Is Robert Biedroń the Polish left’s saviour?
by Aleks Szczerbiak
Poland’s most popular and charismatic left-wing politician’s new initiative has a good chance of achieving short-term success in this year’s elections. But the grouping faces sharp criticism that it is dividing the opposition and playing into the right-wing government’s hands, and its longer-term prospects are much more questionable.
‘Newness’ and authenticity
The Polish left is in deep crisis. For most of the post-1989 period the most powerful political and electoral force on the left was the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed the country from 1993-97 and 2001-5. The Alliance has been in the doldrums since its support collapsed at the 2005 parliamentary election following a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals, and it contested the most recent October 2015 poll – won decisively by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – as part of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) electoral coalition in alliance with the ‘Your Movement’ (TR) grouping. The latter was an anti-clerical social liberal party led by controversial businessman Janusz Palikot which came from nowhere to finish third with just over 10% of the votes in the 2011 election but failed to capitalise on its success. However, in 2015, winning 3.6% of the votes, the new radical left ‘Together’ (Razem) party peeled away enough support to prevent the ‘United Left’ from crossing the 8% threshold for electoral alliances to secure parliamentary representation (it is 5% for individual parties). This meant that, for the first time since 1989, there were no left-wing parties represented in the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament.
Robert Biedroń is by far the most popular and charismatic left-wing politician in Poland today. In 2011, he was elected as a ‘Your Movement’ parliamentary deputy but, seeing that the party was in a downward spiral, sought an escape hatch and in 2014 became mayor of Słupsk, a provincial city the northern Pomeranian region. Another weak performance by left-wing parties in last autumn’s local elections – the Democratic Left Alliance secured 7% and 11 seats (out of 552) in elections to Poland’s 16 regional authorities, the best indicator of national party support, while ‘Together’ only won 1.6% of the vote – created an opening for Mr Biedroń, who decided not to stand for re-election as Słupsk mayor in order to launch a new political initiative in 2019.
Mr Biedroń should not be under-estimated. He has many assets including excellent political antennae and communication skills. Mr Biedroń used his Słupsk mayoralty to project himself as a hard-working, effective and popular common-sense manager and leader, boasting a set of positive achievements during his term of office. He has also worked hard to develop an image of authenticity and ‘newness’. Although Mr Biedroń has been on the political scene as a left-wing activist for many of years – originally building his reputation and national political profile in the early 2000s as founder of the Polish Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH) – he has never participated in national government. Indeed, given his own small-town background, a key element of his political appeal has been to portray himself as an anti-establishment ‘outsider’ trying to open up a sclerotic Polish political system. Although many Poles are culturally conservative, the fact that Mr Biedroń is in a same-sex relationship and has a clear social liberal-left ideological profile does not appear to have put off significant numbers of potential voters, because he has the rare political quality of being able to communicate with, and engender sympathy among, very diverse groups of voters and portray himself as a consensus-builder.
Transcending the ‘old’ politics?
Mr Biedroń, who will launch his new political initiative in February, claims that he can win over voters who are disillusioned with Law and Justice but would not otherwise support the opposition. His broad programmatic appeal is based on the ideas of what some commentators call the ‘symmetrists’ (symetryści), who accuse the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-14 and currently the main opposition grouping, of simply wanting a return to the status quo ante, and ignoring the fact that previous governments were also guilty of many of the pathologies which are ascribed to Law and Justice. The symmetrists argue that it is both morally right and strategically sensible to develop some equidistance between these two political camps. So, while pledging to roll back the government’s reforms of state institutions such as the judiciary – which, its opponents, argue have undermined the rule of law and civic freedoms (a claim the government vehemently denies) – Mr Biedroń accuses the liberal-centrist opposition of failing to properly acknowledge that Law and Justice’s popular social spending policies have improved the living standards of, and restored a sense of dignity to, many ordinary Poles.
His programme, which is being drawn up by a group of relatively unknown expert advisers, is likely to include policies such as: removing state support for the Catholic Church and reducing its role in public institutions; greater environmental regulation; and increased spending on public services, especially education and health. However, rather than building his new movement around an existing programmatic agenda, over the last few months Mr Biedroń has organised a series of local meetings – many in smaller, provincial towns – where he claimed that he was ‘writing a programme with the people’. This is obviously somewhat artificial but these ‘brainstorms’, at which Mr Biedroń skilfully acted as master of ceremonies, did appear to create a genuine sense of interest and grassroots participation. In doing so, Mr Biedroń tried to portray himself as someone who transcends ‘old’ party politics; and, interestingly, consistently avoids the terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘liberal’, preferring to define himself as a ‘progressive’ (some commentators have dubbed him the ‘Polish Marcon’).
