In the recent Polish election, the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) received 43.59 percent of the vote, giving it a parliamentary majority. In total, socially conservative parties amassed nearly 60 percent of the vote. This win suggests that Polish society remains largely traditional and continues to reject the neoliberal economic policies of previous governments. However, it is as painfully polarized as ever.
In the left-liberal media, “Law and Justice” collocates with authoritarianism, nationalism, Euroscepticism, and religious fundamentalism. Ironically, though, the party’s economic policies are closer to the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren than to the laissez-faire approach of the GOP.
Leszek Balcerowicz, minister of finance in the 1990s, is credited with making Poland’s transition to a market economy a success. Balcerowicz’s policies slashed the hyperinflation of the early 1990s, and Poland’s GDP has consistently grown each year since 1992. However, this narrative of economic success has overlooked the fact that many Poles’ living standards declined after 1989. Balcerowicz’s reforms included cutting welfare spending and privatizing state enterprises. The Polish working class particularly suffered, as numerous mines, factories, and shipyards were closed. Unemployment peaked at 20 percent in 2002, and once Poland joined the European Union two years later, more than two million Poles emigrated.
Law and Justice, however, has increased social spending. The most popular benefit is the “500 Plus” program, under which families receive 500 zlotys (about $125) per child each month. The program has reduced child poverty and boosted Poland’s fertility rate: According to Eurostat, it has increased from 1.32 in 2015 to 1.48 two years later. This is far from the replacement level of 2.1, but after years of decline, Poland’s fertility rate is finally headed in the right direction.
Law and Justice’s economic policy has sometimes been myopic. For instance, the government has lowered the retirement age from 67 for both sexes to 65 for men and 60 for women. At a time when a labor shortage looms (if not for the influx of migrants from Ukraine, Poland’s economy would be stagnant) lowering the retirement age is against the nation’s economic interest. But regardless of what one thinks of Law and Justice’s economics, the strong mandate given to it by voters shows that the Balcerowicz neoliberal paradigm has been rejected by a large part of Polish society.
Currently, Poland is experiencing a culture war. In recent months, LGBT events have been organized across the country—at which symbols sacred to Catholics have been frequently mocked. The gay pride parade in Warsaw is well-attended, but elsewhere such events have met with backlash or indifference. In the Silesian town of Zabrze (population: 170,000), attendance at this year’s LGBT parade amounted to one person. Meanwhile, vandals have desecrated numerous churches across Poland. Law and Justice has defended the traditional family and Christian values, resisted attempts at getting rid of optional religious education classes in public schools, and ended state subsidies for in vitro fertilization.
At times, however, Law and Justice has not seen eye to eye with Poland’s bishops, particularly on the issue of refugees. Polish bishops, especially Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw and the country’s primate, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, have followed Pope Francis in appealing to the government to offer a home to people fleeing wars, genocide, and persecution in the Middle East and Africa. In an interview with Tygodnik Powszechny, Archbishop Polak has said that he would suspend priests in his archdiocese who attend anti-refugee events. In response to the refugee crisis, neighboring Slovakia has pursued a policy of accepting Christian refugees, an admirable move given the widespread martyrdom of Christians in places like Syria, Iraq, or Nigeria. Regrettably, the Slovak example has not influenced Law and Justice.
Notwithstanding, Law and Justice’s rhetoric is strongly Catholic. Furthermore, two other socially conservative parties—the Polish People’s Party, a traditionally agrarian grouping that under the savvy leadership of the young Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz has gained urban votes, and the Confederation movement, an alt-right movement led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a controversial former member of the European Parliament known for racist and sexist comments—have received combined support of 15 percent. Overall, about 60 percent of Poles voted for socially conservative parties. Indeed, Polish society remains largely traditional: Recent polling shows that 55 percent of Poles oppose same-sex marriage, while 40 percent believe abortion should be generally banned and 29 percent believe it should be legal.
As elsewhere in the world, Poland’s Church has been shaken by revelations of the sexual abuse of minors by priests. In Poland, this topic became prominent because of a YouTube documentary that premiered in May. To their credit, the Polish bishops responded by penning a sincere letter of apology for such incidents and starting a foundation to help victims of clerical abuse. In Poland, this painful topic did not lead to the same Catholic collapse as in Ireland or Boston. The election results show that Polish society remains largely conservative, as does the fact that a boom in Catholic pilgrimage is currently underway: This summer Poles overtook Italians as the largest national group of pilgrims at Medjugorje and the number of pilgrims walking to Jasna Góra, the country’s most important Marian shrine, has soared to 134,000 this year, up from 123,500 in 2018.
Yet Polish society remains divided. The fact that 15 percent of Poles voted for smaller conservative parties shows that even the right is divided. Meanwhile, four in ten Poles voted for centrist, liberal, or leftist parties. Over the past four years, protests against Law and Justice’s judicial reforms have attracted tens of thousands of participants. Sadly, the rhetoric of both sides of the political spectrum has been increasingly ugly. Today, many Poles have stopped talking to friends and even family because of politics. The days of Solidarity, when men and women of diverse convictions united to fight the communist regime, are over.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Crisis Magazine, European Conservative, and Tygodnik Powszechny.