In October 2019, the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) has secured a second term with a majority government in Poland. PiS policies have been widely debated both domestically and internationally. Since 2015, this nationalist-catholic party has pursued an agenda of consolidating political power by curtailing the judiciary, independence of the public administration, environmental standards, civic freedoms, and women’s and minority rights.
At the same time, the economic situation in Poland appears enviable. The country has not experienced economic downturn since the 1990s, income levels have been rising, and the official unemployment levels are below the EU28 average. The macroeconomic data, however, masks the reality of a socially unequal state with large income disparities. The average monthly income in Poland is 1200 EUR, though the median is only 810 EUR. A quarter of the country’s labour force works on temporary, so-called ‘junk’, contracts that provide no social security or health insurance. Poland has one of the highest proportions of workers in the European Union employed on fixed-term contracts. The division between large urban centers and the rural areas, as well as between Western and Eastern Poland, is especially acute. There are wide dissimilarities in the access to public transport, health care and public services, and education of comparable quality.
In the last years, the PiS government has been very astute in diagnosing many social ills of post-transformation. PiS is the first political force since 1989 to promise and deliver some form of social welfare. Between 2015 and 2019, the government raised the minimum wage to ca. 520 EUR/month and promised a further raise next year (around 14% of all Polish employees earn the minimum wage, more than half of them are women). PiS has also lowered the retirement age to 65 years for men and 60 for women (from 67, which was legislated by the previous center-right Civic Platform government). Importantly, it has also launched its flagship redistribution program ‘Family 500+’ that offers cash child benefits to parents of two or more children (extended to every child in 2019) of approx. 120 EUR per child. These cash benefits have increased the purchasing power of many Polish families and decreased the levels of abject poverty.
Previous governments in Poland preached only austerity politics and ‘rationalizing’ budget expenditures, which meant cuts to public spending. PiS has managed to change this narrative at a very superficial level, yet it was enough to gain popular support. The popularity of PiS’ decisions notwithstanding, the government policies are not aiming to build a welfare state that is inclusive and geared towards social justice. Poland has a practically regressive tax system (with a net of loopholes and flat tax rates for ‘entrepreneurs’), which PiS has done nothing to remedy. The government initially promised higher taxes on multinational corporations and the banking system, but never delivered. Public services and care work are poorly funded: only about 4% of the budget is devoted to health care. PiS has also had to placate large protests in the health care and following an ill-advised educational reform, which put it on a warring path with the teachers’ unions.
Instead of constructing a welfare system, the PiS governments have created a national-chauvinist clientelist state. Deserving beneficiaries are very clearly outlined in PiS discourse: productive, heteronormative, white, and catholic nuclear family units with children are included in the nation or the ‘sovereign’, as PiS calls it. Individuals and groups who do not fit this restrictively normative nationalist idea are ‘lesser sort’ or traitors to the healthy national fabric.
PiS has not won the last two elections solely based on its social promises. Before both the 2015 and 2019 elections, the party launched vitriolic campaigns, mobilizing the electorate against ‘refugees and migrants’ in the first case and against ‘LGBT ideology’ in the most recent election. In both instances, PiS politicians essentialized, reified, and naturalized cultural characteristics as biological traits. They used hate speech and scaremongering in defense of ‘traditional Polish (catholic) values’ and the ‘normal family’. They also portrayed the ‘nation’ and the ‘family’ as being under attack, masquerading racism and homophobia for concerns about ‘well-being of children’ and ‘Polishness’ or catholicism.
The government has also mainstreamed anti-gender narratives, vilifying gender equality policies, sexual health education, and women’s reproductive rights. PiS has attempted to restrict further abortion legislation (which is already 1 of the 3 most restrictive laws in Europe) several times in the past years. Their attempts, however, were stalled by mass women’s protests that gathered intersectional crowds in cities and towns across the whole country. Around 250 000 people demonstrated for ‘Black Monday’ in October 2016. The extent of women’s mobilization was astounding to the ruling party – it was the only case so far when the government backed down from a legislative proposal because of street protests.
Following the election of October 2019, there is little hope of a change in the ruling party line, with the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of society paying the price. Poland since 1989 has been a country made for the strong and PiS has just redefined who is included in that category along their own nationalist-catholic lines.
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