The Polish Left and Far Right under Tusk’s New Government
February 6, 2024
The Background and Consequences of the 2023 Elections
On December 13, Donald Tusk became prime minister of Poland for the third time.1I would like to thank Ewa Pospieszyńska for her assistance in researching this article, her feedback on an earlier draft, and our many engaging conversations about Polish politics. Any errors that remain are my own. It has been clear since the general election of October 15 that this would happen eventually. Lengthy coalition talks, plus attempts by the incumbent, ultranationalist Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) party to cling onto power as a minority government, delayed the process. On December 11, former prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki of PiS failed to secure a vote of confidence in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, which instead elected Tusk as prime minister. This officially ousted PiS, who had been in government since 2015.
In the 460-seat Sejm, 231 seats are needed for a majority. Although PiS won the biggest vote share (35.4 percent) and the most seats (194), it lost its parliamentary majority and did not have enough prospective allies to form a coalition government. Understandably, much of the initial response was jubilant. After eight years, an authoritarian, Catholic-nationalist government that adopted strongly anti-woman, anti-migrant, and anti-LGBT+ policies and rhetoric was on its way out. The election saw an astonishing 74.4 perce t turnout, with women and young voters playing a major role in PiS’s loss.
Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO), the main center-right electoral alliance around Tusk’s party Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), won 157 seats with 30.7 percent of the vote.2There is a tendency within Polish politics to call KO and TD centrist rather than right-wing. As Jan Radomski observes, in Poland, right-wing often “refers to particular issues such as disrespect for the rule of law, a commitment to Catholic values or skepticism towards the European Union.” I call KO and TD center-right because they are thoroughly neoliberal and because their supposed progressiveness on social issues is only slight. The Third Way (Trzecia Droga, TD), a neoliberal-conservative alliance formed between Szymon Hołownia’s Poland 2050 (Polska 2050) and the Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL) in April 2023, won a surprising 14.4 percent of the vote, garnering 64 seats. The Left (Lewica), the main left-wing alliance, won 8.6 percent of the vote and 27 seats. Out of these 27 Lewica seats, 20 belong to the New Left (Nowa Lewica), formed from the 2021 fusion of the old social-democratic Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) and the social-liberal Spring (Wiosna) party led by Robert Biedroń.
The remaining 7 Lewica seats belong to Razem, the democratic socialist party that has been welcomed as a breath of fresh air on the Polish left since its founding in 2015 because of its very progressive social policies and its visible role in two major protest waves against Poland’s extremely restrictive abortion laws. The first were the Black Protests of 2016 against PiS’s legislative attempt to introduce a total ban on abortion, so named because the protesters wore black and used black umbrellas as a sign of mourning. The second were the Women’s Strike protests of 2020 and 2021 against the near-total ban on abortion introduced by a ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court in October 2020, and PiS’s legislation to implement that ruling in January 2021.
TD and Lewica both seemed set to form a new governing coalition with KO. On November 10, following weeks of negotiations behind closed doors, Tusk and four other party leaders announced their twenty-four-point coalition pact. While the New Left signed the coalition deal with KO and TD, Razem ultimately opted against it because the other parties did not agree to their baseline demands on fighting poverty, decriminalizing abortion, and guaranteed spending levels on housing, education, and healthcare. Despite the New Left joining the government and Razem remaining in opposition, the two parties have not dissolved Lewica and are continuing joint political activity (such as introducing and promoting bills) under that banner.
Razem’s reasons for not joining the coalition hint at why, despite the exuberant atmosphere around PiS’s exit from government, we must analyze the situation soberly. The new government will be very unstable, with the coalition partners’ total of 248 seats providing only a narrow—though not immaterial—parliamentary majority and with significant political differences on key issues. Andrzej Duda, who successfully ran as PiS’s presidential candidate in 2015 and remains closely aligned with PiS’s politics despite resigning his party membership, is still president and can veto legislation.3A three-fifths parliamentary majority, or 276 votes, can override a presidential veto. The center-right, liberal, and left parties have a joint maximum of 248 votes. KO and TD vastly outnumber the New Left, rendering it a marginal, nominally left-wing voice within a government dominated by the neoliberal center-right.
