Why Poland’s Populists Keep Winning

PiS won by offering provincial voters social benefits that transformed their lives. If Poland’s opposition wants to defeat the illiberal ruling party, it will have to offer an alternative welfare state model.

Participants seen holding flags during the National Rosary
Participants hold flags during the National Rosary March organized by Poland’s Catholic Church and the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party in Warsaw on Oct. 5. Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Multiple studies have shown that the rise of populism is directly correlated with increased antagonism between provincial and metropolitan areas. It’s something that populist leaders seem to understand instinctively. Politicians like Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski win first in the provinces and are only later able to attract support in urban areas. In order to maintain power, they have to manage antagonism between urban and rural areas. 

Roberto Stefan Foa and Jonathan Wilmot recently argued in Foreign Policy that “the gap between the cosmopolitan city and the economic periphery has become the new social class divide across the West.” Most scholars tend to focus on two diametrically opposed poles. But it is not the extremes that are most interesting but the gray area in between: those swing voters in provincial areas who are not hard-line populists but are attracted to populist parties despite many reservations about their illiberalism. This gray area does exist, as becomes apparent if you scratch the surface in a place like Poland, where the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party is very popular.

Foa and Wilmot assume the economic collapse of provincial areas is fueling populist backlash. But Poland provides an important counterexample, where there has not been an economic collapse of the periphery. In the 1990s, Poland recovered from the economic crisis that came after the introduction of martial law in 1981 and subsequent Western sanctions, followed by neoliberal “shock therapy” after 1989, which led to the collapse of large communist-era enterprises and massive unemployment that remained at about 20 percent for 15 years.

It’s true that large cities fared better, but Polish villages and small towns, which form the backbone of PiS support today, are hardly in the midst of an economic crisis. Indeed, the opposite is true. Thanks to European funds (but not only to them), the periphery is enjoying growth and development, with low unemployment and abundant new infrastructure.

Nevertheless, one can see in Poland the same antagonism between the center and the periphery that is now common in the United States and Britain. The underlying factors are a lack of cultural rather than economic capital, conservative attitudes, and lower levels of trust in institutions, which lead to an understanding of the welfare state as responsible for providing direct social transfers rather than good public services. 

Former Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party, whose term in power coincided with significant economic growth from 2007 to 2015, concentrated on building roads, stadiums, and high-speed rail and reforming the retirement system (by raising the retirement age, among other factors). Despite all that development, the PiS slogan of “Poland in ruins” won out. 

It may have sounded absurd in the cities, but it seemed credible to people in provincial areas because of their low levels of income and social transfers. The PiS-implemented subsidy of 500 zloty (about $130) monthly per child has changed the political paradigm in Poland. Now, no electoral promise that is not formulated as a direct offer of cash can have any hope of appealing to voters. PiS recently won big in the European Parliament elections thanks to its promise of paying out a 13th month of retirement benefits, which was made a week before voters went to the polls. Now, the party is running on a promise of almost doubling the minimum wage. 

An activist holds a copy of the Polish Constitution during a march against Polish state television (TVP), protesting media manipulation and creation of a propaganda machine accused of favoring the Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party, in Warsaw on Feb. 17.

An activist holds a copy of the Polish Constitution during a march against the Polish state broadcaster TVP protesting media manipulation and the creation of a propaganda machine accused of favoring PiS in Warsaw on Feb. 17. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Przemyslaw Sadura from the University of Warsaw and I carried out quantitative and qualitative research of Poland’s electorate in order to understand as much as possible about the motivations of voters before the upcoming Oct. 13 parliamentary elections. 

The goal was to learn what attracts voters to PiS and what media they consume, as well as how they react to politicians’ actions, social programs, and multiple scandals caused by PiS. The study divided PiS voters into the electoral base—those who have been voting for the party for a long time and those who have begun supporting the party since it came to power.

The picture that emerges from this analysis is not one of voters naively following the dictates of party communiqués, church sermons, or TV propaganda. Polish voters are well aware of what they are doing. They are rational actors with a good grasp of politics, at least as far as they think it concerns them. 

Instead, a new phenomenon has come to dominate Polish politics: the conscious and open acceptance by voters of pathological behavior on the part of political parties. Political cynicism is being displayed by voters on all sides. It functions as a kind of co-participation in politics, which is why political involvement is on the rise, as evidenced by the doubling in turnout in the most recent European elections. 

When they are asked about politics, voters begin to sound like politicians, calculating the plays necessary to win and openly accepting underhanded moves. They consider what they should say, whom they should seek accommodations with, and what to promise to whom. Just like politicians, they do not pretend to believe the things they say about the other side. 

