Divided Society, Populism and an Electorate that swings from frustration to cynicism


Polish politics divides rather than unites. This is very clear from the ongoing election campaign. Polish society is deeply polarised. PiS voters are resistant to the scandals of the ruling party, or cynically choose the option that gives them the greatest benefit. Despite this, sociologist Dr Przemysław Sadura does not foresee the end of democracy in Poland.

Interview with P. Sadura

Joanna Maria Stolarek: How is the political and social scene looking in the runup to the elections in Poland, and how is the voter support distributed?

Dr Przemysław Sadura: What we’re dealing with today, and not just in Poland – because it is a wider problem, though one that is very clearly visible in Poland – can be called a populist epidemic. This describes how, if in a political system there appears a leader, a party, who reaches for populism as a way of mobilising voters, this approach will immediately be taken up by the other parties. Law and Justice (PiS) has pursued a populist policy of dividing society into bad elites and good common people for the last 8 years, introducing divisions that are ethical, moral, Manichean even. In addition, in winning by offering generous election gifts, the ruling party has changed voters themselves. They will choose a party based on the individual benefits the party can bring them. In this sense, we’ve become a society of populists. Of course, social pay-outs made sense, they had real effects, for example, they eliminated the problem of child poverty, but these direct transfers take place, for example, at the expense of the quality of public services. And so people will choose the party of cash and not the party of reforms. The picture I’ve outlined above comes from the book “Społeczeństwo populistów” [The Society of Populists], which I co-wrote with Sławomir Sierakowski. According to many, it turned out to be an accurate diagnosis of our current situation. In the book we focus on PiS, but other parties have also become populist. PiS’s younger brother, Konfederacja, is a far-right party with a programme that is a patchwork of neoliberalism, but straight from the Stone Age, something even akin to social Darwinism combined with xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and all other possible prejudices. But Konfederacja has gained increasing support and, like PiS, has achieved success since it doesn’t just have voters ideologically attached to them, fanatics who identify with its leaders and programme, but also voters who can be described as cynical. The latter group vote for a party even though they don’t like it. They may not agree with Law and Justice’s programme, they may not like [its leader, Jarosław] Kaczyński, have a sceptical attitude towards the church, have no conservative views at all: in fact, they might resemble the electorate of the opposition in this respect, but these individual benefits that the PiS programme gives them are enough for them to vote for Kaczyński's party. Similarly, Konfederacja has gained new voters who aren’t sexist at all. As a matter of fact, they are often young women who say that they’re feminists. These are voters who support equality, have no prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community, who are not xenophobic, who cannot imagine Poland outside the European Union, and who even support the European climate policy. But they cherry pick tax reduction from Konfederacja’s range of policies, because this is the slogan Konfederacja uses to charm its potential voters with. Faced with this, the democratic opposition is also becoming populist. It has to put on a populist costume, put on these populist gloves, and go into the ring: this is the only way to win, and hence the campaign of all these parties is a race in promises. When it announced its “100 policies for 100 days” programme, the Civic Coalition (KO) became my absolute champion in all this. I say this ironically. This programme is the result of populist exaggeration. KO has diluted its message by proposing “100 tiny policies for 100 days” where they should have proposed four concrete policies for four years. Instead, we ended up with 100 tiny and random policies no Civic Platform politician would be able to list from memory. On the one hand, we have doubling the tax-free allowance, which is a really significant tax reduction, and on the other we have children not having to carry heavy schoolbags or not being given any homework. This is not how you do populism. It’s obvious that the democratic opposition would like to become populist, but it’s not very good at it.

Deep polarisation and populism manifest themselves in the election campaign, but they are also present in wider society. Are there any themes that fuel this election campaign?

