Can Poland's Political Startup Deliver?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Niche parties are on the rise in Europe, threatening a complacent, established order.
By Nathan Siegel
Leszek Karlik is pissed. The 37-year-old freelance translator from Warsaw says he recently had to borrow money for food because he can’t find steady work. “This is not something that should be happening in Europe,” he says. Especially in Poland, which many economists consider a capitalist star of the continent. And where there is unrest, there are political movements, which is where our man Karlik comes in.
Upset at the country’s two largest political parties, which critics say are a set of Tweedledums and Tweedledees, Karlik is one of thousands who are backing a budding movement called Razem (“Together”), a nascent political force that has abruptly taken root among urban middle-class Poles. In contrast to Poland’s post-Soviet political harmony — or, well, “stasis” — Razem is all about emphasizing solutions to the dark side of the country’s rapid expansion. In particular: inequality, low wages and bare-bones public services that, among other things, have already pushed millions of workers to leave Poland in search of opportunity.
Like the Occupy movement in the U.S. and the indignados of Spain, Razem is largely a protest against moribund mainstream politics. In Poland, it turns out, that’s a really, really big void; its May presidential elections featured three right-of-center front-runners and a runoff that catapulted the previously obscure conservative Andrzej Duda into the top job. (Poland’s official left-leaning party had a pathetic showing; its endorsed candidate barely cleared 2 percent of the vote.) Unlike Occupy, Razem has organized as a political party and has an agenda. But in other ways, it shares some of the vague formlessness that caused Occupy to fizzle.
For starters, Razem is only a few months old and is a long way from exercising power. To enter parliament, it’ll need 5 percent of the vote come the October elections — a sizable challenge, admits Kinga Stanczuk, a member of Razem’s national council. Another challenge: So far, Razem doesn’t seem to reach far beyond social media. True, it’s an online star. In its first three weeks as a movement, Razem garnered some 20,000 likes on Facebook — a third as much as the nation’s leading party has — although its pace has slowed considerably since then. But in the real world, Razem polled a dismal 1 percent in its first national poll. (True, that’s half of what the post-Communist leftist party polled, though that says more about the state of the Polish left wing than anything else.)
Razem certainly has room to grow, says Piotr Kuczynski, a well-known Polish economist and chief analyst at the brokerage house Xelion. To date, older generations have tended to balk at any political movement that “smells of leftist ideology” because of their experience with communism, he says. That, along with Poland’s growing integration with Europe and the influence of the Polish Catholic Church, led successive governments to crack down on anything reminiscent of Soviet-era policy — slashing social spending, crushing unions and adopting socially conservative policies on issues like marriage equality and abortion.
Which makes Razem’s program pretty significant and controversial. The party is proposing a minimum hourly wage of $4 — up from less than $3 now, according to Eurostat. Razem also wants to institute a progressive tax code to shift more of the burden onto wealthier Poles; kick-start government funding for housing, hospitals and schools; boost the influence of unions; and put an end to the privatization of health care.
But many experts still gripe that Razem lacks a charismatic leader. (Of course, Razem considers this a better, more democratic way of operating — though again, so did Occupy, and we saw how that turned out.) Without someone at the helm, it’ll have a tough time gaining media attention, which is an absolute must to reach the 110,000 signatures necessary to enter the elections and then 5 percent of the vote to break into parliament, says Jaroslaw Flis, an assistant professor at Jagiellonian University’s journalism and communication institute.
Looked at another way, Razem is part of a Pan-European trend of parties that cater to the fringes while dominant centrist parties gasp for air. Consider, for instance, the surprise second-place finish of Denmark’s far-right, anti-EU Danish People’s Party in June elections, or the similarly anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, which won 12 percent of the vote in May elections. As for Razem, it has been in contact with both Syriza, the left-wing ruling party of Greece, and Podemos, a similar project in Spain, in hopes of charting a successful left-leaning alternative.