Poland Becomes the Latest to Affirm the Global Wave of Right Wing Populism
The persisting strength of right wing populist movements across the globe remains evident as Poland re-elected President Andrzej Duda to a second term in July. With a share of 51% of the vote by the second round of voting, Duda’s Law and Justice Party won a narrow victory over the opposing Civic Platform party led by Rafał Trzaskowski. Poland reiterated its support for the far-right party after a divisive first term and an election period mired in heavy controversy. It joins the USA, the UK, Australia, India, Brazil, and many other countries in empowering a far-right populist party, a rising trend throughout the last decade.
Politically, the past five years have been marked by increasing polarization on a global level. Far right figures and movements like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Rodrigo Duterte have achieved widespread popularity at the same time as their counterparts on the left like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Proposals from each extreme of the political spectrum have gained popular support, including harsh restrictions on immigration from the right, and Universal Basic Income on the left. Globally, it appears that moderate and centrist politics are being left behind for the extremes. In total however it seems that the right is gaining more ground, and Poland’s elections seem to exemplify that.
Founded in 2001, the Law and Justice party (abbreviated as PiS) is defined by its harsh social conservatism that contrasts its relatively moderate economic positions. As opposed to other prominent right-wing parties in the world, PiS is fully in support of social safety nets and universal healthcare. And, like its name suggests, the Law and Justice Party takes a hardline stance against issues of crime and corruption by advocating for increased criminal penalties and aggressive anti-corruption measures, including televised arrests of allegedly corrupt politicians.
Moreover, Poland’s staunch traditional values make it among the most socially restrictive nations in the European Union. The party is firmly opposed to abortion, banning it on a national level except in cases of rape, foetal defects, or danger to the mother’s life. In 2016, the government went to the extent of proposing a total ban on abortion that was only rejected after a nationwide strike. In terms of LGBT rights, the party is staunchly opposed. According to ILGA-Europe's 2020 report, Poland is ranked worst among European Union countries for LGBT rights. While homosexual activity is legal, gay marriage is not and protections against hate speech, health discrimination, and hate crimes do not exist. In fact a key element of PiS’s 2019 election platform was countering the “Western LGBT ideology” and appealing to the societal homophobia of Poland by supporting ‘LGBT-free zones’ in the country.
Like many other Populist leaders such as America’s Donald Trump or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, PiS’s leaders are known for receiving much attention and publicity through inflammatory public statements. For instance, PiS founder Jarosław Kaczyński has said that, "The affirmation of homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilization. We can't agree to it." In a similarly controversial statement, Deputy Speaker Joachim Brudziński has claimed that, “If not for us, they would be building mosques here,” in reference to Muslim refugees that the party has strongly resisted accepting into the country.
In light of these positions and characteristics, strong comparisons have been drawn between the Law and Justice Party and other far-right populist parties around the world as evidence of a global pull towards conservatism. Many cite the election of President Trump and referendum on Brexit as other prominent examples of an international shift to the right. There exists a few key platforms that are near-universal amongst these right-wing entities. These include a harsh opposition to immigration, a rejection of political correctness, and an appeal to going back to “better times”. One can see parallels between Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again,” and the Law and Justice Party’s desire to protect a “traditional Catholic homeland” in Poland. And both Boris Johnson and the Duda achieved significant support by promising to keep Syrian refugees out of their respective countries as much as possible, in direct opposition to the EU.
Coming into this election, the presidential vote was considered a definitive statement of where Poland was headed politically. When the Law and Justice Party was elected to a majority government for the first time in 2015, some commentators considered it a random fluke for a country that had slowly been trending towards a liberal democracy since the fall of Communism in the 1990s.In recent years however, the Law and Justice Party has defied these expectations by consistently winning local and parliamentary elections in Poland, as well as European Parliament elections. In 2019, it achieved clear victories in these races with a 7 point margin in the election and obtaining a plurality of seats, evidencing a continued support for the party.
Thus the presidential elections in July 2020 were seen as the final word on whether Poland would be led towards a fundamentally conservative future. Trzaskowski, the candidate of the Civic Platform opposition, ran on a platform of social equality and liberalism that promoted LGBT rights amongst other policies. The decision to reject Trzaskowski's platform thus seemed to make the political climate of the country clear.
When the second round of voting was completed, PiS eked out a narrow victory of 51% to 49% against the Civic Platform, with a very high turnout of 68%. The high level of turnout provided the Law and Justice Party a clear mandate from the nation that suggested majority support for their conservative politics.Yet when considered with the narrow margin of victory, the large turnout also points to an increasingly polarized landscape. Enough citizens felt compelled to vote against the PiS that they won by only a slight majority, which suggests the rising popularity of right-wing movements isn’t universal.
The global trend towards conservatism, while apparent, is thus not entirely solidified or set in stone. President Trump’s Republican Party performed poorly in the 2018 midterm elections by losing the House, and Trump is currently polling at an average of 7-8 points below his liberal opponent Joe Biden in the presidential election. Progressive movements like those of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK have gained increased popularity in recent years, standing in direct opposition to right-wing populism. Some countries have also elected generally liberal leaders like Canada’s Trudeau or France’s Macron, who defeated far more conservative opponents.
On a broader scale, it seems that these countries are outliers. In the UK, Johnson won the 2019 election on a pro-Brexit platform, evidencing a sustained rightwards movement. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro is enjoying record-high approval ratings despite a catastrophic Coronavirus response that has led Brazil to 2nd in deaths and cases globally. And President Trump has weathered an impeachment and numerous controversies while still maintaining a solid chance of reelection this year.
The appeal of the ideas represented by the right thus seem to have a broader base of support among the general populace, even amongst a more charged political atmosphere. A significant subsection of the populace opposes immigration and PC culture to the extent that they are willing to go out and vote for it, even if the politicians and parties themselves are highly controversial. While the left generally still enjoys a high level of support, it seems that as a movement it is unable to draw the enthusiasm and loyalty that the right-wing has so successfully. In the end it may be this that has allowed the right to take over.
What all of this suggests is that the global landscape in the last half of the 2010s has trended not only towards increased political polarization, but more generally towards conservatism overall. Poland’s high election turnout for the Law and Justice Party shows that right wing politics have the edge at the moment, but the narrow margin is proof that liberal movements still have some popularity. At least for the next few years however, Poland has joined the global wave in affirming its support for conservative values and staunch traditionalism.