The problem is that we don’t currently have a single society or a single information flow, in fact we’re dealing with two sub-societies that do not overlap. This is not a fight between PiS and the democratic opposition about how to win over voters. This is a campaign that is about mobilising your voters as much as possible and demobilising the opposing side. Practically no information crosses the divide. From the research we did for our book, Sławomir Sierakowski and I found that there is this large group of voters, 12% of voters, who are disappointed with Law and Justice. They voted for PiS in the past, and they now say that they would not do it, or do not know if they would. When asked about the reasons for this disappointment, the group mainly mentioned general disappointment with Polish politics, disappointment with PiS and so on. However, if there were specific reasons, they concerned inflation, unfulfilled election promises, economic issues, the fact that refugees from Ukraine might burden the system too much. They were not, however, concerned with issues such as the attitude of the Law and Justice Party towards LGBT persons, to women’s reproductive rights or the violation of the rule of law, which is something the entire opposition is gravely concerned with. From this representative sample group of 1000 Poles, none of the 120 who described themselves as disillusioned with PiS declared that the attack on the independent judiciary was the cause of their disappointment. Not a single one. Therefore, in order to demobilise the PiS electorate, the opposition must amplify the economic issues, and, in order to mobilise its own electorate, it needs to amplify the issues of the rule of law and women’s rights. A new topic is the recent visa scandal, which shows the hypocrisy of the Law and Justice party, which slanders refugees and treats people on the Belarusian border inhumanly on the one hand, and on the other has permitted the entry of migrants from exactly the same countries that are allegedly a threat. The opposition is trying to take advantage of this – it’s just that PiS has been scandal-proof for years. There have been so many scandals, whether related to nepotism or corruption, that would have basically toppled every government or have suspended many ministers, but PiS just carries on. This is possible because it relies on the support of two groups: the fanatical voters and the cynical voters who think in terms of their own benefit. The first group, the fanatical voters, simply don’t believe that these scandals took place, while the cynical ones don’t care at all, because they didn’t expect anything else.

They weren’t expecting PiS to be honest, they only assumed that it would give them a little. In this sense, the scandals do not affect PiS at all. It’s scandal-proof because its voters are a truth-proof electorate. The key to the opposition’s chances of victory may be the group of young women up to 39 years of age. Data shows that this group is much more likely to vote in presidential elections than in parliamentary elections. We know that they have liberal views, and yet they may not take part in these elections. A few days ago, before the next series of debates, I looked at our last poll to see how many such women there are, and indeed in the whole population, in a representative poll, we had 6% of women in this age group who have pro-choice views, but at the same time are disillusioned with politics and do not vote in the elections. If this 6% went to vote, it could double, for example, votes for the left, but you have to make these women believe that it is really worth taking part in these elections.

We live in two worlds in Poland, we have two information circuits, private media and public media, and the upcoming elections will not be fully free, if only because of limited access to media and the use of Pegasus [spyware]. In addition, there is a growing polarisation related to the Kaczyński and [Civic Platform leader Donald] Tusk duopoly. All this makes many people feel deeply frustrated. What role will this pro-turnout factor play in the upcoming elections?

On the one hand we see a conflict between PiS voters or right-wing voters and voters of the democratic opposition. On the other hand, the problem is that the opposition went to the elections not united but divided. There are also many conflicts between opposition voters, between supporters of the Civic Coalition and the Third Way. Since the democratic opposition cannot reach the electorate of the Law and Justice party, they are left with a fight among themselves for this limited democratic electorate. This is a very dangerous situation because a polarisation, a clear conflict between PiS and anti-PiS, would mobilise – rather than demobilise – the electorate on both sides. There would be those who would feel disillusioned, and this would probably increase the popularity of Konfederacja as the kind of force that is close to neither PiS nor the democratic opposition, but clearly such an arrangement would also increase the share of anti-government voters. However, the conflict is beginning to divide the democratic opposition. Inside the Civic Coalition a witch-hunt has begun against so-called symmetrists, i.e. journalists, voters and politicians who are supposedly equally distanced to both PiS and the Civic Platform, believing that the two parties deserve each other.

