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Poland’s disenchanted killed off ‘New Europe’


 

“New Europe” is dead, and that’s official. The verdict is not that of an obscure thinktank. It comes from the central actor in the heartland of what was once deemed to be a bold new part of the old continent, namely the people of Poland.

 

In two recent elections, for parliament in September and for the presidency on Sunday, they gave most support to a party which wants a strong state and is highly suspicious of the free-market reforms of the last 15 years. It also has major reservations about the European Union.

 

Its victory offers an important reality check against the hot air of yesterday’s Hampton Court talkathon and Tony Blair’s latest calls to step up the pace of liberal reform. The biggest of the EU’s new members is as attached to the old social model and as anxious about unregulated globalisation as the “no” voters in the French and Dutch referendums.

 

The “new Europe” tag was invented by Donald Rumsfeld in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and initially covered foreign policy. Flushed with their post-communist freedom, it was claimed, eastern and central Europeans understood the value of Washington’s international campaign to promote democracy better than western Europeans did. The claim soon proved inaccurate. The governments of “new Europe” supported the war, but majorities in the polls did not. Poles and Czechs were no more enthusiastic about having their troops in Iraq than people in Britain.

 

“New Europe” was then used to categorise attitudes to internal EU reform. It is this simplification which Poland’s voters have exposed. The victorious Law and Justice party offers a traditional Catholic and nationalist platform, which is more about protecting inherited values than promoting further reform.

 

On social issues president-elect Lech Kaczynski is a man of the right, a critic of homosexuality and an advocate of the death penalty. After “nice” Lech Walesa, the Solidarity founder who became Poland’s first non-communist president, we now have a “nasty” Lech, whose election was greeted in Brussels with warnings that he would be watched for any violation of EU standards. His twin brother, Jaroslaw, who led the Law and Justice party to victory in parliamentary elections, has similar views. He did not triumph outright and is still embroiled in fierce negotiations for a “grand coalition” which make Angela Merkel’s enforced marriage to the social democrats in next-door Germany look simple.

 

The fact that Walesa and the two Kaczynskis are all former Solidarity activists shows how far Polish politics has moved from the romanticism of 1989 — and how much Solidarity, even in its first years, was an amalgam of not easily reconcilable interests: workers’ rights, Catholic nationalism and westernising liberalism, to name just a few.

 

Simple slogans about freedom tended to exaggerate the political dimension of the Polish revolution. It also contained an important economic core. What happened in this autumn’s Polish elections is the return of economics. During Poland’s 16 years of neoliberal reforms, it did not matter much whether the governments which brought them in were post-communists or anti-communists. Economic strategies remained the same.

 

Now the electorate wants a rethink. At least those who voted do. Disenchantment with politicians of all stripes is high, with barely 40% taking part in September, the lowest turnout since 1989. The Civic Platform, which had expected to win but came second in both polls, is a radical “flat tax” party which advocates a 16% rate across the board. “Flat tax”, which unashamedly goes against the philosophy that governments have a duty to promote income redistribution, was almost Angela Merkel’s undoing as well. Her proposal to appoint a flat-taxer as finance minister caused a huge slump in her campaign.

 

Poland’s elections exposed a divided country in which regional inequalities have got worse. The geographical split is not unlike Ukraine’s. Poland’s poor rural east and “rust belt”, areas that benefited from postwar industrialisation and are now struggling, voted for the Kaczynskis. Warsaw and the more prosperous north and west chose the flat-taxers.

 

The results should not have been a surprise. The World Bank has just published its latest survey of central Europe and the former Soviet Union. The bank is hardly a leftwing propaganda outfit but its report, Growth, Poverty, and Inequality, shows how far the region still has to go to make up for the fall in living standards which came with the collapse of communism. In 1988 only 4% of the region’s people were poor — defined as having an income of less than £1.25 a day. Now poverty affects 12%.

 

This is better than five years ago, when poverty affected 20% of the region’s people. Things have got better thanks largely to the rise in world oil prices, which has pulled up the economy of Russia and some of its immediate neighbours. Among the countries covered by the World Bank, the eight new EU members are much better off. But the report shows that Poland, alone among them, has seen a further increase in poverty over the last five years.

 

It also found a growth in inequality between regions, with prosperity largely confined to capital cities while smaller towns and rural areas suffered. The World Bank notes that subjective impressions also matter. It talks of the “transition shock” caused by the sudden switch to market economics. “The socialist legacy of high access to social services (eg, heating) and infrastructure (eg, healthcare) which have since been eroded means that people feel an acute sense of deprivation,” it says.

 

The lesson for the future is that assessments of progress and popular satisfaction must include socioeconomic factors as well as levels of political freedom. EU governments should not get involved in narrow crusades. Poland’s neighbour, Belarus — which the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has called “Europe’s last dictatorship” — is sure to attract attention next year when it holds presidential elections. The World Bank survey is relevant here. While poverty went up in Poland, Belarus saw one of the sharpest declines, enjoying “broad-based economic growth beneficial to labour” in which the “benefits were broadly shared by the population”.

 

Few doubt that the Belarus election will be less pluralistic than Poland’s; but social solidarity, a strong state, and a government which attempts to lessen inequalities are what Polish voters have shown they want. The people of Belarus probably have similar views.

 

 

Published in The Guardian, Friday, October 28, 2005.

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