Can younger voters revive the Polish left?
by Aleks Szczerbiak
Polling suggests that a record number of young Poles identify with the left following their mass mobilisation in last autumn’s abortion protests. But this is not translating into increased support for left-wing parties and may simply signify hostility towards Poland’s right-wing government.
In the doldrums
Although it enjoys considerable influence on public debate, in recent years the Polish left has had very limited electoral success. For much of the post-1989 period the most powerful electoral force on the left was the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed Poland from 1993-97 and 2001-5. However, the Alliance was in the doldrums since its support collapsed at the 2005 parliamentary election following a series of spectacular high level corruption scandals. It contested the 2015 election as part of the ‘United Left’ (ZL) coalition but only secured 7.6% of the vote, failing to cross the 8% representation threshold for electoral alliances (5% for individual parties). As a result, left-wing parties failed to secure any parliamentary representation for the first time since 1989; and, as a side-effect, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the country’s ruling party since 2015, became the first in post-communist Poland to secure an outright majority.
Following its defeat, many commentators wrote the Alliance off as a cynical and corrupt political grouping whose ageing, communist-nostalgic electorate was literally dying off. However, the party continued to have deep social roots in those sections of the electorate that, due to their personal biographies, had positive sentiments towards, or direct material interests linking them to, the previous regime, especially those whose families were connected to the military and former security services. This was a relatively small, and steadily declining, segment of the electorate but sizeable enough to allow the Alliance to retain its hegemony on the Polish left.
The Alliance faced a challenge on its left flank from the ‘Together’ (Razem) party, which gained kudos among many younger, left-leaning Poles for its dynamism and programmatic clarity. It accused the Alliance of betraying left-wing ideas by pursuing orthodox liberal economic and Atlanticist foreign policies when in office. In the event, ‘Together’ won 3.6% of the vote in the 2015 election which was not enough to obtain parliamentary representation but meant that it peeled away sufficient left-wing votes to prevent the ‘United Left’ from crossing the 8% threshold. However, ‘Together’ failed to capitalise on its early promise and attract a broader range of support beyond the well-educated urban ‘hipsters’ that formed its core electorate.
In February 2019, another left-wing challenger party emerged in the form of the social liberal ‘Spring’ (Wiosna) grouping, formed by veteran sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń, at the time the Polish left’s most popular and charismatic politician. However, after a promising start ‘Spring’ struggled to carve out a niche for itself and its 6.1% vote share in the May 2019 European Parliament (EP) election was well below expectations.
A false dawn?
In the event, these three parties decided to contest the October 2019 legislative election as a united ‘Left’ (Lewica) slate and finished third with 12.6% of the votes, regaining parliamentary representation for the left after a four-year hiatus. Many left-wing activists and commentators hoped that the new ‘Left’ parliamentary caucus – which included several dynamic and articulate younger deputies, such as ‘Together’ leader Adrian Zandberg – would use this platform to shift the terms of the debate decisively to the left, and challenge the right-wing and liberal-centrist duopoly that has dominated Polish politics since 2005. The Alliance also changed its name to the ‘New Left’ (Nowa Lewica) as the precursor to a formal merger with ‘Spring’.
In fact, the ‘Left’’s 2019 election result was broadly in line with the 11.2% combined vote share secured by the Alliance and ‘Together’ in 2015 (albeit on a much lower turnout). Moreover, hopes that the election would represent a political turning point for the ‘Left’ were quickly dashed when Mr Biedroń, its candidate in the June-July 2020 presidential election, finished sixth with only 2.2% of the votes. The ‘Left’ was squeezed as the presidential election turned into a closely-fought bi-polar contest between Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda and Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, the candidate of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently Poland’s main opposition grouping and the country’s governing party between 2007-14. Mr Biedroń also lacked the ‘newness’ that helped liberal-centrist TV presenter Szymon Hołownia challenge this duopoly and achieve a respectable third place and 13.9% vote share. Many of Mr Biedroń’s supporters felt betrayed when he took up his EP seat, having previously said that he would stand down in order to focus on the 2019 parliamentary election, leaving him open to the charge that he had lost faith in his own political project.
Young Poles swing to the left?
However, the ‘Left’ was encouraged by the publication in February of research conducted last year by the CBOS polling agency which showed the number of Poles aged 18-24 who identified with the political left had nearly doubled from 17% in 2019 to 30% in 2020. CBOS has been conducting polling on younger Poles’ political views since the collapse of communism and this represented the highest recorded number of respondents identifying with the left. The research also showed that, for the first time in 20 years, young left-wing self-identifiers outnumbered those who located themselves on the right (27%) or in the political centre (23%). (This compared with only 20% of Poles of all ages who identified with the left, while 37% placed themselves on the right.)
