Making sense of Poland’s Congress of the New Right

by Aleks Szczerbiak

The European election in Poland saw the sudden emergence of a new anti-establishment challenger party led by a veteran eccentric of the political scene. In spite of its leader’s numerous controversial statements, the Congress emerged as the most effective vehicle for protest voters, mobilising the frustrated Polish intelligentsia and younger voters around a programme of radical economic liberalism and hostility to the EU. Its election success will provide the party with political momentum over the next few months but its controversial leader is too wilfully provocative, and support base almost certainly too unstable, for it to be anything more than a fleetingly successful but short-lived protest party.

A controversial political veteran

The Congress of the New Right (KPN) appeared to come from nowhere to finish fourth in Poland’s May European Parliament (EP) election with 7.2% of votes and win 4 out of the country’s 51 MEPs. Formed in March 2011, the Congress is the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of its new MEPs and a veteran eccentric of the Polish political scene who has contested every national election since the collapse of communism in 1989. Many prominent members of other parties – including Civic Platform (PO), the centrist grouping led by prime minister Donald Tusk that has been the main governing party since 2007 – began their political careers as members of the Real Politics Union (UPR), Mr Korwin-Mikke’s first political party in which he played a leading role until resigning in 2009. Some commentators have quipped that if everyone who had ever been a member of the Real Politics Union joined the same party it would probably be the largest in Poland, and if all those who ever voted for Mr Korwin-Mikke did so at the same election then he would easily win!

In fact, until the recent EP poll, he only had one brief stint in the Polish parliament; at the beginning of the 1990s before the 5% electoral threshold for securing representation was introduced. However, Mr Korwin-Mikke’s fortunes began to look up in the June/July 2010 presidential election when, although only securing 2.5% of the votes, he finished fourth ahead of Waldemar Pawlak, the then deputy prime minister and leader of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), Civic Platform’s junior coalition partner since 2007.

Mr Korwin-Mikke is one of the most controversial figures in Polish politics. Right-wing conservative politicians, particularly those from the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, have often fallen foul of the West European liberal cultural and political establishment, but Mr Korwin-Mikke goes way beyond this and is in a league of his own as far as political incorrectness is concerned. During the EP campaign, for example, he appeared to: agree with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Poland had trained ‘Ukrainian terrorists’ who took part in the demonstrations that led to the downfall of the country’s previous pro-Moscow government; claim that there was no proof that Adolf Hitler was aware of the Holocaust; and argue that the difference between rape and consensual sex was very subtle, implying that some apparent victims actually wanted to have intercourse.

Previously, he questioned whether women should vote in elections given that they were less interested in politics and supported higher welfare spending; although his supporters argued that, as a declared monarchist, Mr Korwin-Mikke was actually in favour depriving every one of the right to vote! On another occasion, criticising the Paralympics he argued that, in order for humanity to flourish, people needed to watch ‘healthy, beautiful, strong, honest and intelligent people’ on the TV rather than invalids.

A repository for ‘Generation Y’ protest voters?

However, this string of controversial statements did not appear to harm the Congress’s electoral prospects in the EP poll. Indeed, if anything it re-inforced Mr Korwin-Mikke’s credentials as a ‘political outsider’ and helped his party to emerge as the most attractive repository for protest voters looking for a radical alternative to the political establishment. Such voters often play a disproportionate role in ‘second order’ elections, such as EP polls where turnout is traditionally much lower than in national elections, and Mr Korwin-Mikke was thus able to mobilise his relatively small but extremely loyal following (some commentators earlier doubted whether they would actually come out to vote). In the context of a 22.7% turnout in Poland – the third lowest among the 28-member EU bloc and much lower than the 47.5% average recorded in post-1989 Polish parliamentary elections – these voters provided the Congress with the basis for a respectable EP election result.

Moreover, although Mr Korwin-Mikke is 72-years-old, the Congress enjoyed particularly high levels of support among younger voters. According to an exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency, it secured 28.5% of 18-to-25-year-old voters, more than any other party, and these comprised half of the party’s supporters (overall three-quarters of the Congress’s voters were under 40-years-of-age). Although more data and empirical analysis is required before more definitive judgements can be made about the party’s demographic profile, some sociologists have argued that many of these voters are drawn from what social commentators sometimes refer to as ‘Generation Y’: the large numbers of young and fairly well-educated unemployed in Poland who live at home with their parents and are frustrated that the country has not developed more rapidly, with an apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks stifling their opportunities.

