Poland’s Populist Turn

By | Updated Feb 6, 2017 5:59 PM UTC

If Poland had a tumultuous 20th century, the 21st started off pretty well. The country cemented the transition to capitalism, joined the European Union and enjoyed unrivaled economic growth. Then in a 2015 election, the people swept in a party that promised a shakeup in the name of ordinary Poles. They were fed up with uneven wealth and tossed out what they saw as a self-serving elite that had misruled the country. In the government's first year, moves to grab control of the highest court and quell discontent sparked public protests and a rebuke from EU lawmakers concerned that it was flouting the rule of law. EU president Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, warned that the country could be returning to the “dark side” of political life. Is eastern Europe’s biggest economy risking the democratic order it has built since escaping communism?

The Situation

Opposition lawmakers called off an unprecedented four-week sit-in of parliament in January after protesting the ruling Law & Justice Party's plans to curb the access of journalists. The standoff capped a year in which citizens periodically took to the streets to protest moves to weaken the constitutional court, restrict demonstrations and make it harder to get an abortion. Yet the party -- which won the first parliamentary majority since Poland became a democracy in 1989 -- remains popular with many Poles for making good on promises to reduce the tax burden on the poor, lower the retirement age and increase payments to families with children. It triumphed by calling for the country to assert its national identity, control its borders and permanently station NATO troops on Polish soil as a buffer against Russia. It promised to uphold Catholic values such as opposition to gay marriage. Concerned about political conflicts, S&P Global Ratings cut its grade on the country's debt for the first time. Economic growth slowed to its weakest pace in three years in 2016 as investment dropped. 

The Background

Polish history has been defined by division, usually provoked by the powers that lie to the east and west. There were three partitions in the 18th century, and a fourth with World War II. As the Nazis were pushed out by the Russians, destroying Warsaw in their wake, Poland fell to the communists. The Solidarity trade union movement toppled the regime in 1989.  Poland’s rehabilitation began and free-market capitalism took hold. The EU began to pour money into the country when it joined in 2004, building roads and schools as part of a 20-year, 229 billion-euro ($250 billion) aid package. What’s lingered is a legacy of mistrust and conspiracy theories not uncommon in post-communist Europe. Two decades of uninterrupted economic growth have brought Poland’s per-capita output to about two-thirds of the EU average, even as unemployment only dropped into single digits in 2015. At least 2.5 million Poles left the country over the past decade, 6 percent of a population of 39 million. Poland’s eastern provinces, hotbeds of support for Law & Justice, are some of the EU's poorest areas. The party was founded by former child actor twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Its only previous time in government was 2005 to 2007. 


The Argument

Beata Szydlo, the defiant prime minister, says that her government upholds the rule of law and that history shows Poland suffers when outsiders interfere in its politics. While the EU accused Poland of "persistent" issues in upholding democratic order, Szydlo says Brussels should focus on its own problems, such as the U.K.'s decision to leave the bloc and the refugee crisis straining its unity. That's prompting comparisons with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s challenge to the European mainstream. The standoff is also raising questions among investors, including foreign banks and retailers that have been criticized by Poland’s new leadership for not sharing enough of their profit. The government has embraced a "drain the swamp'' approach, also advocated by U.S. President Donald Trump, replacing much of Poland's establishment over its first year in power. After decades of adopting Western institutions and social norms, Szydlo’s party is putting Poland on a different path.

The Reference Shelf

  • A year after the government took power, Poland's market scorecard wasn't looking good. 
  • Poland's populists have been draining the swamp, offering a cautionary tale for other countries with similar revolts.
  • A QuickTake Q&A on the fight over the Constitutional Tribunal.
  • Profiles of government ministers from Bloomberg News.
  • Polish politics blog by Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics and contemporary European studies at the University of Sussex.
  • A 2015 Brookings Institution report on “How Poland Became Europe’s Growth Champion.”
  • Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is now president of the European Council, remarked in January 2016 that Poland could be returning to the “dark side” of political life.
  • Central Statistical Office of Poland’s website of emigration statistics.
  • QuickTake on Europe’s refugee crisis.

First published Feb. 2, 2016

To contact the writers of this QuickTake:
Rodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at r.jefferson@bloomberg.net
Wojciech Moskwa in Warsaw at wmoskwa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Leah Harrison at lharrison@bloomberg.net