Populists eye Poland power with migrant fears, welfare vows

Beata Szydlo

Beata Szydlo (centre) cheers national football team. Warsaw, 8 October. [REUTERS/Kacper Pempel]

Beating drums, miners parade a coffin for Poland’s centrist government through the gritty streets of Ruda Slaska, a mining town left behind by a quarter century of explosive growth since Communism’s demise.

As rock-bottom coal prices threaten miners’ jobs, the Solidarity trade union is accusing Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and her Civic Platform (PO) party of breaking promises to prop up state-owned mines.

The union wants Poles to “vote for anyone but the PO” in Sunday’s general election.

Insisting “the government tricked us”, 35-year-old Pawel, a miner and father who declined to reveal his surname, says he will vote for PO’s arch-rival, the Law and Justice (PiS) conservative opposition.

Surveys show he is not alone. With promises to boost welfare, and fiery rhetoric about about Europe’s migrant crisis, the populist-oriented PiS commands a 10-point poll lead over the liberal pro-European PO, and may even end up governing alone.

Most likely Prime Minister is a woman

The woman most likely to become premier, PiS candidate Beata Szyd?o, is a miner’s daughter from the nearby coal town of Brzeszcze.

PiS leader, controversial former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, anointed Szyd?o after she ran a winning presidential campaign for Andrzej Duda, ousting PO ally Bronislaw Komorowski in May.

>>Read: Conservative candidate wins Polish presidential election

Beata Szyd?o vows to lower the pension age, introduce generous family benefits, impose taxes on banks and foreign-owned hypermarkets while cutting taxes for small and medium-sized businesses.

The promises target core PiS electorates in the poorer east known as “Polska B” and public sector workers. Critics warn they could destabilise public finances.

Despite eight years of deft economic management “the PO wore itself out”, says political scientist Professor Radoslaw Markowski, noting an eavesdropping scandal that did irreparable damage.

In June 2014, “Waitergate” leaked recordings of PO ministers at a swish Warsaw eatery, triggering public outrage over luxurious meals and expletive-laden chat about government policy, says Markowski.

>>Read: Polish cabinet survives confidence vote

Capturing part of the spoils, retired punk rocker Pawel Kukiz, whose presidential bid scored a surprise 20% support, could steer his anti-establishment Kukiz’15 party into parliament. Analysts tip it as the PiS’s most likely coalition partner.

Other parliamentary contenders include the United Left, the Nowoczesna (Modern) liberals, the PSL farmers’ party ? the PO’s current junior coalition partner ? the libertarian Korwin group, and Razem (Together), a new leftist group.

‘Prone to populism’

Far from the south’s gritty coal mines, the Tombea furniture maker in western Poland has very different problems.

Short of upholsterers, it created a popular YouTube rap video promising young Poles jobs and the “good life” without having to follow the 2.3 million economic migrants who left, mostly to Britain or Germany, since Poland’s 2004 EU entry.

With 170 workers, and focused on the Western European market, the company is part of the huge crop of small and medium-sized businesses that sprang up after Communism.

The vibrant sector generates nearly 70% of Polish jobs. Unemployment recently dipped below 10%.

Casting a suspicious eye on the populist-oriented PiS, business-owners became a bastion of support for the liberal PO. It fares best in prosperous western Poland, known as “Polska A”.

“Poles are rather prone to populism and empty promises, especially before election day,” says Tombea manager Slawomir Banasiak, worried what a PiS government might do for the business climate.

Meanwhile, the PO promises continued growth, with a 3.5% expansion expected this year and next, and improved wages.

‘Cholera, parasites’

Playing on fears sparked by Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II, PiS leader Kaczynski claims refugees are bringing “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites” in comments critics say recall Nazi propaganda.

“Unfortunately, playing the fear card often earns political capital,” says Warsaw University political scientist Anna Materska-Sosnowska, adding “this is being received well by voters”.

Kaczynski insists Poland should financially support EU efforts to tackle the crisis, but not take in refugees. Surveys show nearly 60% of Poles share his views.

>>Read: Polish extreme right bares its teeth

When PiS last held power in 2005-7, Kaczynski was premier in tandem with his twin, late president Lech Kaczynski.

The period was marked by internal political turmoil, spawned by their combative style and international tensions triggered by eurosceptism and anti-Russian views.

Lech Kaczynski died in a presidential jet crash in Smolensk, eastern Russia, in 2010.

Jaroslaw and PiS deputy leader Antoni Macierewicz insist he was “assassinated”, despite investigations blaming pilot error for the crash, which claimed 96 lives.

>> Read: Poland charges two Russian officials over Kaczy?ski crash

Macierewicz also suggests that former PO chief Donald Tusk, made European Council President last December, had worked for East Germany’s Stasi secret police. No evidence backs his claim.

Sunday’s election is “about whether liberal democracy will survive in Poland,” warns Professor Markowski.

“If PiS end up governing alone with an allied president, Poland will become another Hungary.”

Subscribe to our newsletters