Poland Faces Culture Clash in Upcoming Elections

Poland Faces Culture Clash in Upcoming Elections

The center-left Civic Platform and center-right Law and Justice parties are navigatingand feedinga polarized political landscape.

If one were to imagine a Mount Rushmore of European Union (EU) bureaucrats, it would certainly feature the likeness of former European Council President Donald Tusk. Consequently, seeing Tusk’s face emblazoned across international media this week has been unsurprising. On October 1, he presided over a large pro-abortion rally calculated to kick off two weeks of adulatory media coverage before Poland’s October 15 parliamentary elections. 

The campaign represents a homecoming of sorts. Tusk served as prime minister from 2007–2014, becoming the first post-Communist head of state to win reelection in Poland. He departed for Brussels to assume the European Council presidency, and his Civic Platform (PO — usually now referred to as Civic Coalition or KO, after an alliance with smaller parties) lost power one year later after controversially agreeing to the EU’s migrant resettlement scheme. 

Since that time, Tusk and KO have watched bitter rivals Law & Justice (PiS) govern for two terms, often sparring with Brussels in the process.

Poland has changed dramatically during that time. The country’s spectacular economic growth is well known. Neither the 2008 financial crisis nor the COVID-19 Pandemic has halted this trend. The war in Ukraine has highlighted Poland’s role as a vital military and diplomatic force in Europe. After decades of emigration, Poles are returning home from places like the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Telegraph even called Poland “Europe’s next superpower.”

One can appreciate the country’s economic vitality by simply walking around central Warsaw, but the prosperity isn’t limited to the capital. Żyrardów, a city of 40,000 inhabitants about thirty miles southwest of Warsaw, offers a fascinating snapshot of twenty-first-century Poland. 

Built as a planned factory town, it was a significant player in the nineteenth-century textile and linen markets. Its importance declined by the world wars, and the communist regime artificially shored up its factories. By the 1990s, the town had become decrepit; trash, overgrown weeds, and broken windows characterized the townscape. 

The Żyrardów of 2023 is a decidedly pleasant place. Its center has been painstakingly rebuilt in distressed red brick to evoke the city’s economic heyday. Stara Przędzalnia (The Old Spinning Mill) is a former factory converted into a mixed-use complex of apartments, hotel rooms, cafes, and shops. The stunning neo-Gothic Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church overlooks the city hall and a pretty town square. A government investment billboard notes the aim of “revitalizing the marginalized area of the City of Żyrardów by giving it new socio-economic functions.” Officials hope a proposed nearby airport will elevate Warsaw to among the major aviation hubs of Europe.

A statue of a pregnant mill worker stands before a restaurant in yet another restored red-brick factory building. She symbolizes the travails of Żyrardów’s workers and the city’s rebirth—and, one might conclude, that of Poland generally. 

Pro-opposition voices would claim Żyrardów owes its fortunes to European Union money, something Brussels has been increasingly willing to withhold. Pro-government figures would counter that the revitalization occurred precisely on the PiS watch. They might add that a similar exurban location near a Western European capital would be unkempt, unsafe, and unrecognizable to its former inhabitants. Ultimately, the two competing visions of Poland hinge on this debate. 

Onlookers could reasonably characterize pro-government campaign rhetoric with the Polish flag and the country’s unofficial motto: Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna (God, Honor, Fatherland). During Tusk’s most recent made-for-TV march, the contrast in the opposition camp was vivid. The streams of EU, rainbow, and Ukraine flags might just as easily have been photographed in a Western European capital.

Opposition leaders also checked familiar rhetorical boxes. “We are moving…towards a Poland that is tolerant, diverse, European, and smiling,” said Rafał Trzaskowski, Warsaw mayor, KO deputy leader, and LGBT-issue figurehead. 

The campaign has been bitter and full of click-worthy controversies. Migration, abortion, celebrity activism, German neo-imperialism, and Vatican influence are just a few of the topics hotly debated in the Polish political sphere. 

PiS almost certainly will win the highest number of votes, but its ability to form a majority government is uncertain. KO already leads a coalition with the Left party and centrist Third Way in the Senate; polls suggest these three will obtain roughly 50 percent of the vote total. The right-wing Confederation party could combine with PiS to acquire a majority, but such an alliance is not assured; some have even called it unlikely. Warsaw and Brussels will be on edge until October 15, if not longer.

In Żyrardów, residents enjoy something of the good life for the first time in several generations. A Polish television feature on the city noted, “It’s possible to get the impression that time has stopped here.” Until the election result delivers the country from uncertainty, the advertisement is more apt than it knows.

Michael O’Shea is a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute. He is an alumnus of the Budapest Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Hungary Foundation and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Poland.

Image: Shutterstock.