For years, Poland’s political scene has been dominated by divisions between the centrist Civic Platform (PO) and the conservative ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS). Now, on the eve of national elections, a far-right party Konfederacia is also rising. Where is the progressive left in Polish politics?
The latest results of the United Surveys poll for Polish news website wp.pl were divided between the current ruling party, the Catholic right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), which is supported by 33.8% of Polish voters, closely followed by the centrist opposition coalition, KO, currently trailing behind at 28.1%. The far-right Konfederacja, running on a free-market, nationalist platform, is in third place, with the support of 8.8% of voters. Only 8.7% of Polish voters are presently expected to turn out for the Left.
With neither of the two major parties expected to gain a majority in Parliament, Poland’s political future may well be determined by smaller parties who could form a ruling coalition with either of the two. Currently, Konfederacja’s success has caused worry from opponents who fear the ruling party’s potential alliance with the potential emerging kingmaker, which has expressed controversial anti-Ukrainian, antisemitic and ultra-nationalist viewpoints.
Though not unique in the ranks of post-communist countries, many of which have also been wary of venturing into what they believe to be better left to the historical past, journalist and author Ziemowit Szczerek argues that, with a realigned message and greater attention to common causes, the political Left could have a fighting chance in a country that has been under right-wing rule since 2015.
A familiar pattern
We all know this story, perhaps too well. Leftists from Warsaw come to meet with local activists in a provincial city. When the two groups, who theoretically share common beliefs, meet, the infighting begins. It seems not to matter whether they sympathize with the same causes or not — the two groups are unable to reconcile their differences. Even prominent figures who sympathize with the Polish Left, such as Nobel Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk, are relegated to the sidelines as a symbol of their “grandfather’s generation."
Over-theorizing, splitting hairs and competition all follow. Not to mention the fact that Tokarczuk herself, considered as insufficiently left-wing according to left-wing hotheads from the theorizing Left, qualifies as a "grandfather."
80% of young voters say they are “frustrated with the current political situation in Poland."
The situation worsens when left-wing academics, many from big cities, enter the conversation. Rather than sticking to present-day politics, they return to the past. Among them are those who try to start proving — contrary to the experiences of many Poles — that there were no problems during the socialist-era days of the People’s Republic of Poland. Instead of presenting their theories as palatable to the modern voter, they present theories that the socialism of Poland’s past was without fault, and reject any criticism of it.
This may be one of the reasons why many more people in Poland declare their attachment to left-wing views than actually vote for the Left.
Just two years ago, state research agency CBOS found that Poles from 18-24 were more likely to hold leftist political views than right-wing or centrist ones. As reported byNotes From Poland, the study shows that 30% of Poles within that age group professed left-wing views, up from 17% in the previous year.
However, in these current elections, about a third of young Poles (ages 18-21), are expected to turn out for the far-right. Not far from the overall consensus that the rest of the country has reached, the Left is polling in fourth place among this group, with 13% of the youth vote presently expected to turn out for the party.
Some have attributed these results — from a generation previously believed to be Poland’s most progressive — to a dissatisfaction with the overall system in Poland, and a desire to rebel against the present politics. The same survey showed that 80% of young voters said that they are “frustrated with the current political situation in Poland." Of all of the political parties currently up for election in parliament, ruling party PiS has the lowest levels of support from youth voters, at only 5%.
PiS as the party of social support
While the Left has become associated with social issues, the party that has come to represent social programs is, in effect, the conservative-Catholic PiS. Some argue that, in order to achieve mainstream success, the party would have to take a different approach: appealing to rural populations which would greatly benefit from social programs, rather than seeking out the most socially progressive sector of mostly young, urban Polish voters.
“Here, we have a so-called social electorate," activist and psychologist Piotr Matyjaśkiewicz tells Gazeta Wyborcza. "It’s the kind of place where the Left could receive up to 40% of the vote, because it could have the message that it will lift these people out of poverty, from unemployment, etc."
Enter PiS, who according to Piotr, “is also a social party, which provides programs such as 500 plus," a child support benefit. When presented with this type of situation, in his view, “The voter says to themselves: okay, PiS steals from us, but they share a portion of their earnings." The Left, for this voter, has “abdicated” their position in rural Poland.
I don’t hear about them.
The Left does include social programs, such as measures on affordable housing and childcare, in their political platform. But Piotr contends that, for the majority of Poles, this is not the party’s main message. “I don’t hear about them," he tells Gazeta Wyborcza. "No one here hears about them."
What he does hear, on the contrary, is “The fact that the Left is asking people to publish their pronouns on social media, or advocating for menstrual products to be available in schools." This is not to say that Piotr, or any other potential voters for the Polish Left, disagree with these policies, either.
“I agree with these measures, but if the party’s main narrative rests on these ideas, and not on saying that, the circumstances of your birth are not your fault, and that we will help you make your way out of them, then these people vote for PiS instead of the Left," he says. “There is something to the theory that the big city bubble has taken over the Polish Left. By emphasizing mainly ideological issues, the Left ensures that people vote for PiS."
Lewica (Left) candidate in Białystok, Seweryn Prokopiuk
Shut out of media
But for some, it isn’t the political party itself, but the Polish media landscape, which paints the Polish Left as a party founded solely upon social values, without a clear economic plan for the future.
“We aren’t in the media, because the Left does not have their own nexus of support in TVN or in TVP," says Seweryn Prokopiuk, who is running for the party Lewica ("Left") in the city of Białystok, speaking about Poland’s two largest television broadcasters. The former is an American-owned media organization more aligned with the center, and the latter is a state-run media that notably skews in favor of the ruling party. “What’s left are social media, but those are based on bubbles," he says, referring to algorithmic communities that group users, often based on their existing preferences.
Prokopiuk himself has experienced job loss and financial hardship, and wants to bring economic justice into the forefront of his party. He used to be a teacher, but the school where he once taught was closed down. Now, he works as a laborer, mostly in stock. He believes that the Left should hold events that focus on these more universal issues for a wider Polish public.
Believe it or not, people were really curious about me.
“It’s well known that people say that the Left should simply travel throughout the country," he said, mentioning that the party has had events in smaller cities and more rural areas. Though he admits that the results of these meetings were “varied” in their levels of success, he agrees that they should continue.
In Bielsko Podlaskie, Prokopiuk’s small hometown in Eastern Poland, left-wing party events have achieved success. “Believe it or not, people were really curious about me, asking questions and complaining that they didn’t see me on television."
For many members who belong to the Polish left wing, including Prokopiuk, the “left-wing bubble” is marginal, and does not accurately represent the party, or the ideology, as a whole.
To its credit, the party has also taken issues popular among young people, such as the separation of church and state, and managed to frame them to fit economic concerns. “Why does Fr. Rydzyk get a 300,000 PLN (€70,000) sword from the state while you count every penny?” the party wrote in a post on Instagram, referencing the famed Polish televangelist who has received millions in state funds, mostly from the ruling party. As Prokopiuk said: the messages are there, but voters are not hearing them.
“Apart from the the internet, there isn’t a real presence of left-wing discourse in the Polish public," said Prokopiuk. "So, anyone who wants to have anything to do with the Left goes on this net, on Facebook, on Twitter, and sees this cesspool ... and it's, well, discouraging."