This is an imaginary problem. There are in practice very few symmetrists, maybe even none at all. The left wanted to follow this symmetrical path, but quickly realised that its electorate was more anti-PiS than the electorate of the Civic Coalition. Similarly, [Poland 2050 leader Szymon] Hołownia has realised that from a civilisational point of view, his electorate is against PiS. And so there are no symmetrists, but there is the problem of anti-symmetrism. In Poland we have this tradition of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, but without Jews or Muslims. Well, now we have anti-symmetrism without the symmetrists. This is reminiscent of the situation in the McCarthy era in the USA, where anti-communism was worse than communism itself. We can already see that despite the fact that the elections have not yet been lost and the opposition still has a chance, the search for the culprit of a possible defeat has already begun. This conflict within the opposition is dangerous because, in light of what we know about the attitudes of young women I mentioned earlier – their participation in these elections is crucial, but what discourages them from politics is its conflictual nature. It follows that the more conflict on the side of the opposition, the greater the risk that this group of female voters will not vote at all.

Young women could tip the scales when it comes to the elections. How do you motivate them to vote on 15 October?

Women should be presented with a clear alternative on the issues that are important to them, and these are, above all, reproductive rights. Pro-turnout campaigns go in the direction of posing dilemmas: free contraception and prenatal tests versus a pregnancy registry, and legalising abortion or, at least, the morning-after pill versus forcing women to give birth to dead foetuses. Research has shown that presenting elections as a dilemma of this kind increases the interest in voting among young women at the expense of a decrease in interest among young men. From other studies we know that 40% of young men up to the age of 39 are the electorate of Konfederacja or the far right. This means that increasing the participation of young women in the elections while reducing the participation of young men would be an ideal scenario for the democratic opposition. However, it seems to me that the condition that will encourage young women to take part in the elections is a greater accord among the opposition. It hasn’t been possible to create single electoral lists, but it is still not too late, although it is already very late to reach an agreement on the rules of fair play in the electoral competition. Without such an agreement, the opposition is doomed to a conflict that will discourage young women. The opposition is on the verge of falling into the trap it has set for itself. One of the biggest events of this campaign is the march on the 1 October, organised by Donald Tusk and the Civic Coalition, similar to a march that took place in June. The previous march was indeed a huge success in terms of organisation and attendance: a lot of Poles took to the streets of Warsaw, many travelling from all over the country. PiS helped a little in this success: at the time lawmakers had taken up work on the law on Russian influence, which could have become an unconstitutional way to eliminate key opposition politicians from the game. The threat of this undemocratic and authoritarian manoeuvre became a mobilising factor for people. But regardless of the reasons for mobilisation, the march resulted in the ratings of the Civic Coalition shooting up while support for the other partners from the democratic opposition decreased. According to some polls, both Poland 2050 and The Left (Lewica) are close to the electoral threshold. If the effect caused by the initial march repeats itself on 1 October and one of these parties fails to cross the electoral threshold, the Polish system of converting votes into seats will mean that this would in fact strengthen the support of Law and Justice, and eventually increase the number of its seats in parliament. For this reason, the Civic Coalition is forced to face a real challenge. On the one hand it cannot withdraw from this march. This march must succeed. On the other hand, it cannot succeed too much without absorbing the support of the rest of the opposition. Therefore, talks are underway on how to organise this event so that it is a joint march of the entire opposition. If it is possible to hold a joint march of the opposition, one which would really show that the democratic opposition is a monolith, a unity, at least on some issues, it could mean that the ratings of democratic parties go up a little in the final stages of the campaign.

There are two possible scenarios for the outcome of the general elections on 15 October. In the first scenario the democratic opposition manages to win the elections and together forms a new government. In the second scenario, Law and Justice remains in power and forms a government for the third time. How do you see the future resulting from both of these outcomes?