These young people often face a choice between moving abroad to take jobs that fall well short of their abilities and aspirations or remaining in a country which they feel offers them few prospects for the future. The fact that these younger voters spend much of their time on the Internet, which is their main source of political information rather than the traditional broadcast and print media, also helped to give the Congress a very strong on-line presence; Mr Korwin-Mikke’s Facebook page, for example, has nearly 400,000 ‘likes’.

More broadly, the Congress of the New Right appeared to tap into what some sociologists have termed the ‘frustrated intelligentsia’: fairly well-educated Poles, sometimes running small businesses, who blame the deadweight of excessive state regulation and red tape, high taxes, vested interests and cronyism for blocking individual freedom and initiative, thus preventing them from realising their professional and career ambitions. For example, 16.6% of managers and specialists and 13.4% of private entrepreneurs voted for the Congress in the EP poll. Moreover, many of these voters also see the EU increasingly as the embodiment of a stifling bureaucracy and political and cultural oppression rather than symbolising the civilisational progress and socio-economic modernisation and solidarity that Poles were promised at the time of accession to the Union.

Radical economic liberalism is the core

The Congress is an economically libertarian and socially conservative party but the core of the party’s programme, and main driver of its support, is its radical economic liberalism. It opposes all but the most minimal form of state intervention in, and regulation of, the economy, which, it argues, stifles opportunities for the most dynamic sections of Polish society. Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party supports the abolition of income tax and slashing other tax rates, together with radical and far-reaching privatisation and government expenditure cuts, leaving only a residual and massively slimmed-down public sector.

The party combines this with a traditionalist conservative stance on some social and moral-cultural issues, for example: favouring a tough approach to law and order and the restoration of capital punishment, while opposing same-sex marriage. However, the Congress also supports some social libertarian policies, such as the legalisation of cannabis, and does not have the same high profile commitment to Christian values and promoting policies rooted explicitly in the Catholic Church’s moral and social teaching, which has, to a greater or lesser extent, been the hallmark of almost every other Polish centre-right party.

Rather, the party argues more generally that Polish laws should be underpinned by the norms and principles of ‘Latin civilisation’. Interestingly, 20% of those who voted for the Palikot Movement (RP) – a liberal, but also strongly anti-clerical, protest party that came from nowhere to win 10% of the vote and finish third in the most recent 2011 parliamentary election – switched to the Congress of the New Right in the 2014 EP poll. The Congress is also a radically Eurosceptic party, with Mr Korwin-Mikke arguing that half of the current EU commissioners should be arrested, and promising to ‘blow up the EU from within’ and turn the European institutions into a brothel!

A flash-in-the-pan?

As far as the Congress’s future prospects are concerned, the party’s relatively strong EP election showing will certainly give it a higher media profile over the next few months that could carry it through to relative success in the summer 2015 presidential and autumn 2015 parliamentary elections. Mr Korwin-Mikke will use his new EP platform to continue to make controversial statements and outspoken attacks on the EU that will no doubt delight his most dedicated supporters and get thousands of ‘hits’ on Internet sites like YouTube.

However, although, at the time of writing, it is unclear which of the Eurosceptic European party groupings the Congress will choose to align itself with, Mr Korwin-Mikke will also be an extremely marginal, maverick voice in the EP. His often-wilfully outrageous statements will limit his ability to attract the support beyond the party’s core that it needs to make a real breakthrough, and he may eventually also prove too much for all but his most committed supporters. In addition to straightforward rebuttal and trying to contextualise his remarks, these are often forced to defend Mr Korwin-Mikke’s more controversial claims by (not very convincingly) distinguishing between their leader’s personal opinions and the party’s official stance.

Moreover, the Congress’s anti-establishment protest electorate is an impulsive and unstable one. Even if the party is able to retain this support for a period, it could evaporate very quickly. While it will undoubtedly benefit in the short-term from the political momentum derived from its EP success, there is, therefore, every chance that Mr Korwin-Mikke’s party could prove yet another flash-in-the-pan and join the long list of fleetingly successful but relatively short-lived anti-establishment protest parties that been a recurring feature of the post-communist Polish political scene.

An earlier version of this post was published at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/06/10/the-congress-of-the-new-right-is-the-latest-anti-establishment-party-to-have-success-in-poland-but-it-may-struggle-to-secure-long-term-support/.

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