In The Elephant, a 1957 short story by the Polish satirist Slawomir Mrozek, a zoo director anxious to please cost-conscious bureaucrats saves money by acquiring an inflatable rubber elephant and fooling the public into thinking it is real. The deceit backfires when his workers fill the elephant with gas and it floats away, eventually puncturing itself on a cactus in the botanical gardens.
In contrast to the absurdities of communism that adorn Mrozek’s tales, there is nothing illusory about Poland’s progress since it regained independence in 1989 after 45 years of Soviet-imposed one-party rule. The question at the heart of Sunday’s parliamentary election is whether the result will extend, slow down or even reverse this progress.
The election appears certain to produce Poland’s first change of government in eight years, replacing the centre-right Civic Platform party with Law and Justice, its rightwing rival. This may herald a highly unpredictable spell in Polish politics, particularly if Law and Justice falls short of an outright legislative majority and relies for support on small, quirky rightwing groups.
Law and Justice has left no doubt that, where it sees fit, it will brush aside Civic Platform’s market-oriented liberalism to assert state influence over the economy. There will be fewer deviations in foreign policy, for both parties are staunch Nato supporters and wary of Russia. But Law and Justice will adopt a tougher, more culturally defensive stance on Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis, an attitude that may cause friction with Germany and EU authorities in Brussels.
It is little wonder that Poland’s European allies, not to mention the US and Russia, are keeping a close watch on events in Warsaw. A particular concern among Poland’s friends is Law and Justice’s admiration for the high-handed legal and economic practices by which Viktor Orban, Hungary’s self-styled “illiberal” prime minister, has barged his way to political supremacy.
In their deepest sense, the elections are a contest between the two visions of Poland that emerged from the heroic struggle fought against communism in the 1980s by the independent Solidarity trade union. The first vision blends an emphasis on national identity, Catholicism and social conservatism with a penchant for state intervention to assist families, the less well-off and small companies. This is Law and Justice’s outlook.
The second vision is more self-consciously “modern”, pro-EU, pro-business, liberal in social values and less overtly religious. This is the outlook of Civic Platform, which since 2007 has provided Poland with its longest stretch of political stability since the end of communism. Donald Tusk, a former Civic Platform prime minister, was appointed last year as the EU’s president. It is inconceivable that EU leaders would have considered Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice leader and Mr Tusk’s predecessor as premier, for this prestigious job.
Unusually for a European democracy, left-of-centre parties register barely a flicker on contemporary Poland’s political radar screen. Still, one must remember that many of Law and Justice’s economic policies lean distinctly to the left.
The party plans to slap new taxes on banks and supermarket chains, both largely foreign-owned sectors. It wants to make banks bear most of the burden of helping more than 500,000 Poles convert expensive, Swiss franc-denominated home loans into zlotys. For the banks, the new taxes and mortgage conversions would cost the equivalent of several billion dollars.
As if to sugar this pill, Law and Justice proposes that Poland’s central bank should lend the banks funds worth almost a fifth of gross domestic product. The ostensible purpose is to make cheap loans available to masses of small and medium-sized businesses. For good measure, Law and Justice intends to reduce the retirement age, raise tax-free income thresholds and extend child benefits for larger and poorer families.
This economic programme, which resembles Mr Orban’s policies in Hungary, runs the risk of alienating foreign investors, damaging Poland’s nascent financial markets, compromising the central bank’s independence and destroying the nation’s reputation for fiscal discipline. Yet it has an undeniable appeal to hard-pressed, low-wage workers who have benefited little from post-communist modernisation.
For six months, opinion polls have predicted victory for Law and Justice. Many Poles think that Civic Platform’s long enjoyment of power made the party arrogant and out of touch. Young voters have little memory of the erratic behaviour that blighted Law and Justice’s spell in office from 2005 to 2007. Mr Kaczynski, a deeply suspicious figure in the eyes of moderate voters, has sought to allay their concerns by stating that, in the event of victory, he will not serve as prime minister. Instead the job will go to Beata Szydlo, a less abrasive party colleague.
In every democracy the time for change arrives one day. So it is in Poland. But the approach of the European winter reminds us that, only 34 years ago, Poles woke up one snowy December morning to find that tanks were on the streets and almost the entire Solidarity leadership was under arrest. That was the era of martial law, the last time a boot stamped on the face of a free Poland. The next government’s duty is to ensure that all the progress achieved since 1989 does not go to waste.