It seems to me that these two scenarios are very unlikely. It’s difficult for me to imagine a situation in which the democratic opposition forms a stable majority coalition as most polls indicate that such a coalition would still lack some seats. This would mean that the arrangement would also require the participation of Konfederacja. It would be an extremely exotic coming-together. We mustn’t forget that the Civic Coalition, i.e., the strongest power in the democratic opposition, is not a monolith, but an alliance of the Civic Platform, Modern and the Greens. Moreover, the Left is also not a monolith. It’s an amalgamation of the Together party and the Left, which, in turn, formed after the unification of Spring and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). We also have the Third Way, which is an alliance of Hołownia’s [Poland 2050] and Polish People’s Party (PSL). And then we would also add Konfederacja to the mix. Research shows that a coalition has a greater chance of forming and maintaining stability when it is made up of a smaller number of parties. Therefore, if the democratic opposition were to form the future government, we would be dealing with an internally conflicted, fragile and, consequently, unstable majority struggling with a reality in which the president is from a different political camp and tries to make life difficult for the government at all costs. Additionally, most of the key institutions are staffed by PiS people and it would be very difficult to replace them. Therefore, even if the democratic opposition were able to form a government, we shouldn’t really expect any great revolution, because it would be a government that would struggle every day. Speaking about the internal problems of the coalition, we should also mention external and financial problems, and a huge deficit that Law and Justice is hiding. If, in turn, it’s PiS attempting to form a government, we know that it is currently impossible for them to obtain a majority on their own. This means that PiS would also be forced to invite a partner to the coalition, and this partner would most likely be Konfederacja, although its support is beginning to fall after some spectacular initial increases. It remains unclear whether Konfederacja would decide to join a coalition at all, because it has the only truly symmetristic electorate that hates Tusk as much as it hates Kaczyński. Entering into a coalition, Konfederacja would have to betray its own electorate. The scenario, which in my opinion is very likely, is that PiS will try to secure conditional support on key issues and try to maintain a minority government with the support of the president and other institutions. After eight years in power, PiS has the skills, but lacks any scruples. They might well try to buy some MPs, intimidate others because we all know that no one is a saint, and PiS manually controls the prosecutor’s office and special services. So we might be dealing with a very brutal finish to a dirty election campaign, only to find out that the atmosphere isn’t going to clear after the campaign at all. Building a parliamentary majority could also be dirty and fall far short of the democratic standards we are used to in Europe.

Will this divided, populist, polarised Poland remain so, or would a potential change of government also lead to social change?

I don’t think so, not over a short period of time. We have a similar situation in the USA today. American society is polarised and Donald Trump is still the leader of conservative America, even after his defeat and even though this is not something the Republican establishment wants. Trump has fanatical, devoted voters all over the country, and we can expect a similar situation in Poland: we won’t stop being a society of populists, because a populist campaign appeals to this element in everyone, and we won’t bridge this key divide. I hope that the divisions within the opposition I mentioned earlier will not escalate and that – in the event of a defeat – the opposition will not sink into internal conflicts and look for a scapegoat instead of building a strategy for survival and to take power away from the populist right. Many factors indicate that both the democratic opposition and PiS will have problems creating a stable majority, which probably means that the next elections will happen before schedule. Theoretically, it is possible that the situation takes such a bad turn that the organisation of democratic elections will be called into question, but in my opinion this is something out of political fiction for the time being. We are part of the European Union, we are sick with right-wing populism, we have a high fever, but in no way do we find ourselves in a situation that calls for the announcement of the death of democracy in Poland just yet.

“We are sick with right-wing populism”: very nicely put. But is this just a Polish problem, or is it more European-wide? 

It is European-wide and at different times this fever intensifies in different countries, but ultimately everyone has this problem. We have AFD in Germany. Similarly Scandinavia, which, until now, seemed like a model of building welfare states while maintaining tolerance for all social groups and people, also has xenophobic and populist parties that are close to winning elections. In France, Macron is grappling with growing support for Le Pen. In Britain this populist fever was so devastating that the country left the European Union altogether. However, the factor that distinguishes the case of Poland from what we see in Western Europe is the fact that Central and Eastern Europe doesn’t have such a long history of democratic systems. Constitutional features and attachment to the principles of the rule of law are not so deeply rooted here. The situation is completely different in the United States. When president Donald Trump used executive orders to try to stop the arrival of citizens of countries he perceived as the source of potential terrorism, a local court was able to stop this practice by filing a complaint, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court. In Poland, the government is able to not publish a ruling and no one can do anything about it. We are not in the comfortable situation of the Anglosphere, where the concepts of liberalism and the rule of law are much more rooted in society, inhibiting populism and preventing its transformation into authoritarianism. There are no such brakes in Central and Eastern Europe, which is why we are faced with this threat that right-wing populism could turn into right-wing authoritarianism at some point.