies – Razem and Wiosna respresent a younger generation, in my experience, and are more metropolitan. SLD is older and the place where you’re likely to find any nostalgia for the Stalinist regime. It was the government on and off after the fall of Stalinism. It won big in 2001 but dissipated support through neoliberal policies, corruption scandals and support for the Iraq war. It was an early victim of the European trend of right-wing social democratic parties losing ground as the nationalist right gained.

In the parliamentary election last year Lewica won 49 seats, which was a breakthrough. But in the presidential election it failed to have the same kind of impact. Everything was left late in the day and there was a lack of energy. Most of all, the left didn’t set the agenda – it was completely dominated by so-called culture wars issues. Economic issues didn’t feature as much, and the left failed to make them a dividing line. We got 2.4%, against 12.6% last year.

Left voters overwhelmingly went to Trzaskowski in the second round, but the point is left voters largely went to the him in the first round too. Everything was polarised. Even when he backtracked on LGBT rights, people still just wanted to defeat Duda.

I think there should have been a different emphasis, putting economic issues and workers’ rights at the very forefront, as well as issues in the pandemic like the right to healthcare. We need a left which links those kind of questions to issues like LGBT rights.

What are the key struggles going on in Poland at the moment?

There is now a big feminist movement in Poland, which to a large extent emerged out of the 2016 Women’s Strike to defend abortion rights. The women’s movement also takes up wider issues, like supporting anti-racist and anti-fascist protests. There are more distinctly left-wing elements within it.

Housing is an important issue for a lot of people; there are protests against evictions and things like that.

Poland is an overwhelmingly white country, so you can’t talk about structural racism like in the UK or even more the US; it’s not fundamental to how capitalism is structured and functions. What we have is very extreme bigotry and racial prejudice. This despite, or because of, the fact that outside the big cities many people will never have met a black or brown person.

However we’ve had some Black Lives Matter protests, in various cities, and it’s shaken up the debate about racism a bit. There’s a term for a black people, Murzyn, which black people generally object to and now there’s some discussion in the media about it being an issue. Anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiments are also very common.

The struggles I’m talking about are mostly in the cities. There is a history of rural struggles in Poland, but I’m not aware of much going on at the moment.

And LGBT rights?

Yes, that is the central battleground. I expect a fightback. There have already been some LGBT rights protests since Duda’s re-election. As the pandemic retreats, I expect we’ll see more.

The left needs to defend LGBT people against attack and aggressively make the case for equality, to shift public opinion. Local government seems likely to be an arena. We’ll see more councils declaring themselves LGBT Free Zones but hopefully more going the other way too. That fight needs to be taken outside the big cities into smaller town and so on – and some of that has already been happening.

There are some good recent initiatives such as Rainbow Friday, organised by teachers and students, where schools do pro-LGBT stuff. Local authorities have come out for and against it in various places, as have different groups of parents.

More broadly there is a lot of work needed for the left to cohere itself as a continuing, high-profile force. We need to tie together demands around social issues, minority rights and economic justice. For instance, the right to have an abortion is also about the right to healthcare, about having access to hospitals and clinics with decent public funding.

What can the left in other countries do to support comrades in Poland and what can we learn?

Solidarity actions are very welcome – during the 2016 Women’s Strike this meant a lot to people organising in Poland. I can suggest organisations to support, particularly LGBT organisations. We should also pressure the EU to intervene more actively to defend human rights in Poland.

I need to think about lessons. The Polish left should learn about the importance of trade unions, that they’re not just one of many different organisations, but should be core to what the left does. The British left could maybe learn from patient organising in very difficult circumstances, where electoral victory is not on the cards any time soon, and not focusing purely on short-term electoral politics. We thought the left in a broad sense was on the verge of government here, and now many people feel disoriented. Poland shows the necessity of organising on the ground, from the grassroots up, when a left government is emphatically not on the agenda.

• Ana recommends checking out the end of this document for some Polish LGBT organisations worth donating to.

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