We can already see these problems arising in respect to abortion, which was a major issue in the election and key to the record turnout, particularly among women voters. Under great pressure, KO pledged to legalize abortion for up to twelve weeks of pregnancy—an already inadequate, conservative compromise. TD opposed even this. Consequently, the coalition pact has promised only to reverse the near-total ban on abortion implemented in 2021. This would return Poland to the so-called Compromise of 1993, negotiated between the Catholic Church and the SLD-PSL coalition government, under which Poland still had some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe.4Under the Family Planning, Human Embryo Protection, and Conditions of Permissibility of Abortion Act, adopted on January 7, 1993, abortion was allowed only in three cases: where the pregnancy posed a threat to the mother’s health or life; where there was a high probability of severe and irreversible impairment of the fetus, including incurable life-threatening disease; or where there was a justified suspicion that the pregnancy was the result of a prohibited act (typically rape or incest). The 2020 Constitutional Court ruling struck down the exception regarding fetal impairment, which had been the most widely used exception.
PO was in government between 2007 and 2015, combining neoliberal economic policies with a liberal-conservative approach to social issues. Their shifts on the latter since 2015 stem not from any meaningful change in their substantive politics, but rather from cynical triangulation (or so-called pragmatism, as they prefer to think of it). Even now, the concessions PO has made to social liberalism are very limited compromises. After opposing the legalization of abortion, PO now accepts legal abortion, but, again, for only up to twelve weeks of pregnancy. They have come to support same-sex civil partnerships, but accept neither marriage equality nor child adoption by same-sex couples.5On December 12, 2023, in Przybyszewska and Others v. Poland, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Poland must provide some form of legal recognition and protection for same-sex unions. This might lead Tusk’s government to follow through on KO’s electoral pledge to introduce civil partnerships, but this does not change the basic point that even this pledge was a reluctant, partial concession to social liberalism. Between their shortcomings in political ethics and basic competence, as well as the neoliberal policies they implemented in government, PO created the conditions for Law and Justice’s rise to power and for the broader upsurge of far-right politics in Poland. There is little to suggest that PO has learned anything from the experience.
This brings us to the continuing threat of the far right. PiS retains significant popular support; it is still the party with the most parliamentary seats, the biggest vote share, and the presidency. PiS’s persisting political strength becomes especially concerning in light of the ongoing inflation crisis and resulting cost-of-living struggles in Poland. Because of its tremendous instability, as well as the neoliberal politics and dismal track record of its dominant parties, the new coalition government will almost certainly fail to tackle the crisis adequately. This means there is a high chance that PiS and the rest of the Polish far right will resurge by capitalizing on the coalition’s failures to save voters—especially lower middle-class voters—from economic ruin.
Therefore, despite PiS’s electoral losses, the Polish left is still in dangerous territory. By joining a government dominated by the neoliberal center-right, the New Left has made a Faustian pact that is unlikely to succeed even in the narrow sense of keeping the far right out of power. While Razem was correct not to sign the coalition agreement, it is still under tremendous pressure to keep the government propped up to prevent the return of PiS. This is compounded by Lewica’s bizarre situation of having one member party in government and another in opposition while continuing to present itself as a united, left-wing parliamentary bloc. To defeat the far right as a political force within Polish society, the left—especially Razem—should adopt a strong, oppositional stance that clearly differentiates it from both the far right and the neoliberals. It should do this by using its parliamentary presence to provide a consistent voice for working-class interests and connecting this activity with strikes, protests, and other extra-parliamentary struggles.
The Situation in Poland, Against False Triumphalism
Poland’s inflation crisis has persisted for two years. Inflation reached a high of 18.4 percent in February 2023 and, while it has now fallen below 10 percent, it is not expected to stabilize any time soon. Inflation has meant major cost-of-living struggles. With many rents priced higher than the income tenants can provide, many people find themselves unable to afford both paying the rent and feeding their families. According to a survey published by IBRiS for Santander Consumer Bank in March 2023, 70 percent of Poles saw their financial situation deteriorate over the last year, with rising food prices, fuel costs, and fees and bills as the three most frequently indicated causes of dissatisfaction. The same survey found that 17 percent of Poles had taken on additional employment in response to rising living costs.
