It’s not the economy, stupid! Explaining the success of authoritarian populism in Poland

By Dr Jacek Kuchar­czyk.

In this arti­cle I argue that — con­trary to pre­vail­ing wis­dom — the rise of author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism in Poland, cul­mi­nat­ing with the elec­toral tri­umph of the Law and Jus­tice (Pra­wo i Spraw­iedli­wość — PiS) par­ty in 2015, and the sub­se­quent drift towards author­i­tar­i­an­ism, can­not be ful­ly account­ed for by eco­nom­ic inequalites and the dis­con­tents of the “left behind” of Poland’s trans­for­ma­tion from state social­ism to mar­ket econ­o­my. Instead, I agree with Pip­pa Nor­ris, who argues that pop­ulist author­i­tar­i­an­ism ”can best be explained as a cul­tur­al back­lash in West­ern soci­eties against long-term, ongo­ing social change”[1]. In this vein, I argue that the dri­ving forces of Poland’s pop­ulist upheaval are nativism, polit­i­cal Catholi­cism, and fear of Mus­lim refugees. Thus, the rise to pow­er of author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulists in Poland is bet­ter under­stood as a back­lash against open soci­ety val­ues and against parts of the polit­cal and cul­tur­al elites which are believed to rep­re­sent these val­ues. I fur­ther explain how the Law and Jus­tice par­ty has exploit­ed this back­lash by mobi­liz­ing its sup­port base and demo­bi­liz­ing sup­port for its com­peti­tors, ensur­ing its lead­ing posi­tion on the polit­i­cal scene, despite protests and wide­spred domes­tic oppo­si­tion to its poli­cies. [2]

The “con­ser­v­a­tive” backlash

The con­tem­po­rary rise of pop­ulist par­ties and move­ments is often attrib­uted to a revolt of those left behind by eco­nom­ic glob­al­iza­tion. In oth­er words, pop­ulism is seen as a response to grow­ing social inequal­i­ty, as a by-prod­uct of the neolib­er­al “Wash­ing­ton con­sen­sus” that rose to promi­nence after 1989, and as a reac­tion to the finan­cial and eco­nom­ic cri­sis of 2008. This expla­na­tion seems plau­si­ble in view of the fact that pop­ulism often draws sup­port from the less afflu­ent and less edu­cat­ed sec­tions of soci­ety, espe­cial­ly men, whose eco­nom­ic posi­tion has become pre­car­i­ous in the glob­al­ized post-indus­tri­al econ­o­my. How­ev­er, a grow­ing body of research points out that this the­o­ry of the “mobi­liza­tion of the dis­pos­sessed” has lim­it­ed explana­to­ry pow­er.[3] On the con­trary, the rise of author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism should be seen as a reac­tion to the lib­er­al soci­etal changes in recent decades.

Fol­low­ing Poland’s acces­sion to the EU, many ideas and poli­cies, once pro­mot­ed by rel­a­tive­ly mar­gin­al groups of fem­i­nist and LGBT activists, have become main­streamed even if they not always have been transta­lat­ed into leg­is­la­tion (i.e mariage equal­i­ty). In spite of the fact that most Poles for­mal­ly remained mem­bers of the Roman Catholic Church, stud­ies showed grow­ing social and polit­i­cal divide along moral-cul­tur­al rather than socio-eco­nom­ic issues. “The silent rev­o­lu­tion” in social val­ues, which start­ed in West­ern soci­eties dur­ing the 1970s, came to Cen­tral Europe much lat­er and has evoked strong adver­sar­i­al reac­tions among the more tra­di­tion­al sec­tions of soci­ety, backed by the hier­ar­chy of the Catholic church.[4]

Although the PiS was elect­ed on a tick­et of gen­er­ous socio-eco­nom­ic promis­es, its posi­tion as an unchal­leged leader on the right of the poli­cal spec­trum after years in the oppo­si­tion came from its strong pro­file on iden­ti­ty and sov­er­eign­ty issues as well as its deep alliance with the Pol­ish Catholic church. Indeed, as this study, con­duct­ed on the eve of the 2015 elec­tions, demon­strates, the declared inten­tions to vote for the PiS par­ty strong­ly cor­re­lat­ed with strong views on issues of moral­i­ty and iden­ti­ty, includ­ing reli­gios­i­ty, oppo­si­tion to abor­tion and to deep­er Euro­pean integration.

Last but not least, the refugee cri­sis, and espe­cial­ly the con­tro­ver­sial pol­i­cy of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion for manda­to­ry quo­tas of Syr­i­an refugees for each mem­ber state, brought about an upsurge of xeno­pho­bia, which has been active­ly encour­aged by the PiS politi­cians and gov­ern­ment-con­trolled media. One recent exam­ple of this is a tweet from the party’s offi­cial account: ”Don’t let them tell you that aver­sion to refugees is some­thing wrong”[5]. It well illus­trates that the par­ty not just seeks sup­port from vot­ers who share their xeno­pho­bic and islam­opo­bic views, but pro­vides its sup­port­ers with a kind of moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Hat­ing migrants becomes an act of patri­o­tism or even defense of the ”Chris­t­ian civilization”.

