Poland’s Successful Losers

WARSAW – How can a government with the best economic record in Europe (indeed in the entire OECD) be humiliated at the polls by a Euroskeptic, nationalistic, and economically illiterate opposition – one deemed unelectable only a year ago? That is the question many Poles, and friends of Poland, are now asking, following the defeat on October 25 of the Civic Platform government. If creating jobs and boosting incomes can’t get you re-elected, what can?

One reason for the opposition’s victory is, of course, universal: after a time, people everywhere want change, and Civic Platform had been in power since 2007. And impatience with the status quo is arguably stronger in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where much of the social, political, and economic order is yet to be generally accepted. Indeed, Civic Platform’s Donald Tusk was Poland’s first post-communist prime minister to win successive terms.

Moreover, as parties govern longer, their strongest personalities tend to be replaced by weaker ones. Civic Platform contested this election after replacing Tusk with Ewa Kopacz, and has had the same problem with a number of other “substitutions.”

What is specific to Poland is that the past eight years have apparently created a pronounced case of cognitive dissonance. Annual GDP growth averaged 3.2% over this period; and, unlike in the rich West, both inequality and unemployment have actually fallen, with growth mainly benefiting the middle three quintiles of the income distribution. This segment of the population – usually politically crucial – enjoyed a 28% rise in per capita real income from 2007 to 2014.