In April 2023, a Polish Entrepreneurship Survey prepared on behalf of inFakt found that almost 90 percent of small businesses have experienced the effects of inflation. Between January 1 and October 31 2022, 157.7 thousand registered applications regarding the termination of sole proprietorship were entered into the Central Registration and Information on Business (Centralna Ewidencja i Informacja o Działalności Gospodarczej, CEIDG)—an over 17 percent increase from the previous year. There will probably be even more closures of independent shops and other small businesses as a delayed consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and because of increased competition with the commercial-chain-dominated retail parks that have become more common in smaller towns.
This is significant because, while a full theorization of the relationship between classical fascism and the new far right is beyond this article’s scope, both have substantial middle-class political bases that they demagogically appeal to in times of crisis, positioning themselves as champions of ordinary, hard-working people against nefarious elites. Although, like many right-wing parties, PiS has a mix of middle-class and working-class voters, especially in more rural and conservative regions of Poland, as Grzegorz Konat observes, PiS’s economic policies especially serve the more “traditional” petty bourgeoisie. One sees this in, for example, the tax PiS attempted to introduce in large-format stores, which was intended to give breathing room to small Polish shopkeepers. Young, male, right-wing professionals and entrepreneurs tend to gravitate more toward Confederation (Konfederacja), whose brand of far-right politics is economically libertarian.
Neither PO’s track record in government nor the KO-led coalition deal produces confidence that the new government will bring relief to the struggling working class and petty bourgeoisie. During their years in government, PO deemed impossible even the modestly redistributive “500+” child benefit program that PiS eventually implemented. Insofar as the extremely vaguely worded coalition agreement addresses cost-of-living issues, it provides the following:
We will restore favorable conditions for the development of business activity. Recent years have been marked by war declared by the government on Polish entrepreneurs. Without rebuilding the entrepreneurial spirit, returning to the path of long-term economic growth, resulting in higher wages, will not be possible. We will rebuild trust between the state and entrepreneurs. We will move away from the oppressive tax and contribution system by introducing favorable and clear rules for calculating health insurance premiums.
In short, KO’s response to the crisis is extremely neoliberal, promising no major interventions to relieve present destitution and framing wage increases as dependent on future economic growth achieved through entrepreneurship. With this lack of bold measures, strikes and protests are likely to occur among working-class Poles as cost-of-living struggles continue, and—in the absence of an alternative force in Polish politics that seems able to relieve their hardship—there is a pressing danger of lower middle-class voters swinging to the far right.
As stated previously, PiS is still the largest party in Poland in terms of both vote share and parliamentary seats. Substantial areas of Poland, including Lower Silesia, Podkarpackie, and Podlasie, have been turned into bastions of PiS support. Much has been made of how, despite earlier projections suggesting they could be the election’s “kingmakers,” Konfederacja won only 7.2 percent of the vote. This electoral underperformance does not indicate a lack of sympathy for Konfederacja’s politics. Konfederacja appeals especially strongly to young Polish men dissatisfied with the current situation and, as examples like the UK Independence Party illustrate, a hard-right party that achieves widespread political sympathy can shift the overall political landscape in a more reactionary direction even if that sympathy never translates into a high vote share.
This hints at major complications in the election results obscured by the prevailing triumphalist narrative of a solidly progressive youth ushering in a new era in Polish society. Despite its popularity among women, who make up 61.9 percent of its voter base, Lewica’s vote share decreased from 12.6 percent in 2019 to 8.6 percent. Among people between 18 and 29 years old, KO received 28.3 percent of the vote, Lewica received 17.7 percent, TD and Konfederacja both received 16.9 percent, and PiS received 14.9 percent. This indicates deep ideological divisions in Polish youth, whose vote is extremely volatile. In 2007, a mass mobilization of young voters was crucial to ousting PiS in an almost identical atmosphere to 2023.6Rafał Pankowski, The Populist Radical Right in Poland: The Patriots (Routledge, 2010), 187. In 2015, PiS came back stronger than ever, with over 26 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 voting for PiS, compared to just 14 percent for PO.7Jarosław Kuisz, The New Politics of Poland: A Case of Post Traumatic Sovereignty (Manchester University Press, 2023), 45.
