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United States

Jul 17, 2017

Poland and populism

Anti-government protests in Poland offer a window on the difference between liberals and conservatives, and also an opportunity to think about whether the authoritarian right deserves the label of "populist".

Opposition supporters have taken to the streets in Poland to demonstrate against government legislation that threatens the independence of the country’s judiciary. As the BBC reports, “Police say about 4,500 people turned out in the capital while another estimate puts the number closer to 10,000. Smaller rallies were held in Krakow, Katowice and elsewhere.”

In a city of three million people, even ten thousand is not an especially impressive crowd. Still, it’s a start. It’s clear that the Law & Justice government of prime minister Beata Szydło (but masterminded, on all accounts, by party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński) has aroused widespread concerns about creeping authoritarianism, along the lines of Viktor Orbán in nearby Hungary.

Unlike Orbán, Law & Justice has only a narrow majority, nowhere near the two-thirds that would be needed to amend the constitution. But the ability to stack the constitutional court could easily end up having much the same effect. With a little over two years to go until the next election, the Polish opposition needs to channel public discontent into a concerted effort to deny the government a majority.

So it’s a little ironic that just last Friday the Australian Financial Review chose to tell us that liberals and conservatives should be happy together – quoting my friend James Paterson, for example, to the effect that “the fusion of conservatives and liberals in the one party makes sense because on nine out of 10 issues they agree.”

Well, not in Poland they don’t: the government is conservative, and the opposition that’s marshalling street protests against it is led by the liberal Civic Platform. Since their failure to assemble a coalition back in 2005, the two have become deadly enemies. Which is pretty much what anyone who knows anything about political philosophy would expect.

Civic Platform doesn’t seem badly placed; opinion polls show it within about ten points of the government, which seems stuck in the low 30s. Depending on how the minor parties perform and who they support, the next election looks winnable.

But it’s important to remember that Law & Justice’s current majority is very much a creation of the electoral system. It only won 37.6% of the vote in 2015, but the fact that proportionality only applies within districts rather than across the country as a whole, combined with the narrow failure of the centre-left coalition to reach the threshold, enabled it to win a disproportionate share of seats.

And that in turn suggests questions about how well Poland fits the media’s beloved narrative of the “rise of populism.” Certainly Kaczyński fits the populist bill in some respects; he claims to govern for the ordinary people, and rails against immigrants and the power of cosmopolitan elites (including, of course, that universal bugbear, the European Union).

But Law & Justice was no sudden apparition, and its victory was not the result of a groundswell from hitherto-marginalised voters. The phenomenon of a mainstream party gradually being steered into extremist territory raises thoughts not of UKIP or Geert Wilders but of America’s Republican Party, and the way in which it prepared the ground for the rise of Donald Trump.

In any case, it’s not clear that “populism” is a useful category to describe movements that, when in office, behave in an anti-democratic fashion and concentrate power in their own hands.

It seems to me that the “populist” label is steering us away from recognition of the actual threat: a loosely grouped international network of parties who use populist rhetoric but have an authoritarian, nativist agenda that could now more aptly be described as “Trumpist”. (Another common bond among most such parties is their support for – and from – Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but that is one thing that Kaczyński has steered clear of: Poland’s history makes wariness of Russia a political necessity.)

As British professor Luke March argues in an interesting study published earlier this month, subsuming a variety of different elements “beneath the catch-all label of populism threatens to oversimplify and obscure, rather than illuminate.”

We live in dangerous times, and the Kaczyński regime is a useful reminder of where the main danger is coming from.

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