The victory of Lech Kaczynski of the Law and Justice Party (with around 54 percent of votes cast) over Donald Tusk of the Civic Platform Party in the second round of the presidential election on October 23, 2005, augurs well for Poland. The socially conservative Kaczynski had claimed to represent the ideals of Catholic social thought and the original Solidarity workers’ trade-union movement. By contrast, the free-market-oriented Tusk had voiced the need for a “liberal experiment” in Poland and had only mildly reacted to the abuses of power and “crony capitalism” of the former communist insiders, who had regrouped after 1989 as the Alliance of the Democratic Left (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD), holding both the presidency under Aleksander Kwasniewski (1995-2005) and a majority of support in parliament (Sejm) for most of the postcommunist era. Indeed, the patriotic Olszewski premiership had been brought down in 1992 (by a hostile coalition in the Sejm) when the minister of the interior, Antoni Maciere-wicz, had attempted to expose the secret networks of the former communist security services, with which Polish state institutions were apparently enmeshed. The Solidarity Electoral Action (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarnosc) coalition had held power in the Sejm from 1997 to 2001, but its tenure in office proved disastrous, with unemployment rates in the country hovering around 20 percent, where they are today.
The declaration by the German press, after the Polish parliamentary election of September 25, 2005, that Poland was “a country without a Left” was not especially helpful in explaining the situation. Poland has often bucked prevailing political trends. The old Poland—which stretched to Riga in the northeast and to Kiev in the southeast—was a freedom-loving “Royal Republic” (with an elected king) on a continent of absolute monarchies. She fell under the Partition of three foreign empires (Czarist Russia, Prussia/Germany, and the Habsburgs) between 1795 and 1918. The long years of foreign occupation were punctuated by numerous desperate uprisings.
Reborn in 1918 as the Second Republic, interwar Poland was doomed by her stalwart opposition to both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the two leading continental powers. Five million Christian Poles as well as three million Polish Jews perished during World War II.
Shorn of her eastern territories, but gaining lands in the west at the expense of Germany, post-1945 Poland (called the People’s Republic of Poland) faced not only territorial and population dislocations but a civil war between the remnants of the nationalist underground and the emerging communist security apparatus. There was the infamous Trial of the Sixteen, where some of the senior leadership of the Polish Home Army were treacherously invited to a meeting, then extensively tortured and subjected to a show trial in Moscow, where they were accused of being “Nazi collaborators.” Although each was given a sentence of about ten years, it was under “strict regime”—which meant that almost all of them died during incarceration.
There was also the judicial murder of Emil Fieldorf, a leading hero of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Over 100,000 Poles died resisting Soviet communism after 1945, and there were tens of thousands of Polish resistance fighters (who had fought against Hitler since 1939) who were rounded up and sent to the Gulag, from which most of the survivors were not released until 1956.
After the dark night of Stalinism, a more moderate “national communism” emerged after 1956 under Wladyslaw Gomulka. Following the disturbances of 1968-70, Edward Gierek came to power, promising economic enrichment, which partially came about because of large loans from the West. After the “golden years” of the 1970’s faded, the Solidarity movement arose, inspired by the election of the Polish Pope in 1978.
The transition from communism has been a bumpy road. Much of the patriotic right and independent-minded left in Poland have characterized the postcommunist period as a triumph of “neoliberalism,” in which members of the former communist nomenklatura were able to reap vast fortunes through “privatization.” Polish firms were sold at fire-sale prices to the former communists—or to select former dissidents who then collaborated in ridiculing “primitive anticommunism”—as well as to foreign companies, who, it is commonly believed, offered bigger bribes to officials than the cost of the firms being privatized.
As Paul Gottfried has argued in his book The Strange Death of Marxism, insofar as the post-Marxist left has embraced capitalism along with multiculturalism and “alternative lifestyles,” it has become less, not more, conservative. Professor Gottfried argues that there were discernible “social conservative” aspects to some of the Western and Eastern European Communist Parties. He also argues that many antinomians waging a culture war against the traditional West may support capitalism precisely because they see it as the best and quickest way to dissolve traditional nations, families, and religion.