New PiS voters often demonstrated some disagreement with PiS—or even embarrassment. They gave one general reason for their support: the financial assistance they receive from the state. As one respondent put it, “That 500 zloty, even though I am against that kind of government spending, I think it is sometimes helpful.” 

The cynicism on the side of Civic Platform voters is clear from their conviction that the opposition cannot afford to openly call for the repeal of PiS’s social programs, although that is something that Civic Platform voters often expect the party to enact. That is why, in the view of some of those surveyed, Civic Platform should declare that nothing that has been given will be taken away and indeed make additional promises—but then find a pretext for cutting the child subsidy once the party is in power. 

One of the consequences of political cynicism that demonstrates the strength of voters’ identification with political parties is the dual attitude of Polish voters when it comes to corruption. Evidence shows that Poles disapprove of theft to benefit an individual, but they see nothing wrong with stealing in order to benefit the party. They see this as necessary in order for their party to stay in power. This kind of corruption is seen as acceptable in service to the greater good. A politician will not lose the confidence of voters for breaking the law in a way that benefits the party. This may explain the ruling party’s resilience in the face of numerous scandals. 

When Kaczynski, the leader of PiS, accepts rent-seeking behavior by PiS politicians on behalf of their party and its institutional affiliates (the placement of many PiS politicians in high-paying positions in state-owned companies, for instance) on the one hand while sometimes reacting very sharply to private corruption by members of his party (such as the scandal concerning the payment of large bonuses to government ministers under Prime Minister Beata Szydlo), the seeming contradiction in behavior is illusory. 

The phenomenon of “legitimation through scandal” plays a significant role in attracting new voters. Going after elites, humiliating them, creating distance from them by provoking controversy, and spurring outrage in the media have become a standard tactic for politicians such as Trump, Nigel Farage, and Matteo Salvini, who use this as a means of not only gaining popularity but also earning the trust of voters who feel that they have been harmed by the elite.

This makes PiS immune to the political costs of the scandals uncovered by the mainstream media. Scandals involving a party that is a priori controversial and from the outset criticized by the media (including foreign media) do not move voters. 

The PiS electorate is not as deluded by propaganda from the public broadcaster TVP as supporters of the opposition assume. As shown by our qualitative research and confirmed by the quantitative results of our survey, political preferences are clearly correlated with the level of diversity of sources of information on politics. But the direction of that relationship is completely different than the stereotypical image of the electorate would suggest. In fact, hard-line Civic Platform voters have the least diversified news sources—they reject TVP and consider the major private TVN network (owned by the U.S.-based media company Discovery) to be the only objective and trustworthy station. 

By contrast, the landscape of news programming consumed by PiS voters is much broader, and they have few illusions about its biases. Among hard-line PiS voters, 30 percent say they perceive the bias of Wiadomosci, TVP’s flagship news program, and 16 percent say the same is true of all news programing on public television and on private channels. 

Some PiS voters, especially those with higher cultural capital, see “pushy propaganda” as embarrassing. Indeed, the majority of our respondents from among hard-line supporters of the ruling party have clear problems with public television (a point that is supported by survey data), which is why they seek out a wider range of news sources than do supporters of the opposition. Hard-line PiS voters repeatedly admitted it in focus group interviews: “God, they are, forgive me, so far up PiS’s ass, it really irritates me,” said one PiS supporter in Pulawy, a city of 50,000 people in eastern Poland. “Let the government’s news programing be a shill but not to the extent that they’re doing it,” another said. “It shouldn’t be so fawning. … There should be more objectivity. They should include other viewpoints.” This is why when they want to know what is really going on, they change channels to watch media critical of the government.

The parties’ old and new supporters are also very different. The loyalty of the old PiS electorate is older than the party’s social promises. The strongest motivation for them is their distaste for, and even hatred of, Civic Platform and leftist parties as representatives of urban elites. This electorate is clearly much more conservative and traditional and attached to religious and national values. This is evident in voters’ homophobic, anti-refugee, and racist statements. 

Support for PiS among new voters is conditional, even instrumental. These voters primarily live in villages and small towns. They are moderately conservative, but it is not primarily their worldview that attracts them to PiS.

In cultural terms, these voters do not differ significantly from potential Civic Platform voters. Despite the constant assurances of Civic Platform politicians, these voters believe that the party will cut social assistance programs implemented by PiS. 

