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A nation must think before it acts.
Poland’s presidential election has been badly misinterpreted in the foreign press. While the election was fought, on the face of it, as a culture war between one half of Poland that is traditional and nationalist and another half that is younger and more liberal, the true reason for incumbent Andrzej Duda’s reelection got buried. What is it? In the immortal words of U.S. political strategist James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Poland’s economy has grown strongly under the Law and Justice (PiS) government, at five percent per annum until the COVID-19 slowdown. With that type of vigorous growth, any incumbent should have had an easy time being reelected. Moreover, PiS enacted social and economic policies that enabled many Poles left behind by dog-eat-dog free market competition to achieve what they regard as a middle-class lifestyle, meaning the ability to make ends meet and even take an occasional vacation. It is not at all surprising that Poles voted for Duda over challenger Rafal Trzaskowski, representing the liberal Civic Platform Party, in the second round of Poland’s presidential election on July 13. Based on economic perfomance alone, this election should have been a landslide.
The fact that the election was even close—Duda won 51 percent of the vote to Trzaskowski’s 49—reflected widespread dissatisfaction with the PiS’s unpopular cultural policies, not support. PiS rallies its base with a set of conservative nationalist policies—including Euroscepticism, opposition to gay rights, and media and justice policies that threaten democracy—that anger many Poles. Not to mention the Smolensk conspiracy theory that Russia and the former government conspired to kill a previous president in what was actually an accidental air crash. Feeding red meat to the base and pursuing a paranoid politics that divides Poland into “true” Poles and “Poles of the worst sort,” who do not fear modernity, turned what could have been a runaway victory into a close shave.
In short, most Western analysts get Polish politics complete backwards: Duda did not win because he mobilized a traditional conservative majority. It is not a majority, and Catholic nationalist right voters were already on his side. Duda nearly lost because he pandered to this group that makes up approximately one-third of the Polish electorate. By remaining true to the ideology of this group, he nearly forfeited a lead that was built on massively popular social and economic policies.
Because of this misunderstanding, Poland is now being portrayed as a country where 51 percent of people support a conservative nationalist vision that emphasizes Polish “sovereignty” and independence from a European Union of post-modern moral values. But according to public opinion polls, that is simply hogwash.
Poles are some of the most enthusiastic “Europeans” in Europe, meaning they strongly support Polish membership in the European Union, as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the multinational security Alliance led by the United States. In a March 2020 poll by CBOS, the leading Polish survey agency, 89 percent of Poles supported EU membership. Moreover, 55 percent of Poles believe that EU membership “does not excessively restrict Poland’s sovereignty and independence,” as the Eurosceptic PiS government has frequently argued. Only 35 percent believe that it does. That number has shrunk under PiS rule, despite its control of state media for propaganda purposes.
When PiS politicians say that the European Union threatens traditional families in Poland with post-modern values like gay rights and gay marriage and proposes a constitutional amendment to prevent gay adoptions, one may assume that only around one-third of Poles believe and support this. In fact, when asked by CBOS in 2019 whether homosexuality should be “tolerated,” only 24 percent of Poles said that it should not. Fifty-four percent of Poles said it was a deviation from the norm but should be tolerated, and an additional 14 percent said homosexuality was normal. This poll suggests that, at maximum, only one-third of Poles oppose gay rights. A vast majority, 68 percent, support gay rights in Poland, and that number is growing.
Poles also strongly support democracy. A Pew poll conducted in spring and summer 2019 found that 85 percent of Poles support the shift to a multi-party system after the end of communism. Surprisingly, Poles rate judicial independence as the single-most important aspect of democracy, as in most other European countries, with 72 percent of Poles saying it is important. Second to that: gender equality, which 69 percent of Poles support. Moreover, Poles are mostly satisfied with democracy in their country, with 66 percent satisfied and 31 percent dissatisfied, similar to Germany or Netherlands.
Despite intense controversies about judicial independence that have fueled a blowback in the European Union, most Poles do not see the PiS government as anti-democratic. Of course, a substantial minority of liberal Civic Platform voters see PiS efforts to purge the judiciary of “communists” as an attempt to control the courts, and not wrongly. At the same time, Poles’ satisfaction with democracy has grown between 2009 and 2019, most likely because PiS policies have made average people better off. Is democracy procedural, about how governmental institutions function? Or substantive, about whether a majority benefits from government policy? Most Poles seem less bothered about the procedural questions and conflate democracy with government that improves their well-being.
The most fascinating polling question to watch if one wants to understand the PiS’s economic appeal is one asked by CBOS: whether people think they are living in an oligarchic society where most income goes to the top one percent, or a democratic one, where most people are middle class. Those numbers changed dramatically under PiS, with the percent identifying Poland as an oligarchy with “a small elite at the top, very few people in the middle, and most people below,” dropping from 31 percent in 2013 to 13 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, the percent identifying Poland as a middle-class society “where most people are in the middle” skyrocketed from 14 percent in 2013 to 28 percent in 2019, becoming the most popular of the five options suggested. The second most popular answer, at 23 percent, that society was pyramidical in structure, dropped from 33 percent in 2009.
The PiS won this election with economic policies that lifted millions of Poles, particularly in small towns and rural areas, out of poverty, enabling them to achieve a middle-class life.
The PiS’s signature innovation was the Family 500 plus policy, which pays all Polish family units (including gay and single-parent families) 500 zlotys (around $130) per month for each second and further child. In a country where the average wage is 4,000 zlotys per month, this is a big deal, particularly for poorer and larger families living in small towns and rural areas. Opinion polls show that 68 percent of Poles identify this policy with the PiS government; it is the most popular economic policy of the government. PiS also reversed increases to the retirement age, created new prescription drug benefits for the elderly, launched an affordable housing program, limited employer use of short-term “junk” contracts, and announced new tax breaks for young people to encourage them to stay in Poland.
In contrast, many Poles today fear Rafal Trzaskowski’s Civic Platform Party on economic policy. Voters identify Civic Platform with years of free market policies that seemed to enrich a highly educated elite in major urban centers, but left everyone else behind. Successive Civic Platform governments and their predecessors cut the welfare state, increased the retirement age, and argued that higher social spending would bankrupt the country. When PiS announced Family 500 plus, Civic Platform objected that it would be a fiscal disaster and wreck Poland’s economy. It has done nothing of the sort. In fact, due to high growth and improved tax collection, Poland’s budget deficit declined.
No wonder then that, despite the active or tacit support of a vast majority of the country on liberal social values, Civic Platform’s presidential candidate lost. Polish voters in the middle, who are neither fully convinced by the PiS’s traditional Catholic nationalism nor fully on board with the big city elite liberalism of Civic Platform, voted with their pocketbooks. And in this election, many held their nose and voted for PiS, expecting a more democratic economic future and hoping that the crazy cultural politics of the election season will calm down after, while the PiS base consumes its red meat and goes to bed satisfied.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.