Democracy tarnishes its heroes as surely as revolutions devour their children. For 25 years, the leaders of Solidarity personified the qualities needed to win Poland’s struggle for democracy: unbending courage in the face of the communist Leviathan and magnanimity and clear-sighted determination during the transfer of power. All of these were great and noble qualities, and all of them now seem utterly superfluous to most Poles.
That is the sad lesson of Poland’s parliamentary election two weeks ago, and of Sunday’s indecisive presidential election (which will be decided by a run off between Donald Tusk and Lech Kaczynski on October 23rd.) To be sure, the communists-cum-postcommunists who have dominated Polish politics since 1989 were utterly repudiated – the left got scarcely 11% of the vote in the parliamentary poll. But Solidarity’s old guard has also been cast aside. Poland yearns for something new.
Poland’s recent elections were the first in which the postcommunist left was irrelevant. The postcommunists know that they can no longer live off their legacy of organization and discipline, so they have chosen a clever and attractive 34-year-old leader. He has nothing to do with the communist era and has sacked all former Party members from important positions, even barring former Prime Minister Leszek Miller from standing for parliament.
This is undoubtedly all to the good. But the overall health of Polish democracy is another matter. Turnout for the parliamentary election was 40%, which puts Poland near the bottom in voter participation among the democratic nations of the world, and about 25-30% below the European average.
Political apathy reflects many factors, but two stand out. A few days before the parliamentary election, people were asked if they hoped for a better life. An astounding 60% said that they do not. Hopeless people do not vote.
Second, one of the necessary conditions of a functioning democracy are clear and sufficiently distinct party political programs. That is not the case in Poland. Parties’ programs changed with the public opinion polls, and their economic proposals were either too complicated or too muddled for voters to grasp. So the 40% who voted did so for emotional reasons, not as a clear political choice.
Among the leading politicians of the parties that overwhelmingly won the parliamentary elections – the neo-liberal Civic Platform and the conservative-populist Law and Justice – almost every face has been around since 1989. So the members of the new government, although not physically old, are politically geriatric. The Solidarity/postcommunist divide seems to have pickled Polish politics, leaving it without a new generation of leaders and thus without enthusiasm.
Unsurprisingly, the young are the most estranged. When I asked my students at Warsaw University how many intended to vote, only two raised their hands. Perhaps others were ashamed to say they care about politics and did, in fact, vote, but they can’t have been many. An entire generation has grown up to be apolitical, even anti-political, which bodes ill for the future.
The most difficult problems in Poland are unemployment, which hovers around 20% – the highest rate in the EU – and the growing divide between rich and poor. Indeed, only in Russia (and perhaps in Ukraine) is the income gap wider. Yet neither of these issues was raised decisively in the campaign. The main issues that both victorious parties highlighted were the communist past and public corruption.
Both are important issues, but they are secondary to the problems of joblessness and poverty. Indeed, it is estimated that 30% of Polish children do not get enough to eat. This is Europe, so they do not die of hunger. But that a third of all children in a member country of the European Union live on one meal a day is a source of shame – and thus should also be a primary political issue.
This is all the more peculiar given that the victorious parties that emerged out of Solidarity are keen to promote its values, particularly “solidarity” with a small “s.” But their purpose is purely instrumental, for to call somebody a “liberal” nowadays in Poland is more pejorative than calling him a “son of a bitch.”
Indeed, “liberal” in both its meanings – economic and moral – is disdained. Liberals are viewed as vampires, seeking only to make money for themselves and their cronies. So it is understandable that both leading presidential candidates, Donald Tusk and Lech Kaczynski, ran as fast as they could from “liberal” ideas.
But what does small-s solidarity mean in practical terms? Nobody knows, and neither Tusk nor Kaczynski was saying. They suggested only some vague notions of state intervention on behalf of the poor and needy.
The death of postcommunism in Poland has thus been greeted not with a bang but with a whimper. There is nothing devastating in this, of course, but Poland’s political malaise may one day prove dangerous, and so should be scrutinized in other democracies, old and new. For the problems of anomie, apathy, and political charade are not Polish problems, but maladies that increasingly afflict democracies everywhere, and that urgently call for a restoring of faith in parties and politics.