Poland held parliamentary elections this past weekend, but the biggest story was not the re-election of the incumbent centrist government (a first for the country since the fall of communism). Rather, it was the come-from-nowhere third place finish of Janusz Palikot’s party, a left-libertarian group whose goal is essentially to remake Poland in the image of secular Western European states. Though the “Palikot movement” only captured 10 percent of the vote, it has suddenly become a major player in Polish politics, and may be able to leverage its parliamentary votes for influence in exchange for propping up the re-elected prime minister, Donald Tusk.
Palikot espouses positions which, until very recently, were unheard-of in Polish society:
“We’re fighting a culture of delegalisation. In Poland, you go to jail for insulting the President, for a word, for insulting religious feelings, insulting an official,” the 46-year-old divorcee and father of four told reporters.
“You go to jail for drinking beer and then walking with your bike. You go to jail for smoking a joint. For abortion. This is a nihilist policy which hurts people.”
Palikot’s Movement, as the party is known, has tapped into a rich vein of disaffection, especially among young people, by supporting gay rights, abortion, public funding for in vitro fertilization and legalization of soft drugs.
The party also supports removing crucifixes from public spaces, taxing the Church instead of treating it as a charitable organization, and ending religious education in state schools. And its eponymous founder is widely known for his dramatic public stunts (some of which have bordered on the vulgar and tested the country’s unofficial limits of the acceptable in the public sphere).
What is striking about this party’s victory is how it indicates a sudden turn against the Catholic Church on the part of a large number of Poles. There is nothing gradual or subtle about this turnaround: the vast majority of Poles have been exceptionally close to the Church in recent decades, largely due to its intimate involvement in the downfall of communism and its individual embodiment in the papacy of John Paul II. But rather than calling for a modest re-examination of the Church’s privileges, or even for a move towards an officially secular constitution, the source of the Palikot movement’s popularity was its unabashed rejection of Church teaching and its near-mockery of the clergy and societal social norms. Palikot’s failure to make any distinctions between some laws which may, in fact, be obsessively Puritanical and in need of reform (walking a bicycle after drinking a beer) and others which concern far more serious issues of human life, speaks to just how total this change of heart is.
But Poland doesn’t seem to be an isolated case. The results of this election bear similarities to what has happened in other formerly staunch Catholic societies in Europe over the past decade: Spain in 2004, Portugal in 2005, and Ireland in 2011 all witnessed the ouster of center-right or moderate governments who were content to work with the Church in favor of outspoken opposition groups who see overturning laws based on Church teaching (specifically in the fields of sexuality, education, and tax exemptions) and upending traditional mores as the root of their platforms.
This pattern suggests a certain inevitability in the move toward secularism, and advocates of this change are undoubtedly hoping to capitalize on this sense of progress. The appeal of fashioning a ‘forward-looking’ nation, finally liberated from its repressed past, certainly has strong purchase to a people emerging from decades of repression and material poverty. But what made Poland unique, until now, was that it was always something of an exceptional case in Europe: it was a modern society with a market-based economy and political liberalism that had nevertheless managed to attenuate the worst tendencies of those forms of government with a strong and vibrant religious antidote. It was a sort of Tocquevillian model for Europe. Now, though, it seems to be walking down a familiar path, and surrendering its unique fusion of past and present in favor of a poverty that goes much deeper than material want.
What might the Church and her allies do to arrest this movement? Recent history offers scant examples of an effective turnaround in similar European models.