This brings us to how the Polish far right might take advantage of the new government’s weaknesses. PiS has long counterposed the status quo of “Liberal Poland” to its own “Social Poland,” which combines traditionalism with welfare policies aimed at allowing less affluent regions and citizens to benefit from economic growth. More Poles might find this vision appealing as the crisis goes on, especially if, in voters’ minds, PiS manages to connect growing economic insecurity with rising immigration and other supposed threats to the Polish nation.
Immediately after Tusk’s exposé in the Sejm, which laid out his government’s program, Konfederacja leader Krzysztof Bosak skillfully delivered a speech criticizing, among other things, the program’s lack of specifics on “digitalization, construction, housing, and energy” and the overall similarity between Tusk’s exposé and the “specific type of messianism” in the speeches of PiS politicians. Bosak’s speech was overshadowed in the media by Konfederacja MP Grzegorz Braun dousing a lit menorah with a fire extinguisher in a naked act of antisemitism. The party leadership appears to be moving to expel Braun and frame him as the exception, not the rule. This suggests that, like other radical right parties, Konfederacja aims to make its racism and sexism less overt while highlighting the government’s inadequacies, tapping into mass dissatisfaction and positioning itself as the genuine “anti-establishment” alternative. In other words, despite their setbacks, Konfederacja seem to know what they are doing and will likely become more dangerous.
Tasks for the Polish Left
The threat of PiS returning to power led the New Left to enter a coalition government with the discredited PO. To reiterate, continuing cost-of-living struggles under the new coalition will probably mean more strikes and protests. This leaves the New Left in the contradictory position of, on the one hand, presenting itself as on the strikers’ and protesters’ side and, on the other hand, being in the very government whose policies are at best failing them and at worst attacking them.
Even with these failures and attacks, the New Left is likely to prioritize keeping the Tusk-led coalition government propped up to keep out PiS and Konfederacja. Tragically, the KO-led government’s failure to save middle-class voters from ruin would enable the still-strong far right to reconsolidate and reassert itself. This is what makes the coalition agreement a Faustian pact for the New Left.
Although Razem made the right call not to enter the coalition, their overall approach has still shown a concerning slide toward electoralism and parliamentary horse-trading. Over the course of the 2023 election campaign, Razem’s focus on optics and appearing “united” made it reluctant to criticize its partners in Lewica. This remained true even when New Left MPs like Anna Maria Żukowska, who ran on the Lewica ticket, were publicly stating that the wall along the Polish-Belarusian border—which the PiS government built to keep out hundreds of mostly Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and sub-Saharan African migrants—should stay up.
The current situation with Lewica, where one member party is in government and another is in opposition despite presenting itself as a parliamentary bloc, further illustrates the problem. Razem realized that signing the coalition pact would mean failing to stand up for the interests of workers and women in Poland and correctly refused to cross those red lines. By crossing those same red lines to join Tusk’s coalition, the New Left betrayed those same interests. That betrayal should have provided an opening for Razem to expose the New Left’s inadequacies as the predominant party on the Polish left and take political leadership over the workers’ struggle in Poland. Instead, Razem muted the split in Lewica, leaving it in the incoherent position of being formally in opposition to the new government while remaining in a parliamentary bloc with a government party.
During the campaign, Lewica—including Razem—effectively accepted the dominant framing of the election as PiS versus a largely undifferentiated “democratic opposition” and made significant compromises on issues that should have provided clear divides between the left and the center-right. Take the example of abortion. While participants in the enormous Women’s Strike protests were extremely heterogeneous in their views on abortion, the most visible, organized forces in those demonstrations raised slogans for full, legal abortion on demand, and without pregnancy term restrictions. Despite this, even Lewica only pledged to legalize abortion up to twelve weeks, making their stance on abortion indistinguishable from KO’s in the election.
Even on its own narrow, electoral terms, Lewica’s triangulating approach failed. Despite abortion being a decisive issue in the election and despite Razem’s role in the Women’s Strike and Black Protests, Lewica’s vote share decreased from 2019. When it became clear that the coalition deal would not deliver on abortion rights, Lewica responded by pushing two bills: an abortion legalization bill and a “decriminalization” bill, proposed by Razem’s co-leader Magda Biejat, to prevent people from being prosecuted for helping others get an abortion. Both bills reflect their conservative compromise. Under them, it would still be illegal to get an abortion or to help someone else get an abortion after the twelfth week of pregnancy.