Support for PiS is also conditional in an additional sense: PiS voters do not want their party to have a total monopoly. Most of them, even among the most hard-line PiS supporters, are skeptical and reluctant to support a constitutional majority for PiS. They feel safer when Kaczynski’s party has some competition. “I would like there to be some kind of counterbalance,” said one new PiS supporter in Torun, a city of 200,000 people in northern Poland. “I am a PiS supporter, but I don’t trust them to the extent that I would want them to have complete control and do whatever they want,” another added.

Even with such doubts among PiS voters, the opposition is having trouble making inroads. By far the strongest sentiment among Civic Platform voters—and the only factor that unifies the party’s electorate—is an anti-PiS stance. The pro-Civic Platform attitude is weak. It’s harder for Civic Platform to establish an emotional bond with its voters and to motivate them because its electorate is generally relatively satisfied with its standard of living. Despite the PiS government, Civic Platform voters do not feel that they have lost out in any concrete way. 

In order to understand the difference between a typical Civic Platform voter and a PiS voter, it is worth juxtaposing two diametrically opposed (in class terms) responses:

A loyal urban Civic Platform voter in Warsaw said: “I want all this roadwork to end. I want us to have highways. I want us to live in a modern country. … I just want our quality of life to be stabilized.” In Torun, a new PiS voter addressed the same issue from a very different perspective: “They build highways that are free for a year, and then they cost a ton of money. They should do something for the people and specifically for me. I don’t care about having a nice road. I might not have a car. I have no use for a highway. What matters to me is the promise that I will have a pension, that I will have social support, that my children will be able to raise their children, because they’ll be able to stay at home for five years.”

It clearly shows the class difference between the voters in major cities—who are satisfied with their living standards and expect the government to build a liberal welfare state with infrastructure modernization while helping people who cannot help themselves—and the provincial voters who expect a conservative welfare state: one big Polish family, a warm community that cares about everybody. 

The greater the mutual dislike between these two groups, the more fractured the potential Civic Platform electorate becomes. Antagonizing both is a means of dividing existing Civic Platform voters, making it impossible for the party to formulate a coherent message. As a result, the party’s program is shaky: Civic Platform sometimes tries to prove its progressive credentials, while other times it attempts to shore up its “right flank.”

A float in the Dusseldorf Rose Monday Carnival parade features an effigy of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) ruling political party, displaying the words “The liberal Poland"' in Germany on March 4. The parade is known for its satirical political floats.

A float in the Düsseldorf Rose Monday carnival parade features an effigy of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of PiS, displaying the words “The liberal Poland”‘ in Germany on March 4. The parade is known for its satirical political floats.Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

Depending on the posturing of the country’s major political forces, there are three possible scenarios: 

The Hungarian Scenario. PiS is on the verge of achieving a level of political power that is unprecedented in Poland’s post-1989 history, resembling that of Fidesz in Hungary or the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Through its promises of social programs, PiS may win over a large number of voters from Civic Platform and the Polish People’s Party, especially in the provinces. Poles are sending a clear message: They expect a welfare state whether it is part of a liberal or illiberal order—something that still seems to come as a surprise to the majority of Poland’s opposition and media.

Our study shows that voters (even PiS voters) are not in favor of the Hungarian scenario, but an effective campaign by the ruling party, combined with ineffective action on the part of the opposition, could easily lead to a “social trap,” in which individual intentions yield the opposite result at the collective level. 

The Slovak Scenario. If PiS were to buckle, either because of outside factors or due to a crisis of leadership (it is unlikely that the party would be brought down by scandal), that might lead to the emergence of left-wing populism. Voters will not give up their expectations when it comes to social programs. 

The crisis of Civic Platform could lead to the creation of a coalition of the left that could outbid PiS and propose a new welfare state model. Proposing new solutions would be crucial in order to appeal to voters beyond full-time salaried employees. This includes measures such as universal basic income. (The child subsidy program already plays a similar role.) 

The Bavarian Scenario. Our research clearly shows that Poles are eager to accept a conservative welfare state, one in which entitlement to benefits is dependent on the presence of a breadwinner in the family (at least one spouse must be employed). Support for this approach is evident in the universal opinion that the 500 zloty child subsidy should not be paid out to families who do not work and live off public assistance or the very rich. 

Combining this kind of welfare state with a platform composed of positions that are relatively uncontroversial in Poland—such as imposing taxes on the Catholic Church, promoting equality for women, guaranteeing the so-called abortion compromise while ensuring access to sexual education and contraceptives, and combating homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation—Civic Platform could count on the support of a majority of voters and present a democratic alternative to PiS. 

Slawomir Sierakowski is the founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.