In this light, the recent elections in Poland are certainly not an unalloyed triumph for the right. It is true that the more socially conservative Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, PiS)—headed by Lech Kaczynski’s identical-twin brother, Jaroslaw—won the largest number of seats in the Sejm. However, the second-largest party (Platforma Obywatelska, Civic Platform) is a decidedly neoliberal party. Their proposed coalition, under the new premier Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, would have secured close to two thirds of the seats in the Sejm, but, as the PO pulled out, there will be a minority government, which will maintain a working majority in the Sejm with the support of three smaller parties—Samoobrona (Self-Defense), Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families), and the Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish Peasants’ Party).
The Catholic-nationalist League of Polish Families received only eight percent of the vote, while the Ruch Patriotyczny (Patriotic Movement), which included such luminaries as former premier Jan Olszewski and his former minister Antoni Macierewicz, failed to enter the Sejm, as it obtained less than the necessary five-percent minimum. It is troubling that, even in this very heated election, the turnout was just 40 percent of eligible voters. The turnout for the presidential election of October 9 was around half of eligible voters, and about the same on October 23.
In the first round of the presidential election, Donald Tusk had been slightly ahead (36 percent of votes cast) of Lech Kaczynski (33 percent), with ten other candidates receiving the rest of the votes. Since no candidate received over 50 percent of the vote, Tusk and Kaczynski moved on to the second, decisive round on October 23. The declared support of Andrzej Lepper, the leader of the populist Samoobrona Party, who had come in third in the first round (15 percent), was an important element in Kaczynski’s final win.
Poland’s future, at least in the short term, will probably turn on whether Tusk (who will retain major influence regardless of his defeat) is more viscerally a Polish patriot or a believer in capitalism as antinomianism. Considering that he was willing to reach out to traditionalists with his stated opposition to the “gay”-rights agenda, he may be of stronger fiber than many of his opponents on the patriotic right believe.
Indeed, it could be argued that a nonpartisan nationalism permeates much of Polish society, regardless of party affiliations. Many Poles of all ages and levels of society have a profound sense of their nation’s heritage. Indeed, having struggled so long and so hard for their nationhood, Poles seem to have far less of a sense of self-hatred than most other Europeans.
All the major parties (including the postcommunist ones) have been very pro-American with regard to foreign policy; Poland sent a sizeable contingent of troops to Iraq. America is seen as a helpful counterweight to the overbearing weight of Germany and France in the European Union. However, while the PO and the SLD are enthusiastic about the European Union in general, PiS and the three smaller parties supporting the government are rather skeptical. Indeed, the League of Polish Families is strongly in favor of the idea—which PiS, Samoobrona, and PSL also share to some extent—of trying to reconfigure the European Union as “a union of sovereign states” that would embody “the real Europe.” One of the central ideas is that national legislation should—especially in cultural and social areas—take precedence over E.U. directives.
The E.U. Commission reacted to the election results by threatening Poland with the loss of her voting rights in E.U. structures if Kaczynski will not change his mind on the homosexual agenda and renounce his attempt to reintroduce capital punishment. This is a clear case of blackmail. The very fact that some politicians are absolutely against abortion and “gay marriage” and consider religion more than merely a private matter is now considered “extremist” and potentially punishable by E.U. courts. An example of the increasing intolerance of the “politically correct” left in Poland is the violent attack on November 11, 2005, by “antifa” radicals on the right-wing nationalist intellectual Tomasz Szczepanski and a small group of friends, in the revered Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw, during a private ceremony of remembrance on Poland’s Independence Day.
Despite the European Union’s protestations, the political choices available to the voters and citizens of Poland today are far broader, more intellectually diverse, and more truly pluralistic than those found in the rest of “Old Europe.”