The refugee cri­sis and its (neg­a­tive) res­o­nance in the Pol­ish soci­ety has added anti-immi­gra­tion and anti-refugee sen­ti­ment to the Pol­ish populist’s ide­o­log­i­cal tool­box. It also allowed the PiS to whip-up neg­a­tive sen­ti­ments towards Ger­many and the Euro­pean Union[6], mak­ing the Pol­ish brand of pop­ulism rather sim­i­lar to that of its West Euro­pean coun­ter­parts[7].

Mobi­liza­tion and demo­bi­liza­tion of voters

Although the PiS — like all pop­ulist par­ties — claims to rep­re­sent the “peo­ple” against the elites, it is high­ly debat­able whether it has ever rep­re­sent­ed a major­i­ty of the Pol­ish pub­lic. The Law and Jus­tice par­ty won the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions with just 37.8% of the total vote. The elec­toral turnout of just above 50% means that the PiS secured a nar­row major­i­ty of votes with the sup­port of just 18.6% of eli­gi­ble vot­ers, show­ing it owes its major­i­ty of seats to a demo­bi­lized pub­lic and the fail­ure of left wing par­ties to cross the elec­toral thresh­old of 5%. Until 2017 the PiS fur­ther con­sol­i­dat­ed its major­i­ty by attract­ing a num­ber of MPs from the anti-estab­lis­ment Kukiz’15 group­ing and exploit­ing the major­i­ty to pass a series of laws: dis­man­tling key demo­c­ra­t­ic checks and bal­ances, includ­ing an inde­pen­dent judi­cia­ry, a pro­fes­sion­al civ­il ser­vice, and (inde­pen­dent) pub­lic media.[8]

Kaczyński’s party’s vic­to­ry was pos­si­ble through the cre­ation of a high­ly effec­tive “anger indus­try”, which fed on and ampli­fied both prej­u­dices and dis­con­tents of dif­fer­ent social groups and indi­vid­u­als.[9] The right-wing media, both tra­di­tion­al and online, con­tributed to the cre­ation of a “par­al­lel real­i­ty”, where indig­na­tion at real and imag­i­nary injus­tices and polit­i­cal mal­prac­tices was chan­neled against the pur­port­ed­ly intol­er­a­ble sta­tus quo. While the vil­li­fi­ca­tion of the elites served to whip up resent­ment among poten­tial sup­port­ers, a par­al­lel cam­paign was launched to con­vince unde­cid­ed vot­ers that Law and Jus­tice was a nor­mal con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty, more com­pe­tent than the incumbe­ment and no threat to the sta­bil­i­ty of Pol­ish democ­ra­cy or Euro­pean norms and val­ues. Those warn­ing about the PiS’s author­i­tar­i­an and pop­ulist ten­den­cies were ridiculed and brand­ed as agents of the “sta­tus quo”. The same prac­tice of mobi­liz­ing core sup­port­ers and demo­niz­ing oppo­nents (mem­o­rably described as “Poles of the worst sort” and “tra­ch­er­ous faces” by PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyńs­ki) con­tin­ued after the PiS took over gov­ern­ment — but with far greater resources at its dis­pos­al, includ­ing the pub­lic media.

Despite their con­tro­ver­sial and divi­sive poli­cies after two years in office, the sup­port for the rul­ing Law and Jus­tice par­ty exceeds 40% of declared vot­ers, more then 10 per­cent­age points ahead of the two strongest oppo­si­tion par­ties (Civic Plat­form and Mod­ern Poland). If one con­sid­ers declared absen­tees and unde­cid­ed vot­ers, sup­port for the rul­ing par­ty does not exceed one-third of the eli­gi­ble cit­i­zen­ry. This last fig­ure is con­sis­tent with the results of the sur­vey con­duct­ed in Octo­ber 2017, which coin­cid­ed with the protests around the so-called “judi­cia­ry reform”.[10] This study showed that while 35% of the respon­dents declared sup­port for the PiS changes of the func­tion­ing of key demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, half of those polled are opposed to them, includ­ing 32% ” strong­ly opposed”[11]. How­ev­er, this declared oppo­si­tion of a sub­stan­tive part of the soci­ety is not trans­lat­ed into their sup­port for the oppo­si­tion par­ties. Indeed a vast major­i­ty of respon­dents in the same sur­vey declare dis­trust of all polit­i­cal par­ties. Such gen­er­al­ized dis­trust of pol­i­tics and polit­i­cal par­ties has been a fea­ture of Pol­ish polit­i­cal life, result­ing in a con­sis­tent­ly low elec­toral turnout. Anoth­er study con­duct­ed in the after­math of the judi­cia­ry protests demon­strat­ed how well the gov­ern­ment pro­pa­gan­da can explore this gen­er­al­ized aver­sion to pol­i­tics and polit­i­cal par­ties to demo­bi­lize the oppo­nents of pop­ulists poli­cies by brand­ing oppo­si­tion par­ties as demor­al­ized, cor­rupt, and greedy for pow­er; thus effec­tive­ly under­min­ing the opposition’s nar­ra­tive that the PiS gov­ern­ment is a threat to democ­ra­cy. [12]

