Poland’s populist party offers lessons for other countries

There is a tension at the heart of populist political parties that may ultimately lead most of them to electoral defeat.

They depend heavily on the votes of the old, the poor and the poorly educated – “I love the poorly educated,” as Donald Trump once put it – but they are also right-wing parties that do not like what they call socialism. (Other people call it the welfare state.)

So while they fight the culture war against liberal values and bang the nationalist drum (which is popular with these key voting groups), they usually shun the kinds of government programs that would actually raise the incomes of their key voters.

Sooner or later, their economic policies, which hurt the poor, will betray them. Unless they heed the Polish example.

In last Sunday’s Polish election, the populist Law and Justice Party won 43.6 per cent of the vote (according to the exit polls) in an election that saw the biggest turnout since the fall of Communism in 1989.

The Law and Justice Party is not an attractive organization. It cultivates the national taste for self-pity and martyrdom, and always finds some imaginary threat to Polish values that only it can protect the nation from.

In 2015, it was Muslim refugees (none of whom were actually heading for Poland). This time, it was the alleged LGBT threat to Polish culture.

In power, it has curbed the freedom of the press, attacked the independence of the judiciary, and purged the civil service, replacing professionals with party loyalists.

Several times it has been threatened with sanctions for its anti-democratic actions by the European Union, which has the duty of defending democracy among its member countries.

Law and Justice’s rhetoric is divisive and filled with hatred. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski explained that the government wanted to “cure our country of a few illnesses,” including “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”

So far, so bad, but fairly typical of populist parties in the West. What is very different, and gave Law and Justice its resounding victory in this election, is that it addressed not only its voters’ ideological concerns, but also their economic needs.

Perhaps it’s because the Polish right, suppressed under Communist rule for more than four decades, never developed the kind of libertarian, Ayn Rand-worshipping ideology that infects much of the right in countries further west.

Or maybe it’s because of Polish nationalism’s long alliance with the Catholic Church, which actually does respect and care for the poor.

At any rate, Law and Justice manages to be economically left wing, even though it is culturally right wing. In power, it raised the minimum wage, promising to double it by 2023, and lowered the retirement age.

It gave pensioners an annual cash bonus and boosted farming subsidies. (It won most of the rural vote.)

Above all, it brought in the 500 Plus program, which gives parents 500 złotys ($130) a month for each child. It’s pro-family (which pleases the church), it encourages big families (which pleases nationalists, given Poland’s declining birth rate), and while it doesn’t make much difference to middle-class families, it transforms the life of a poor family with three children.

And all that money going into the hands of the citizens produced an economic growth rate last year of 5.4 per cent, one of the highest in the European Union. No wonder Law and Justice increased its share of the national vote in this month’s election.

So if you are not fond of populism, pray that populists elsewhere do not discover Poland’s secret. They do need to be culturally conservative, because they are always blood-and-soil nationalists, but there’s no particular reason why they shouldn’t be economically liberal. If they want to last, that’s the way they have to go.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).

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