The Law and Justice Party’s victory in October’s Polish general election was historic for two reasons. It was the first time that a Polish party had achieved an overall majority since the fall of communism, and it was yet another victory for a populist party – echoing a trend that has become ever more prominent since the start of the twenty-first century.
Populism is arguably the political buzzword of the 2000s, with a vast and varied array of parties being labelled with the term by commentators and academics. Whilst its increasing ambiguity can make it hard to define, at a basic level the label refers to an ideology that believes in, and subsequently acts on, the view that society is split between “the people” and “the elite”, the latter of whom run society against the wishes of the former, something that populist parties seek to eradicate.
Within populist philosophy there are countless beliefs about who exactly is to blame for how society is being run and the way a perfect populist state would operate. Views can range from those on the far-left to the far-right. The breadth of political ideas makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what the term means and, as a result, it is often thrown around with arbitrary haste.
However, the belief that politicians should act in the interests of “the people” is an overarching theme that all populist parties share, whether they are of the socialist-populist trend, such as Spain’s Podemos or Greece’s Syriza, or nationalist-populist, such as Hungary’s Fidesz and, in recent years, Law and Justice.
In the case of Law and Justice, their overtly populist general election campaign saw them play on the anti-establishment feeling that has been bubbling amongst the Polish electorate in recent years. In the run-up to October’s election, the eight-year tenure of the ruling Civil Platform party was starting to quickly lose momentum and, in the eyes of many, Law and Justice offered a credible alternative to a group of remote and greedy politicians.
Whilst Law and Justice’s anti-establishment rhetoric peaked in 2015, this narrative has been a continuing theme of the party’s program since the mid-2000s, when Polish populist parties – many of whom had spent years in the political wilderness as fringe organisations – started to find more electoral success after a decade of centre-left and centre-right rule.
Self-Defence of the Republic of Poland (SDRP) gained 10.2% of the vote at the 2001 general election, making the first populist party to make an impact on mainstream Polish politics. A former farmers’ trade union, led by their powerful, all-encompassing, and ultimately flawed leader Andrzej Lepper (who would later take his own life as the party’s influence began to wane), the SDRP was an authentic populist party. This led to the party gaining the votes of those people that, in their words, were from “all social classes” and had been left “standing on the edge of poverty and helplessness” as a result of the transition from communism to market democracy.
Following the lead of SDRP, Law and Justice soon adopted an anti-establishment rhetoric and began talking about the “putative shady network of business oligarchs, politicians, and the security services that form the webs of corruption, cronyism, intrigue, and informal relations between ‘liberals’ and ‘communists’.”
The irony is that political power has not undermined Law and Justice’s reputation as an anti-establishment party. Indeed, neither Jarosław Kaczyński’s ill-fated and short rule as the Prime Minister of Poland from July 2006 to November 2007 – nor the tenure of his late brother as President between 2005 and 2010 - has damaged Law and Justice’s reputation in the eyes of the electorate. In contrast, the Finns Party (the Finnish populist party currently part of a centre-right coalition government) has been tainted by an economic recession and a continental refugee crisis. Where they were once a solution, they are now part of the problem.
The early populist rhetoric of Law and Justice concentrated primarily on corruption and economic issues rather than immigration and, as has been the case for the majority of right-wing populist parties, anti-Islamic sentiment. However, as time has progressed and immigration has become a greater concern for the average Polish citizen, Law and Justice has been quick to follow the example of other European populist parties in using the issue to win votes. This points to the view that populist parties tend to be chameleonic in their political beliefs, as they are characterised primarily by current political and social climates.
Law and Justice have blended left and right in a way that many other populist parties are starting to adopt, and the results have been devastatingly effective. Despite putting forward largely left-wing economic policies (including a rise in the minimum hourly wage, a decrease in the pension age for both men and women, and an attack on foreign banks and businesses for avoiding tax) to attract working-class voters who are frustrated with post-communist neoliberalism, socially and culturally Law and Justice swing very much to the right. The party has been open and brutal with its anti-migrant rhetoric, with Kaczyński, now the party’s chairman, claiming that “migrants carry very dangerous diseases”. Moreover, their traditional views on sensitive issues such as religion and abortion have played well with conservative Catholic voters from small towns and villages, most of which are situated in the east and south-east in what have traditionally been viewed as the poor, isolated parts of the country.
Outside Poland, this mix of beliefs from both the left and right of the political spectrum has been a recent characteristic of UKIP, who have offered hints of left-wing economic thinking in an attempt to gain traction amongst working-class ex-Labour voters, many of whom are socially and culturally conservative but too economically detached from the Conservative Party. Similarly, Viktor Orbán, seen by many as Europe’s only far-right leader, has blended left and right in an attempt to control the hearts and minds of the Hungarian electorate, many of whom voted for his Fidesz party in spades at the country’s last general election.
As has been the case with the vast majority of European populist parties in the twenty-first century, the rise of Law and Justice has direct links to an opposition to deeper integration with the European Union. The refugee crisis that has engulfed the continent is, like almost everywhere else, a crucial talking point in Poland, and the decision of EU member states to force through the relocation of 200,000 refugees has impacted on Eastern European countries, like Poland. Subsequently, these countries have seen a rise in anti-EU rhetoric as the crisis continues to impact the areas in which refugees are first arriving when reaching Europe.
The return of Law and Justice to power in Poland is the latest of many success stories for European populist parties, many of whom are enjoying increasing popularity as arguments rage over the EU and its handling of the refugee crisis. Meanwhile, alongside this, voters are continually showing their dissatisfaction with an elite class of ruling politicians that they see as being the root of all evil.
With Poland and Hungary already under the thumb, and with populist parties from Austria and France to Sweden and the United Kingdom rapidly gaining votes, continent-wide anti-establishment sentiment looks as if it is here to stay, which could lead to increasing levels of success for populists from all corners of the continent.