The Politics of Grievance in the Polish Presidential Election

As Poland prepares to elect a new President, how should we understand the social context that has led to the rise of the right?

5 min read

In a Warsaw supermarket this week, I was involved in an incident that was rather typical for Poland. A woman in her 60s accused me of taking her (empty) shopping trolley while she was off getting hand sanitiser. I told her that I had made a mistake, that I had simply misplaced my own trolley and taken hers; I was sorry. I moved on with the expectation that I had neutralised the situation, yet the woman remained enraged. She kept at it: why had I taken her shopping trolley when there were plenty of other shopping trolleys to take? Why couldn’t I just take my own? I told her that I had explained what had happened and, furthermore, I couldn’t understand how something so pointless could be so upsetting. But she kept going, thrashing about, my reasoning obviously landing nowhere.

This kind of permanently aggrieved person is not uncommon in Poland (though as time goes on, they are slowly becoming less and less visible). They move through the world projecting their frustrations onto the outside world, knowing that their grievances will never be answered in any meaningful way. This person does not trust in the social contract, in institutions or in the goodwill of strangers: even when met with reasonable arguments, the affect central to their lives will propel them forwards. This person will be voting in today’s presidential elections, driven by the same frustrations and contempt I encountered in that Warsaw supermarket.

To make sense of these elections and what is happening in Poland, we have to consider angry people like this Polish pensioner. Somehow Poland has ended up with no visible left—the play-off this Sunday will be between a centrist neoliberal candidate (our Macron) and the incumbent far-right president. Both are vying for the votes of a minority party with stronger rightwing-libertarian inclinations than those two combined. The discourse is toxic, and speaks to angry people everywhere. Indeed, the hurt, the forgotten and the maligned have become silently powerful figures in Polish politics—to be bought, manipulated, or at best, neutralised by more ‘reasonable’ voters and an opposition that refuses to do the dirty work to understand what normal people need.

This is the true legacy of the 1989 transformation that in the liberal-democratic framing has always been an outstanding success: Poland opened its borders, entered the free market, entered the EU, and until the election of the right-wing Law & Justice party five years ago, was the ultimate poster child for post-transformation success. Everything was going ‘the right way’. The country didn’t go into recession during the 2008 crisis, our GDP kept growing, the country was becoming more cosmopolitan. Yet, there were angry people everywhere.

When things stopped going ‘the right way’, and Law & Justice stormed into power in 2015 on a right-wing ticket, the narrative from the liberal opposition was elitist and classist: poor, uneducated, rural pensioners had been duped into voting for Law & Justice; they didn’t know what they were doing. Alternatively, blame could be placed with the newly emerging left—the only space that was seriously interested in market reform and social welfare. The left were painted as dreamers and ideologues, taking voters away from the only legitimate (centrist) opposition. Again, the category of the angry person was nowhere to be seen in this discourse, though you could definitely find them at the local shops.

This refusal to understand what Poles want and how they feel is the main problem. Polish politics is deeply ideological—the country’s emancipatory project has been built around the ‘end of history’ argument. If you want to see absolute teleological determination, come to Poland. There has been no room for anything else over the last 30 years—sensible, sound work around people’s needs and feelings has always come second place, and the only challenge to the liberal paradigm has been a deeply paranoid and nationalistic vision of the country’s future. Yet, even now, the only viable opposition to a party that is dismantling the country, but has enjoyed a strong mandate in parliament, is to return things to the liberal consensus.

To understand why Poles might be angry, we need to understand that change is traumatic; people seek continuity. The pensioner who I encountered in the supermarket would have been halfway through her work life when the system suddenly changed in ’89 and she had to start again. Many people who had existing businesses (those allowed during communism) or existing connections in the administration or intelligentsia class made tremendous successes of their lives. But, for the most part, an entire generation was sacrificed for the Transformation. These people have tried to cobble together a meaningful life for themselves, but many have fallen short.

Likewise, the abstractions and acceleration of an unabashedly neoliberal model of capitalism has required immense adjustments and dynamism from the workforce, for young and old alike. At least 20 per cent of workers have no job security, forced to absorb the risks of the market themselves. Many people have had to leave their hometowns for other places of work, destroying existing social bonds. On a material level, people do have more money, and poverty levels have dropped, but the disparity between rich and poor has grown immensely—while expectations and aspirations have increased at the same time.

Yet the discourse fails to properly reflect the frustrations these changes have brought about, though the right knows how to harness the anger and direct it towards its own ends. This is the biggest failure of Polish politics, because it fails to properly diagnose the problem; trading in everybody’s basic needs for loftier ideological projects. The failure of three decades of successive governments to build a robust and capable civic society, one that could offer Poles a sense of security, and possibly continuity, is an indictment on all parties. The left, in particular, having received only 3% in the first round of the presidential election, has some very specific soul-searching to do.

For the last five years, President Duda has ruled parallel with the Law & Justice government, stoking the flames of a negative and paranoid populism. The opposition candidate, the centrist Rafał Trzaskowski, looks like he may succeed in ousting the incumbent today by a very small margin. But it would be a mistake to think that Poland can simply return to the liberal-democratic path. A new, generous politics is needed, in order to recognise the traumas of the past.


Paulina Olszanka (@PaulinaOlszanka)

Paulina Olszanka is an Australian-Polish journalist who writes on Poland from a social affairs perspective.