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May 13, 2015

Oh, the places you won't go: The politics of Poland

This is the second article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Growing up in Poland in the 90s, I never cared much for politics. Back then, you wouldn't want to get overly attached to any political movement anyway: when a country of 38 million emerges from half a century of communist rule, you know there will be some kinks to iron out.

Sitting on the sidelines, I saw the views of others solidified by what seemed like happenstance. My mother, a promising white-collar worker cast aside by the new reality, leaned sharply to the left; she would sometimes wax lyrical about the good old days of socialism. My wife's father, a one-time Party member turned opposition activist, found himself playing a role for the increasingly polarizing right. My aunt, a mild-mannered professor of ethics, rose to prominence in the liberal Warsaw elites - and became one of the most outspoken voices of feminism and anticlericalism in the country. She had an uneasy but fruitful relationship with the centrist movement.

At the turn of the twentieth century, no matter which side you took, keeping up with the political landscape must have been a full-time job. The bitterly divided communist-era dissident circles splintered into dozens of ephemeral movements, with many familiar faces gravitating toward two camps: the economically liberal centrist party that flirted with the teachings of Margaret Thatcher; and the Christian nationalist movement that somewhat confusingly co-opted the notions of social solidarity with the underprivileged, then served that dish with a side of social conservatism and a hint of distrust toward the EU.

On the other side of the political spectrum, many of the former Party dignitaries joined forces and reinvented themselves as modern-day, pro-European social democrats. Despite the branding, the post-communist camp adopted a set of conservative economic policies seldom distinguishable from the direction taken by the centrist bloc. They brandished secular, progressive social attitudes - but in a deeply-religious country where catechesis has a largely uncontested place in public schools, they never dared to experiment with them to any real extent.

In many ways, I found it easier to pinpoint what these political movements had in common, not what set them apart. Their old-school leaders, by and large raised and educated in the communist era, had little experience with good governance or true statesmanship. Looking back at it, I think that the dissident camp was driven to some extent by an innate sense of entitlement to the spoils of overthrowing the communist rule. Their years at the helm were punctuated by unsportsmanlike cronyism, by shady deals around the sale of state-owned enterprises, and by attempts to cling on to power by entering absurd and ultimately self-destructive alliances with populist agrarian or nationalist movements.

The former communists played a different card. They saw themselves as the qualified, level-headed alternative to the argumentative and erratic right. They nurtured an image of proven leaders, even if their experience amounted to running a dysfunctional Soviet satellite state into the ground and then skillfully changing their views. For many years, they fared well in elections, but eventually, the mainstream left ended with a bang: the boldest of the many political scandals in the 2000s - afera Rywina - exposed an attempt to extort $17M from a newspaper publisher in exchange for striking down an antitrust provision in the proposed Polish media law.

Many stable democracies can afford a period of government dysfunction. For a time, this was certainly true for Poland: every modern-day democratic government to date had enough common sense to keep pushing for the integration with NATO and the European Union, worked to strike down or at least superficially modernize many of the communist-era laws, and never refused a penny of foreign aid. The unstoppable influx of capital did the rest, ushering a period of unprecedented stability and growth. The cracks would show only when you interacted with the state bureaucracy: with many levels of government permeated by centrally-appointed and disinterested ruling-party loyalists, getting a pothole fixed or a stop sign installed could very well prove to be an insurmountable task.

In some ways, that period of insensitivity to bad governance may be coming to an end. Driven away by a decade of stagnant wages coupled with the rapidly growing costs of living, some 2-3 million mostly young Poles decided to leave the country and seek a better life in the UK, in Germany, and in other parts of the EU. This, combined with sub-replacement fertility rates, must have put tremendous strain on the already-inadequate social security system - a safety net where the net retirement benefits hover somewhere around $400 a month.

In the most recent presidential elections in Poland, the centrist incumbent, Bronisław Komorowski, was so sure of his victory that he shunned televised debate. The voters not only turned up in droves to give his conservative opponent a healthy lead, but some 20% of them opted for a fringe anti-establishment candidate - a former punk rock singer with a knack for catchy lyrics but no experience in politics. The future is unknowable, but in the runoff elections, the punk rock aficionados are unlikely to vote for status quo.