The same effective adoption of the PiS versus “democratic opposition” framing meant that, during the election campaign, even KO largely escaped forceful criticism from Razem. This self-silencing only worsened during the coalition negotiations, when Razem co-chair Adrian Zandberg went so far as to state that “We need to let the people who sit behind these doors and work on the government’s program simply work.” This disconcertingly resembles union leaders saying that they will use their negotiating prowess to deliver gains for the workers behind closed doors. In the Polish context, it has troubling echoes of the 1989 Round Table Talks between the Wojciech Jaruzelski government and the leaders of Solidarność, which were infamously conducted above the workers’ heads.
To defeat the threat of reaction, Razem should provide a clear alternative to both the far right and the neoliberals. It can do this by putting forward an ambitious program that fights unapologetically for the interests of workers, women, and minorities: one that advocates bold measures to tackle the crisis. Razem’s existing commitments on inflation correctly point to, for example, the need for stronger trade unions and an employment guarantee policy.
Its overall approach, however, could be much more daring and militantly demanding if it were to fight for wage increases and for mechanisms like escalator clauses that bring monthly wage rises in line with inflation. This would mitigate the wage system and develop the necessary working-class organization for replacing it. Demands to nationalize the banks and big industry, thereby laying the groundwork for an economy directed toward the welfare of all, would benefit not only the working class, but also the squeezed petty bourgeoisie.
By drawing on the rich tradition of working-class-based movements that recognized how systems of oppression provide the basis for extreme exploitation and undermine working-class solidarity, a socialist program with radical demands on reproductive rights, migrants’ rights, and LGBTQ+ rights can help bridge the unfortunate gap in mainstream Polish politics between the struggle for these rights and the struggle for material security. In short, with a far-reaching program well-rooted in current, living struggles, Razem can win the confidence of not only the working class, but also those lower middle-class layers that might otherwise turn to the far right to save them from ruin as the crisis continues.
Still, having the correct program is not enough. Razem must also show that it is prepared to fight for that program to the bitter end. To achieve this, it is essential to build the collective strength, self-confidence, and class consciousness of workers. This, as Dan La Botz puts it, means building “grassroots social movements and rank-and-file labor movements which form the motor of workers’ power” and “simultaneously fight[ing] for the political independence of the workers movement and of the left.” In relation to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century upsurges in working-class militancy in the United Kingdom that were key to making independent working-class politics viable, Kim Moody observes that
there isn’t unrest here and socialist efforts over there. Some socialists were effective because they were an integral part of the unrest, which they could not have created but could help to lead because there were people in motion to lead. Other socialists, by contrast, were ineffective because they were tied to what amounted to political class collaboration and narrow electoral and parliamentary maneuvering.
The same lesson applies to Polish socialists. They cannot simply will mass unrest into being, but they can work to accelerate the development of events and to provide leadership when mass unrest erupts, which will be effective only if they are already an integral part of the struggle and if they avoid the snares of class collaboration and a narrow focus on electoral and parliamentary maneuvers.
Razem should use its parliamentary activity, including speeches, bills, and amendments, for agitation and propaganda, helping to spread socialist ideas to workers and to unmask the ruling-class interests that bourgeois democracy serves. It should link this parliamentary activity with heavy involvement in the strikes and protests that the economic crisis will generate, including a sustained effort to recruit worker-activists taking a lead role in these struggles and bringing them into positions of party leadership. This way, Razem could start to unite the socialist movement and the labor movement in Poland and expand its base of support in a way that builds working-class consciousness, strength, and self-confidence. This would provide a much more reliable bastion against the far right. However, Razem can only make this turn if class-struggle socialists within its ranks organize to push it away from chasing parliamentary shadows.8On January 24, 2024, Tusk stated that his government would submit bills to legalize abortion up to twelve weeks and ease restrictions on the morning after pill. This does not change the article’s substantial points about the inadequacies of the twelve-week limit and the political divisions and instability of Tusk’s coalition.