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Poland voted for Europe, against Populism, and for an Open Society

But trouble is ahead

By Jurgen DieringerPublished 6 months ago 5 min read
Picture of David Peterson on Pixabay

The votes are cast. The electoral victory of the Polish opposition platform under Donald Tusk and associates against the incumbent, right-wing populist PiS party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski is good news. Still, the fact that it does need a united front of democratic parties to secure a majority shows us that something is wrong.

Populists on the March

Orbán, Trump, Salvini, Brexiteers, Netanyahu, and Kaczynski: They have slightly different agendas. What unites them is the missing respect for democratic standards. They lie outright, use defamation campaigns against political opponents, spread conspiracy theories, and generally do almost everything short of manipulating elections to stay in power. OK, Gerrymandering, redrawing constituencies to the favor of the ruling party, is a form of manipulation as well. That happens frequently. And yes, Trump is confronted with allegations that he wanted to manipulate elections. In Poland, all seems to have passed in an orderly fashion.

The motivation for not sticking to the rules may differ, but its detrimental effects on our democracy are pretty much in line with each other. So, what is wrong with the political right? Populists usually have a high time when something is wrong. They put their fingers into open wounds, but usually, they have no idea about the cure. To come to power and to stay in power is an end in itself. They suggest easy solutions to complex problems, and hardly any of them ever work.

Amongst all these populists, the Polish PiS may have the highest ideological density. On the surface, they promoted a national-conservative narrative highlighting the nation as something positive. Still, their raison d'etre was one of multiple "antis": Anti-European, anti-German, anti-Russian, illiberal, anti-migration. All that may work for a while, but upholding power without positive identification is difficult. In the end, you lose those supporters who are not convinced by you but fed up with all the others. Under such circumstances, when issues change, the volatility of voters will be high. If the other camp can mobilize, the populists will lose just like they did in Poland.

What is wrong in the state of Poland - and the West?

The same issues are lingering around all over the West. Accelerated globalization creates winners and losers, reshaping the structure of societies. The avalanche starts if the middle classes lose adhesion to the political system. There does not even have to be a real decline. The perception of decline is enough. There is a clear connection between perceived decline and right-wing populism. The good news is that globalization is often a surplus game, meaning the cookie gets bigger overall. The problem is not the cookie but how you distribute the shares. With a balanced tax policy and active steering, you may be able to balance society. The bad news: Technological change, primarily the breakthrough of Artificial Intelligence, will accelerate globalization even more, challenging many traditional jobs, not only at the assembly line but professions typically dominated by the middle classes. A vicious circle?

Hipsters vs. Rednecks

Looking closer at election results all over Europe and the US, we detect a growing urban-rural cleavage. The big cities – or hipsterland – are close to time's pulse. Here, people are well-educated, flexible, cosmopolitan, and liberal. In rural areas - the redneck land - infrastructure and the quality of education decline. Either educate yourself and move (to the city), or you will join the ranks of the rednecks voting populist. OK, I am exaggerating a bit! Really?

A Look at the Map Helps

Let's check out the electoral map of Poland. Over decades now, the trend is clear. The more urbanized western part of Poland (called A-Poland), with all the big cities, votes center-left-liberal-urban, including Warsaw. The east of the country (called B-Poland), often rural and backward areas, votes for PiS, the right-wing populist edge.

2023 Polish parliamentary election. (2023, October 17). In Wikipedia.

The party systems react to stimuli demanding change. The old left-right divide is not valid anymore. The main axis of party competition runs between a Green-Alternative-Liberal (GAL) and a Traditional-Authoritarian-National (TAN) antagonism, at least as the work of Dassonneville/Hooghe/Marks suggests. The mainstream of old Christian-democratic parties, such as the PO of Donald Tusk or the CDU of Angela Merkel moved to the GAL camp, joining Social Democrats and Green parties there but leaving the space on the TAN side wide open for populists to penetrate.

"(…) spatial location is instrumental in explaining why voters from one party are unlikely to ever vote for another party family" Dassonville/Hooghe/Marks (2023), p. 13

Party systems generally change over time; there is nothing wrong with this, as parties have to adapt to social reality. But today we have a problem. Traditional Western party systems were multidimensional with strong centripetal tendencies—no room for extremists. The new GAL-TAN divide is more centripetal, with a rift in the middle. And if one side of the new divide no longer sticks to the rules, there is no space left on the other side to develop alternatives. They have to unite to challenge the populists. That means that every loss of power (of the GAL camp) is existential to democracy.

What to do about all that?

It's pretty easy, even if this sounds like a solution from the populists' menu: When in power, solve the urgent problems and do not present symbolic solutions to gain one or two percentage points in the following local or regional elections. Remember, populists pop up when there are unsolved problems. Solve the issues, and nobody needs them anymore. The decision-making system of the European Union, restructuring European security, balancing income gaps within society, making potential losers of new technologies fit for new jobs, and fighting climate change are urgent problems that need to be tackled. Sure, this is a lot! Still, if you don't act, populists will take office repeatedly, and it will take long to remove them, as they don't stick to the rules. Eight years of PiS in Poland, a perceived century of Orbán ruling over Hungary, and four long years of Trump in Washington left an imprint. But Poland gifts us hope.

Literature: DASSONNEVILLE, R., HOOGHE, L. MARKS, G. (2023), Transformation of the political space: A citizens' perspective. European Journal of Political Research.


About the Creator

Jurgen Dieringer

J Dieringer is a professor of international relations by profession and a musician, writer, and chess player by passion. He strives to merge those inputs and tackle the intersection of arts and science.

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