Poland's Identity Crisis


The defeat of Poland’s Law and Justice Party in parliamentary elections on October 21 meant the end of a government that had come to be seen as an aberration in Eastern Europe. Just two years ago, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczy’nski’s party won on the strength of a reform agenda, which seemed to promise greater protection to those most affected by Poland’s economic hardships. Since then, however, the party has backed itself into a corner with its confrontational style and anti-Western rhetoric. The victorious Civic Platform party, under Donald Tusk, has pledged to put Poland back on a course of economic and social liberalization. But reconciling the country’s strong national identity with the demands and temptations of European Union membership will not be easy for the new government.

In a pastoral letter read in churches a week before the election, Poland’s Catholic bishops’ conference told citizens they had a moral duty to vote. No political party had a right to “speak in the church’s name or claim its support,” the bishops added, while the clergy and Catholic newspapers had to “respect the maturity of laypeople.” But the bishops also insisted that there are “non-negotiable values” at stake in debates about gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, and they acknowledged that the programs of some parties are clearly “closer to the Christian vision of the person and society” than those of other parties. The bishops asked “all lay faithful and clergy in our country and beyond its borders to pray for the homeland and participate in large numbers.” But a high turnout was not enough. “We also need to vote properly, which means in accordance with moral conviction. Believers should give their vote to people whose attitude and views are close, or at least not opposed, to the Catholic faith.”

The bishops’ advice does not seem to have had much effect. Although the election turnout was the highest since the return of democracy in 1989, it barely topped 53 percent nationwide and was lowest in religiously devout rural communities-places that were poor under communism and remain poor today. Besides bringing down the Law and Justice Party, the election saw the elimination from parliament of the militantly Catholic Polish Families League, which belonged to Kaczy’nski’s coalition until it broke up last summer. Support for the Civic Platform was highest among city dwellers and young people-those who have benefited most from the country’s changing economy. With a program of mass privatization, reduced state intervention, and a single tax rate for both rich and poor now in the offing, Poland will have to face the consequences of rapid economic and social destabilization. After the Soviet system collapsed, the first post-Communist Polish government put a premium on quick economic growth. It was widely assumed that Poland needed a phase of unhampered capitalism in order to encourage the population’s entrepreneurial instincts.

Eighteen years later, the country can point to some impressive economic data. Poland’s GDP is growing at an annual rate of 6 percent, helped by booming consumption and a growing property market. An August survey by Poland’s Confederation of Private Employers painted a glowing picture of happy, fulfilled office workers. “Poles have stopped complaining about work,” bragged the Dziennik daily, which published the survey results. “Almost all say they receive their pay on time. Nine of ten bosses don’t prevent holidays, while taxes and social-insurance contributions are drawn from total earnings and hours of work are documented truthfully.”

Still, high unemployment has been blamed for the mass emigration of 2 million Poles in the past three years, while big companies have been accused of ignoring rules on equal pay, holidays, and maternity leave, the kind of rules that are binding in most Western countries. According to Poland’s Main Statistics Office, more than half of all citizens are now living below the social minimum and 12 percent are below economic survival levels. Even in the upbeat Confederation survey, only a quarter of respondents said they wished to continue to live and work in their home country. When asked why they wanted to leave, most people cited fears of poverty and a “lack of perspective” for their children.

Some Poles blame the crass materialism that swept through Poland in the 1990s. In reaction against the severe constraints of communism, a new mass consumer culture took over. Individuals were valued more for what they had than for who they were. Some blame the arrival of a U.S.-style free-market ideology in a country with no stable infrastructure and no civil society. Appeals to the common good and social justice were dismissed by some as totalitarian hangovers, and most Polish intellectuals took the side of an unfettered capitalism, portraying business leaders as heroes of free enterprise up against the dead weight of organized labor and the welfare state.

The argument was framed as if there were only two choices: a vigorous, often brutal capitalism, or a turning back toward communism. Supporters of the Law and Justice Party insist their party tried to change things, by supplanting the new-look “liberal Poland” with a “Poland of solidarity,” in which the benefits of post-Communist economic growth could be shared more widely and fairly. Law and Justice Party apologists say their program of institutional reform was sabotaged by a pack of vested interests backed by the media and Western governments. But quite apart from the efforts of their political opponents, Law and Justice politicians also sabotaged themselves by whipping up public resentment and paranoia. The Kaczy’nski government’s self-righteous rhetoric damaged Poland’s relations with its neighbors and set off ugly bouts of recrimination in the press. Instead of creating a strong Christian Democratic center in Polish politics, Kaczy’nski’s Law and Justice platform metamorphosed into an aggressive, nationalistic Catholic Right. In the end, his party proved to be much better at diagnosing Poland’s problems than at solving them.

With Tusk’s Civic Platform now promising a return to unrestrained free enterprise, some Poles think it will be up to the church to temper the worst side-effects of the free market. Lately, however, the church has often seemed deeply confused about its own social values. It has been remarkably reluctant to take on a prophetic public role as defender of the poor and the marginalized. Although it has sometimes talked about the symptoms of current injustices, it has yet to address their underlying causes. Now, as free-market assumptions and habits take root, especially among younger Poles, the church’s social teachings are becoming largely irrelevant. The country that produced the Solidarity movement may be forgetting what solidarity means.

By some measures, Poland remains the most Catholic member of the European Union. But by other, less obvious measures, Poland is failing to honor its distinctive principles. A 1993 law that banned abortion also committed the state to provide “all necessary material, legal, and medical help” for pregnant women and single mothers. Yet this part of the law is being quietly ignored. Today, Poland has the lowest birthrate in the EU, and according to the Eurostat agency, Poland spends a mere 0.9 percent of its GNP on profamily programs, such as child benefits, tax allowances, and help with education and transportation, compared to an EU average of 2.1 percent. In 1989, 37 percent of families with four or more children lived below the poverty line; the figure now stands above 90 percent. According to UN forecasts, if present trends continue the Polish population will drop by one-fifth in coming decades. By insisting on the traditional Catholic values of home and family while failing to confront the hardships and injustices that jeopardize those values, the Polish church seems to be ignoring some of the social teachings of Poland’s favorite son, John Paul II.

“The infighting we’ve witnessed in the last two years hasn’t contributed to stability in our national life,” Archbishop Tadeusz Goclowski of Gdansk told Poland’s Rzeczpospolita daily in late October. “We’re living in our nineteenth year of freedom and sovereignty-we’ve grown up as a state and should now be working quietly.” With the parliamentary elections out of the way and a new party in power, the church will have another chance to call the Polish faithful to mature reflection on what kind of country Poland wants to become.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Oxford and Warsaw. His book, Rethinking Christendom: Europe’s Struggle for Christianity, is published by Gracewing.

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