Mr Biedroń’s critics argue that both he and his political project have major weaknesses. They accuse him of being too much of a ‘political celebrity’ more interested in building up his national media profile than serious politics. They point to the fact during his first three years as Słupsk mayor he spent seven months on business trips, and claim that, in spite of his popularity and skilful public relations, he did not actually solve any of the town’s fundamental problems. They also argue that while Mr Biedroń often comes across as friendly and sympathetic, in order to make a national political breakthrough he will have to transcend a purely personal and emotional appeal and convince Poles that he can actually take responsibility for the running of the state. This will involve him developing clearer positions on issues that he has either avoided completely or where his programmatic statements have, to date, been rather vague: such as economic policy and foreign affairs.
Perhaps most fundamentally, Mr Biedroń faces the problem that in Poland the less well-off, economically leftist electorate tends to be older and more socially conservative, so often inclines towards parties such as Law and Justice that are right-wing on moral-cultural issues but also support high levels of social welfare and greater state intervention in the economy. Although Mr Biedroń is quite subtle in the way that he articulates his social liberalism, using the discourse of diversity and inclusion, it will still be a challenge for him to win over poorer, economically leftist but culturally traditionalist voters. At the same time, the (relatively narrow) base of younger, better-off, socially liberal urban voters, who in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well. Mr Biedroń may alienate them if he tries too hard to outbid Law and Justice’s social spending promises in order to win over less well-off voters.
‘Adding value’ or fragmenting the opposition?
Early opinion polls suggest that potential support for Mr Biedroń’s grouping is solid if not spectacular: around the 5-10% mark that many such new political initiatives enjoy when they are launched. However, to play a pivotal role in the next parliament his grouping will need to secure around the 10-15% support that polls suggest Mr Biedroń could pick up as a candidate in a presidential election. Indeed, given that highly personalised elections have helped charismatic individuals build up new political movements in the past, a presidential poll would have been the best launch pad for his new grouping. However, the next presidential election is not scheduled until summer 2020.
Nonetheless, the May European Parliament (EP) election could also work well as a testing ground for his new movement. EP elections involve low start-up costs, because parties do not have to find many candidates, and the pattern of turnout – extremely low overall, but higher in urban areas – means that a liberal-left grouping can cross the 5% representation threshold by mobilising a relatively small number of voters around a distinctive appeal or well-known individual. The timing of these elections also allows Mr Biedroń to keep his options open and, depending on his grouping’s result, either contest the more important autumn parliamentary election independently or as part of a broader anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance.
Indeed, considerations of Mr Biedroń’s prospects map on to broader debates about whether or not the opposition should contest the next elections as a single bloc. Mr Biedroń’s supporters claim that his new grouping will ‘add value’ by attracting support from those voters who would not otherwise back the liberal-centrist opposition. However, his critics say that the anti-Law and Justice parties are involved in a zero-sum game and that Mr Biedroń’s new grouping would simply further fragment the opposition. A September 2018 poll by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that Mr Biedroń’s new party was most likely to pick up support from the existing opposition groupings, with 61% of his supporters coming from Civic Platform, and only 10% from previous non-voters. Mr Biedroń’s critics draw attention to the fact that the Polish electoral system, proportion representation in multi-member districts using the so-called d’Hondt counting method, favours larger groupings and that a broad anti-Law and Justice electoral alliance would secure a ‘premium for unity’, attracting more support overall than several parties standing independently. What these arguments do not really account for is how the political dynamics and dominant narratives might change if an effective ‘third force’ challenger were to emerge on the Polish political scene.
Playing a longer game
Mr Biedroń’s prospects are one of the great unknowns of Polish politics in the country’s year of elections. It is relatively easy to launch a new political grouping around a well-known personality that is electorally successful in the short-term, and Mr Biedroń would not be first Polish politician to benefit from the effect of such ‘newness’. A respectable result of around 5-10% in the EP elections would not be a great surprise and his grouping certainly has the potential to secure parliamentary representation. However, many such groupings have also failed to live up to their early promise, and quickly lost support once the initial enthusiasm subsides.
In fact, Mr Biedroń is playing a much longer political game in which this year’s elections are simply a staging post. Indeed, in some ways it is actually in the longer-term interests of his political project if Law and Justice were to remain in office as this would create an opening for Mr Biedroń’s new grouping to emerge as the main opposition party; although he would obviously never admit this. But a sharp polarisation between the two large electoral blocs will strengthen the argument that the opposition needs to unite under the leadership of Civic Platform as the largest party and make it extremely difficult for Mr Biedroń’s new initiative to cut through with a distinctive message. Indeed, in those circumstances Mr Biedroń could come under increasing attack from the liberal-left media and cultural elites, which should be his natural allies, if they start to feel that he is playing into Law and Justice’s hands by dividing the opposition.