Con­clu­sions – coun­ter­ing the back­lash against an open society

Under­stand­ing the com­plex­i­ties of populism’s appeal is nec­es­sary in order to find effec­tive ways to reverse the pop­ulist upsurge or to resist the destruc­tion of insti­tu­tions and soci­etal norms when pop­ulists are in pow­er. Fram­ing pop­ulism in nar­row socio-eco­nom­ic cat­e­gories and depict­ing pop­ulist vot­ers as “vic­tims of glob­al­iza­tion” nat­u­ral­ly puts empha­sis on fix­ing social poli­cies towards greater social inclu­sion, which is desir­able in itself but hard­ly effec­tive as far as under­cut­ting the sup­port for right wing author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism goes. For one thing, it is dif­fi­cult to out­bid pop­ulists in their promis­es of unre­strict­ed spend­ing and oth­er social­ly pop­u­lar but irre­spon­si­ble poli­cies (such as low­er­ing the retire­ment age in Poland).

As was assert­ed in this essay, pop­ulism is a back­lash against pro­gres­sive and lib­er­al social val­ues and needs to be con­front­ed direct­ly by mobi­liz­ing those groups and social actors who are direct­ly or indi­rect­ly threat­ened by pop­ulist poli­cies, such as women and minori­ties. The pow­er of the so-called “black protest” against the government’s assault on women’s rights is one good exam­ple of such social mobi­liza­tion. Sec­ond­ly, civ­il soci­ety groups and non-pop­ulist politi­cians need to reclaim social media and learn to chal­lenge pop­ulism in the area of social com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Third­ly, and most impor­tant­ly, street protests, march­es, and peti­tions will not by them­selves defeat entrentched pop­ulists. Their defeat can only come through the bal­lot box. This means that coun­ter­ing any anti-pop­ulist back­lash against an open soci­ety can only be effec­tive if dif­fer­ent groups and civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, as well as indi­vid­u­als, over­come their aver­sion to pol­i­tics and trans­late their ener­gy into effec­tive polit­i­cal action.

Dr Jacek Kuchar­czyk is Pres­i­dent of the Insti­tute of Pub­lic Affairs, one of Poland’s lead­ing think-tanks.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

[1] Nor­ris, Pip­pa, “It’s not just Trump. Author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism is ris­ing across the West. Here’s why”, The Wash­ing­ton Post (11 March 2016).

[2] For a more detailed analy­sis of the Pol­ish case, includ­ing the socio-eco­nom­ic fac­tor, see J. Kuchar­czyk et al. “When fear wins: caus­es and con­se­quences of Poland’s pop­ulist turn” [in:] Noth­ing to Fear but Fear Itself. Map­ping and respond­ing to the ris­ing cul­ture and pol­i­tics of fear in the Euro­pean Union, DEMOS 2017, pp. 305–362.

[3] Ingle­hart, Roland, Nor­ris, Pip­pa, “Trump, Brex­it, and the Rise of Pop­ulism: Eco­nom­ic Have-Nots and Cul­tur­al Back­lash”, Fac­ul­ty Research Work­ing Paper Series, August 2016.

[4] See: Dru­cia­rek, Mał­gorza­ta, „Social con­ser­vatism and the cul­tur­al back­lash in Poland“ in Kuchar­czyk, et al., “When fear wins”, op. cit., pp. 338–335.

[5] The tweet was lat­er replaced by a more neu­tral one, the orig­i­nal can still be found here.

[6] For a more detailed analy­sis of the impact of the refugee cri­sis and the rela­tions between the PiS gov­ern­ment and the EU, see “New Pact for Europe – Nation­al Report – Poland”.

[7] Zack Beauchamp, “White riot. How racism and immi­gra­tion gave us Trump, Brex­it, and a whole new kind of pol­i­tics”, 20 Jan­u­ary 2017 (accessed on 26 June 2017).

[8] See J. Fom­i­na, J. Kuchar­czyk “Pop­ulism and Protest in Poland” [in:] Jour­nal of Democ­ra­cy, Octo­ber 2016, Vol­ume 27, Num­ber 4, p. 58–68

[9]Maciej Gdu­la, Dobra zmi­ana w Miastku,

[10] For my account of the protests see:


[12] Rogus­ka, B. “Kra­jo­braz po wetach”, CBOS, komu­nikat z badań, 12/2017,

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