No Hungary Here

Poland has not turned into Hungary. However, the country’s opposition leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, defeated in Sunday’s general election, told reporters on Sunday night that he still hoped to turn Warsaw into a second Budapest. To observers of Polish politics, such statements will hardly be surprising. The head of the rightist Law and Justice Party, and the brother of late President Lech Kaczynski, the surviving Kaczynski unfortunately shares Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s illiberal instincts.

Elected to a second term in office, Poland’s center-right Prime Minister, the EU-friendly Donald Tusk, received a renewed mandate to continue his market-oriented policies and program of privatization. Most surprising, however, was the success of the Palikot Movement, headed by a wealthy businessman from Lublin. A center-left party, campaigning on a program of secularism, soft drug legalization and gay rights, Palikot took 10.1% of the vote. Less fortunate was the post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance, who dropped to 8.2 %. Analysts credit the Alliance’s decline to Palikot.

You can understand why. The Palikot Movement’s parliamentary candidates include Eastern Europe’s most reknown gay activist, and founder of the Campaign Against Homophobia, Robert Biedron; transgender activist Anna Grodzka; and Poland’s leading pro-choice activist, Wanda Nowicka. That’s hard to beat. Similarly, Palikot was supported by Poland’s former presidents, Lech Walesa and Aleksander Kwasniewski, and by many Poles disappointed by the conservatism of Tusk’s Civil Platform party.

Despite the fact that Poland has not succumbed to the recession afflicting the rest of the European Union, many Poles fear that Tusk’s laissez-fare policies have increased poverty in the country and created a larger underclass. Another concern is that Tusk will attempt to privatize health care and education, a move that can only exacerbate existing inequalities. Palikot’s program has clearly appealed to a number of longterm national anxieties.

Following the recent leftist electoral victory in Denmark, after equally significant progressive breakthroughs in Italy and France, it is clear that the much-vaunted rightward shift in the EU is not a permanent one. Even more encouraging is the fact that support for center-left parties crosses the boundaries that once divided eastern from western Europe. Palikot may not be the most radically progressive of parties. However, what it stands for is a harbinger of much better things to come. Especially if you take into consideration the political context of its emergence. Here’s to more victories like it.

Photograph courtesy of Pantera and Mateusz. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. The Polish masses have been abandoned by the “new left.” The fact that an ex-Communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was elected President over the popular Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, just 6 years after the fall of Berlin Wall, testifies to the persistence of strong pro-socialist sentiments. However, the neoliberal stance that the post-Communist left adopted resulted in a dramatic loss of popularity. These are not just my opinions. Similar opinions have been voiced in the Polish press.

    Support for the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) in Poland has always been of a political nature, not a religious one. Even before Communist rule. Poland lost national sovereignty around 1772 and regained it only in 1918. The RCC served as the organizational base for nationalist movements. After 1945, the RCC was the only organized political opposition in Poland. In short, Polish Catholicism tends to be skin deep and dependent on political repression. The greater the repression, the higher the Catholic sentiments, and vice versa. Anti-clerical sentiments grew after the fall of the Berlin wall because of the lack of repression, and the conservative, intolerant and arrogant stance adopted by the RCC clergy. Again, these are not just my opinions. Similar voices were heard amongst more progressive elements of the RCC.

    The growth of social inequalities after the fall of the Berlin Wall caused a peculiar split in Poland, one that coincided with historical divisions. The Eastern, less industrialized and urbanized part, formerly occupied by Russia, scored worse than the Western, more urbanized and industrialized part formerly occupied by Germany. Those impoverished folks, who were abandoned by the new left, tended to be attracted to conservative parties who espoused faux-populism and nationalism, and fanned anti-EU and anti-Russian sentiments with anti-Semitic undercurrents. Such sentiments are instigated from above by political leadership, rather than coming from below – as has typically been the case in Polish history.

    Poles tend to be pretty conventional, “plain vanilla” if you will, as far as sexual morals and ethics are concerned. This means, on the one hand, that alternative lifestyles, including homosexuality, BDSM, as well as “exotic” religions (e.g. Buddhism) are viewed with skepticism and disapproval by the majority of the population. On the other hand, however, this “plain vanilla” conventionality translates into a relative absence of extreme reaction against these alternative lifestyles. That reaction seldom goes beyond using these minority orientations as a butt of politically incorrect jokes, and usually does not entail radical or violent public opposition.  

    People tend to consider such lifestyles as private weirdness that polite people do not mention in public. Therefore, if there is a public protest action against this or that alternative lifestyle minority, it is virtually certain that this an astroturf action engineered by reactionary politicians or the RCC clergy. In my view, it will be decades if not centuries before homosexuality will be accepted as a legitimate sexual orientation in Poland (or Eastern Europe for that matter.) All the same, there will be no pogroms of gays and lesbians, at least spontaneous ones. It may be a different story when right-wing politicians or the Catholic clergy get involved. Fortunately, EU membership provides ample protections from such reactionaries.

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