A Letter from Warsaw

In Poland’s bleak post-Communist politics, nationalists are increasingly defeating the neoliberals by identifying themselves with popular interests.

A recently-constructed office building overlooks a tenement in the city centre of Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Marianna Saska.)

For me, voting is always a confrontation with the past. Literally so: the voting station I’m registered at is in my old primary school. When I walk there, I pass by the ‘past’ and the ‘future’ of Warsaw, from the old Communist high-rise estate, once representing the idea of a common luxury of space and greenery, where I began my childhood, to the new ‘luxury flats’ which are slowly devouring them. And I try not to bump into my parents. Familial rifts are commonplace among my friends and in Polish society more generally, as political views tend to be generational. As elsewhere in Europe, young Poles, working on so-called ‘trash contracts’, resent an older generation with jobs and houses. But that’s where the similarities end.

My parents — well-off retired entrepreneurs — should in theory have voted for Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, ‘PO’) in the local elections of October 2018. This neoliberal technocratic party took over around the time that Poland joined the European Union, and apparently insulated Poland from the financial crisis. Yet since my parents lost their jobs at a Dutch corporation, they have, to my shock, become critical of Polish capitalism. But what they started to profess weren’t exactly left-wing ideas. As children of People’s Poland, who studied and entered adulthood and the labour market under the First Secretary Edward Gierek in 1970s, they learned that socialism is for fools, and you worked around it to make money. At the same time, they came from firmly conservative Catholic households. So doubting Polish capitalism led my parents to the hard right, in the form of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, ‘PiS’), who have governed the country since 2015.

The same year, I returned to Warsaw, after several years in London. Poland inspired nothing but fear in me. The country which was considered the greatest success of the post-Communist capitalist transition in Eastern Europe was throwing itself into a series of crises, revealing a huge economic and ideological rift within our society. Official campaigns against refugees and women’s rights, alongside moves to control the judiciary and the media, saw the PiS regime join Hungary as one of Europe’s new ‘illiberal democracies’. A country which had over two million of its citizens leave, mostly to the UK, had found that the post-political pseudo-ideology of ‘Europeanisation’ couldn’t fill the void, and frightening ideas were taking its place. There was widespread fear that PiS would take control of Warsaw in the 2018 elections; in the end, the neoliberals retained the capital’s mayoralty, although PiS’s vote rose sharply. On the one hand, this suggested that the government’s loudly stated xenophobia and homophobia was no deterrent to voters. But unfortunately, there’s more to PiS’s appeal than that.

As you walk the streets of Warsaw, it is clearly ‘modernising’ fast. There are the skyscrapers, the elegant stores of international brands, and a new ‘promenade’ on the Vistula river attempting to create a leisurely city in the mould of Barcelona. Most people, however, live in flats built as public housing in the Communist era, which were privatised in the 1990s. Land, formerly nationalised, was officially re-apportioned to its pre-1945 owners, their descendants, or whoever had bought it from them. There is no new social housing, no rent control, and evictions are common. The rights of the ‘owners’ are always at the forefront — in one notorious case, a school was demolished to make way for a block of luxury flats. Only two political forces talked about this in the election. One was the small left, split between the aspiring ‘Polish Podemos’ titled Razem (Together), the Greens, and the once-powerful but Pasokified post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Razem’s media-friendly mayoral candidate, Jan Śpiewak, revealed enormous corruption scandals around privatisation in the city during the campaign, but went almost unnoticed, winning just 3 per cent. The other force to campaign on the effects of privatisation was PiS.

PiS’s candidate Patryk Jaki publicly attended meetings of the Reprivatisation Committee, a body set up in 2017 to investigate corruption and unjust decisions regarding the re-privatisation of land in Warsaw. This allowed him to pose as a folk hero, ready to stop the evictions. Of course, a week after his failure in the elections, Jaki withdrew from the committee. Even so, in the competition between neoliberals and nationalists, the hard right is willing to shift left as a matter of realpolitik. It is clear that not all of the disenfranchised in Warsaw want PiS to represent them — but they want the Left even less. PiS at least have the ability to carry out their policies. Their notorious ‘500+’ — a child benefit payment made to every family with more than one child — was virtually the first real help for poorer families since 1989.

When I queued up to vote at my old school, what was especially striking was the queue itself. I haven’t stood in a queue to vote in Poland for years — turnouts were plummeting before PiS were voted in. But the polarisation of the last few years has mobilised people to vote. You could see people from all walks of life: middle-class, middle-aged sporty couples; old and ill-looking pensioners, barely able to walk with their sticks; sportswear-clad youth. It was impossible to tell whether they were flocking to vote this time because of child benefit, because they didn’t want refugees, or because on the contrary they opposed the government’s agenda. But they were voting.

PO, and their allies in the election, the amusingly named .Modern (.Nowoczesna, in Polish) have styled themselves as fighters for democracy against PiS’s authoritarianism. Although anti-government protests have been carried out by groups across the political spectrum, PO and .Nowoczesna have managed to absorb them as their own, in an almost corporate takeover. Even so, there are protests that they won’t support. The election coincided with a large strike by workers in the Polish airline LOT, with more than eighty people fired as a result. No party representative, apart from Razem, showed up to the picket. This is where PiS’s ‘populism’ ends — a huge recent protest by the parents of disabled children, demanding better welfare, was also ignored by the ruling party.

Just a few weeks later, on 11 November 2018, Poland celebrated the centenary of its independence, a day me and many of my friends were anxious at the sheer thought of, so much has it become a rally for the far-right around Europe. Surprisingly, the liberal local government tried to ban the annual commemorative march, but it took place anyway, led by the President. The front of the demonstration looked archaic enough, a Polish 1930s reconstruction society. What was behind it was a purely fascist mob, shouting racist slogans and sending up flares in the rain. The tiny anti-fascist counter-march was shut away in a police cordon; no prominent politicians attended it. I still haven’t had the guts to ask my parents how they voted.