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The return from afterlife

Bartosz Rydlinski
Co-founder of Ignacy Daszynski Center, collaborator of Aleksander Kwasniewski’s Foundation “Amicus Europae”

When, in 2015, Polish Social Democracy and its largest party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), fell out of parliament for the first time in the history of Poland, couldn’t believe it. Two times, the ruling party responsible for bringing Poland into the European Union, whose politicians were elected president twice, was relegated to the political third league. The European family of Socialist parties was also shocked by the fact that they started to look for successors to the Democratic Left Alliance, always mistakenly locating their feelings. The defeat of the Left was historic, as was its return to the main political life 4 years later.

So far, both in Poland and in Central Europe, no party has been able to return to parliament after having fallen out of mainstream circulation. It was the SLD that did this first. How did this happen?

First of all, the Democratic Left Alliance knew that despite the defeat it had loyal and emotionally connected voters who, already during a previous electoral test, the local government elections in November 2018, supported the Polish left on an almost identical scale, casting over a million one hundred thousand votes for it, which resulted in 6.62% support on the national scale. For three years without a campaign, the newly elected head of the SLD, Włodzimierz Czarzasty, travelled all over Poland apologising for the mistakes of his party in the past and at the same time raising the morale of his activists. Chairman Czarzasty saw with his own eyes which politicians of Law and Justice hurt not only left-wing voters. SLD also set a course for the defence of all those who encountered an attack from the right-wing government. He was with police retirees deprived of pensions, LGBT groups, workers pushed into self-employment, environmentalists, and protesters against the politicisation of the courts. You could see red SLD banners everywhere.

After a tactical alliance with the main opposition party (Civic Platform, PO), a joint start in the European elections and the election of five MEPs, the Democratic Left Alliance had to build the electoral coalition to increase its chances of returning to parliament. After the interruption of the talks by the Christian Democrats, Czarzasty and his party were forced to start talks with the “Together Party” (Partia Razem) and Robert Biedron’s “Spring” (Wiosna). As the parties had not cooperated before, often attacking each other in previous years, nobody thought that these political forces would reach a compromise, especially as one of the conditions was the start of the activists of these parties from the Democratic Left Alliance lists. As a result, the election committee had to face the 5% and not the 8% electoral threshold for formal coalitions. It turned out, however, that this “marriage of convenience” quickly began to bring benefits.

The first polls gave the united left 10-15% support, which was a clear signal that voters supported the end of the “wars on the left”. During the election, the left-wing candidates differed from the Law and Justice (PiS) and the Civic Platform (PO) in their ideological clarity and courage. They were not afraid to advocate partnership, high tax progression for the rich and companies, and labour rights. Polish Social Democracy finally began to be a full-blooded left that was not afraid of competition from both the conservative and and liberal side. The more tenacious the SLD committee was in its left-wing principles, the more consolidated became the conviction that on 13 October 2019 it would do something historic, namely return to the Polish Parliament. More than 2 million 300 thousand voters elected 49 MPs and two senators to both chambers of parliament. In terms of the number of votes, it is the best result since 2001, which, in addition to recognition, deserves in-depth analysis.

In the 2019 elections the profile of the left-wing voters has changed. In addition to the traditional sentimental and identity electorate of the Democratic Left Alliance, this camp was joined by the voters of big cities, young people who often work in unstable but well-paid jobs. Additionally, the SLD took over some of the liberal voters, disillusioned by the lack of ideological clarity of the Civic Platform. Both groups trusted the Left because of its openness to the world, decisiveness in cultural matters, tenacity in publicising all manifestations of abuse of power by Jarosław Kaczyński ‘s party. The question, however, is whether in the long run the economic programme of the left will not create the impression that Polish Social Democracy will want to take part of the salary from its new voters for the benefit of the necessary social investments.

Therefore, the Polish left is faced with a considerable challenge to balance its cultural and pro-democratic appeal with a clear vision of a just society. To this end, the party and its allies will have to continue to talk to their voters for the next four years, explaining in easy words what Social Democratic principles are in the socio-economic field. In addition, the SLD will have to consider why only 6.9% of workers supported the left. How to formulate a credible offer for the losers of systemic transformation and neoliberal globalisation, who today are voting in favour of Law and Justice? – is another fundamental question for the future.

Looking for a new political formula for the next four years, it will be easier for the Polish Social Democracy to make its proposals public while being in parliament, having access to the media, and having a legislative initiative. This will require consistency, courage and clearly defined views on the key and most polarising topics of the upcoming term of the Sejm. Only in this way will the Left in the future be able to think not only of its renewed presence in the parliament but also of taking back the reins of Poland’s government, as it was customary to do.

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