Many of the moral authorities in Poland share the same dissident roots with the current president and are sympathetic to Mr. Komorowski's plight. One professor of political sciences prayed for the "radicalized youth" to leave the country, apparently unaware of how radical and divisive his own words may sound. The incumbent president was quick to note that he always supported the few scattered policy proposals that can be attributed to the anti-establishment candidate. He went on to meet with the voters and rebuked a young person asking how to get by on $550 a month. The president's answer: get a loan or find a better job.

For the next article in the series, click here.


  1. Are you looking for an excuse for accepting foreign citizenship? It certainly should like.

    1. I wouldn't say so; I had my reasons for leaving and settling somewhere else, but they are mostly captured in the earlier post I link to in the opening paragraph.

      On a related note, I had one person ask me on Twitter about the merits of delivering a critique of Polish politics while living in a country with one of, as he or she put it, "most dysfunctional" governments in the world. But it strikes me as an odd argument.

      The US political system is nuanced, with deep dysfunction on some levels and efficiency on others; many of its officials share a sense of civic duty, but it's quite easy to take a cynical view of the Congress in particular. As in much of the western world, the society needs to overcome problems of inequality and poverty. But I would not see a discussion of some of the Poland's woes as inherently hypocritical just because of that.

    2. "It certainly *sounds* like"-- damn auto-correction.

      How about subconsciously? Your Id may feel guilty.:)

      Incidental I received the job offer from US company in the mid of 2000 just like you. It was an Olympia based company (so less sunny than in Bay Area ;). I never before thought about leaving my country and seeking for a better life. It took me not so long to make my mind. I refused it (though not without hesitation). Next year I came to California for a long trip from SF to San Diego, with a short trip to Vegas. I even called you if you'd come to see me there but you were in Boston with apparently no plans to join me in Flamingo Hotel :). When I came back to home I knew for sure that US is not a place to live for me. A big, interesting, civilized country to visit but not a dream-like never-land one would like to seek.
      15 years later on I still feel the same. Yes, I don't have a 5-digit salary (at least not in USD ;) nor fancy home, nor yacht nor... you name it, but I have a wife, two lovely kids and lot of passion for my hobbies. Also I'm pretty convinced that easy life for kids is not the best thing for them. I know it wouldn't be good for me.

      With Internet I have the access to everything I want without going abroad. And last but not least Poland is a pioneer in many things. We had Internet/mobile banking with free same-day wire transfers when people in US used cheques on daily basis :) Not to mention nfc payments (a de-facto standard for quite long time), etc. When was the last time you visited Poland for a longer visit?

    3. I'm glad that you're happy in Poland. I'm pretty sure I'd be happy if I stayed, too. Ultimately, I felt that US is a better choice for me, but my reasons were subjective and I do not expect them to universally resonate with others. I certainly don't think you should feel forced defend your choices - although I would also caution against assuming that people who moved elsewhere in pursuit of various goals will necessarily find less enjoyment in hobbies or be less considerate of their families!:-)

      By the way, I think this may be a source of confusion, so for the record: the salaries in the US are usually specified on an annual basis, in contrast to the Polish habit of giving the monthly figure. So, a five-digit salary actually wasn't as lavish as you may suspect. I certainly don't own a yacht =)

  2. You might as well have described Romania in this series of articles. Reading them has felt so familiar. The biggest difference is that Poland recovered faster than Romania in many ways.

  3. Well, I do not want to defend the polish president in any way, but the exact question was "how to buy a flat with $550 salary per month?". And for that question, this answer looks much, much better. Isn't it?

    1. The guy asked what the president would do to help him to find (presumably decent) employment in Poland, so that he wouldn't have to emigrate to the UK. He then went on to give the example of his sister, who has been supposedly looking for a job for three years and is now making ~$550 a month. He followed up by asking how she could possibly afford an apartment.

      It's technically correct to answer that she shouldn't, or that she needs to find another job or borrow money from others - but it's flippant and clearly doesn't address the concern. Now, it's not the president's job to be a youth counselor, but there are countless ways to answer it without coming across as insensitive on a topic that clearly resonates with the public in a country where the wages lag very significantly behind behind a good chunk of Europe. So, it wasn't a particularly awful statement, but it was an ominous faux pas.