This came on the back of the huge demonstrations, which many young Poles participated in, that erupted in Poland last October, when the country’s constitutional tribunal ruled that abortions in cases of foetal defects were unconstitutional. Poland already had one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, and the tribunal’s ruling means that the procedure is now legal only in cases where pregnancy puts the life or health of the mother in danger or if it results from incest or rape. Given that the vast majority of legal abortions carried out in Poland last year were as a result of foetal defects, the ruling effectively means a near-total ban.
The abortion protests were among the largest in Poland since 1989 and involved a broad cross-section of Polish society, expanding beyond the liberal urban agglomerations to the smaller and medium-sized towns that constitute Law and Justice’s provincial electoral heartlands. A November 2020 CBOS survey (admittedly based on a small sample) found that 28% of young Poles said they took part in the protests compared with 8% of all respondents. This contrasted with, for example, earlier waves of street protests organised by the anti-Law and Justice Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) movement over so-called ‘rule of law’ issues which encompassed disproportionately large numbers of middle aged and older participants. Many young Poles were no doubt attracted by the protests’ carnival atmosphere at a time when the scope for social inter-action was severely limited by coronavirus restrictions, but some commentators also argued that they were a formative political experience for those who participated in them.
In February, in an attempt to channel this political energy the ‘Left’ organised a convention addressed by youth activists under the slogan ‘The future is now’ (Przyszłość jest teraz) where it presented a set of policy proposals aimed at younger voters. These included liberalising Poland’s abortion law but also reducing the Catholic Church’s influence in public life, radical climate policies and providing economic support for young people. However, the apparent political mobilisation of Poles (especially younger ones) as a result of the abortion protests does not appear to have provided the ‘Left’ with any opinion poll boost. In April, the ‘Ewybory’ website that aggregates voting intention surveys found support for the ‘Left’ averaging 9%, less than its 2019 election vote share. The main beneficiary from the abortion protests appeared to be Mr Hołownia’s newly-formed ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050) grouping which is currently averaging 20% support.
Fickle and unreliable?
So what do Poles, especially younger ones, actually mean when they say that they identify with the left? In Polish politics, the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ refer more to attitudes towards moral-cultural issues than socio-economic policy. Opinion surveys suggest that younger Poles are becoming more socially liberal on issues such as abortion and state recognition of same-sex relationships. For example, a November 2020 CBOS survey, found that support for liberalising the Polish abortion law had increased from 12% in 2016 to 36% among 18-24 year-olds. The abortion protests also appear to have accelerated a longer-term trend of younger Poles becoming more secular and identifying less with the country’s influential Catholic Church. As a long-standing opponent of all forms of abortion, the Church was one of the protesters’ main targets and some of their more radical actions involved painting pro-abortion and anti-clerical slogans on church walls, and picketing and disrupting religious services. This breaking of previous cultural taboos – by targeting an institution that was, for many Poles, an important pillar of the nation and civil society – was encapsulated by the young protesters’ derogatory term for the approach to politics and sources of moral authority associated with older generations: ‘dziaders’ (roughly equivalent to ‘boomers’).
The problem here for the ‘Left’ is that in Poland less well-off, economically leftist voters, who should be one of their natural bases of support, tend to be older and more socially conservative, so often incline 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. At the same time, the kind of younger, better-off, social liberals who in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well.
Young Poles are also a very unreliable group of voters on which to build a political strategy. Although turnout among this group has increased in recent elections – reflecting the fact that Poles are increasingly polarised between government supporters and opponents – younger voters remain a notoriously difficult demographic to mobilise electorally. They are also extremely fickle and liable to shift their political allegiances very rapidly. In previous elections, young voters often supported the various ‘flash’ insurgent and protest parties of all political persuasions that emerged in Poland since 1989. The fact that many of them now associate the ruling party with the political establishment is no doubt one of the reasons why, having secured the largest share of the vote among young Poles in 2015, Law and Justice saw its support slump among this demographic over the last couple of years.
Moreover, young Poles are not politically homogenous and, according to CBOS, the shift to the left was accompanied by a concomitant increase in identification with the right (and shift away from the ‘centre’) among this demographic. Indeed, polling shows a striking gender divide: with younger women, especially those living in larger towns and cities, holding more socially liberal views and tending to identify disproportionately with the left; while younger men, especially those living in smaller towns and rural areas, express more conservative views and tend to identify more with the (often radical) right.
Defeating Law and Justice is the priority
In fact, by identifying with the left younger Poles may simply be signalling their broader, but somewhat inchoate, hostility towards the ruling party. Notwithstanding the uncertainties of basing an electoral strategy on mobilising young voters, the Polish left’s biggest problem is that it is extremely difficult to carve out a distinctive and attractive appeal while the political scene remains so sharply polarised around attitudes towards Law and Justice. As long as this remains the case, many potential left-wing voters – including younger left self-identifiers – will ‘lend’ their support to whichever party appears to have the best prospects of defeating the incumbent, which is currently liberal-centrist groupings such as Civic Platform or ‘Poland 2050’ and not the ‘Left’.