The real battle for Poland’s future

Jaroslaw Kaczynski promises the ‘Polish model of the welfare state’ and social protection like in the West – but if his party stays in power after the October 13 election, the country will drift further away from its hard-won freedoms and connections with Europe 

Opinion polls in Poland seem to leave no illusions. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) – a conservative and nationalist party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski – is almost certain to continue its single-party rule in the country for another four years. In the parliamentary elections on October 13 they are set to get over 40 per cent of votes: more than the two main opponents (liberals and the left) taken together.

However, the conclusion that PiS has totally conquered the hearts and minds of the Poles would be mistaken. In truth, the Polish society is very diverse and politically polarised, with PiS voters being just a well-mobilised minority. According to a recent European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) poll, the views of the majority of Poles on such issues like EU policy, Trump, future of public finances, and even LGBT rights are at odds with what the majority of PiS supporters think.

There is little doubt that PiS’ focus is on welfare, and that this is the foundation of Kaczynski’s power. Even those who would reject the party’s positions on various other issues subscribe to its social policy – and enjoy its results. The need for a stronger role of the state to provide social protection is not surprising. The desire to reap the benefits of the painful post-1989 transformation are overwhelming in the wider society. The welfare state is an indispensable part of the vision of a good society, and is one that the Poles have aspired for since they shed Communist rule. 

However, the existing ‘Polish model’, designed by Kaczynski, does not pave the way towards a modern society based on mutual trust, solidarity and self-organisation. Its underlying vision of state is anachronistic – and instead of overcoming some long-term dysfunctions of the Polish society it will only perpetuate and strengthen them.

A key feature of the ‘model’ is that it is based upon direct money transfers to the people, not on public services. 

The words of ex-Prime Minister Szydlo, that ‘we trust families to spend this money and invest it in the future of their children’, cut through, and saw families finally secure children allowances; pensioners receive additional yearly payments; school children special grants for manuals; employees a levelled-up minimum wage; and disabled people a series fo key benefits. In the election, this year, the government doubled down on some of those social programs. PiS has lowered the pension entry level to 60 for women and 65 for men, which risks making the system almost unsustainable.

Yet, as social transfers rise in exorbitant way, the quality of public services is becoming poorer and poorer.  

The education reform introduced by the PiS proved to be a disaster and created chaos in schools. The teachers are so poorly paid that the school directors struggle in vain to fill the multiplying vacancies. The expected increase of the minimum wage will only add to their frustration as the teachers’ salaries are subject to a separate regulation. The independent Stefan Batory Foundation has recently found out that under the PiS rule the number of families shifting to the private education sector has risen. The situation in the health care is even worse. More and more hospitals are closing due to a horrendous debt burden and those still functioning suffer under the emigration of doctors . The level of public health spending in Poland is lower than almost anywhere in Europe – and the better off in society turn to the private providers.

To foot the bill, PiS is privatising public goods – and thus making a mockery of the welfare proposals.

The model they propose will be welcomed by many Poles. The country has traditionally lacked what is seen as prerequisites of a well-functioning modern (welfare) state: a strong civil society and the idea of citizenship. While ‘family’ and ‘nation’ have always been dominating categories in the Polish values system, there was a yawning gap between them. The absence of social capital has always been seen as one of Poland’s key obstacles for the country’s modernization. 

The existing ‘Polish model’, designed by Kaczynski, does not pave the way towards a modern society based on mutual trust, solidarity and self-organisation.

After 1989 the support non-governmental organisations, decentralization, promotion of cooperation of citizens at the local level were pursued by the reformist elites as necessary remedies to make Poland fit for the 21st century.

The issue with the PiS programme is that, rather than overcome the shortcomings of the traditional social and values structures, it is embracing them. Family and nation are the primary categories in their party program. Independent civil society is absent in this state vision, and can expect a returned administration to continue its efforts to curb the power of local governments, cut state funding for NGOs, impose regulations on journalists, and clamp down on the independence of judiciary.

The ‘Polish model of the welfare state’ is being used as a vehicle for this. The proposals represent a a top-down model, with the government taking care of the financial needs of the citizens but leaving less and less space for their mutual cooperation and responsibility, for independent action and self-organisation. And it effectively gives up on the idea of public services as a strong bond of the society. Together with other PiS reforms it paves the way not for a society of conscious citizens but a community of clients and consumers. 

The attractiveness of their promises are difficult to outdo, as they represent a long-desired ambition by Poles. However, on other issues the PiS is found wanting and at odds with the values and opinions of the majority of Poles. The conflict between local level activism and centralistic ambition will determine the course of the Polish politics in the next decade. Poland’s recent history surely should not let us think that the outcome is already known. 

The article was also published in Helsingin Sanomat  (Finland), SME (Slovakia), Hospodářské noviny (Czech Republic), Der Standard (Austria) and Digi 24 (Romania) and L’Obs (France).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow
Senior Policy Fellow

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