The victory of Law and Justice (PiS) in the 2015 Polish parliamentary elections came as a shock to all those who deemed Poland securely set on liberal democratic tracks. The new ruling party and its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, have since embarked the Polish nation upon a fierce battle with the European Union to regain its sovereignty and, together with it, its “dignity”. This paper, written by Aziliz Gouez, associate research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute, examines the roots of Law and Justice’s appeal amongst the Polish electorate and its resonance beyond Poland. Indeed the political and cultural agenda championed by Poland’s national-conservative party is one that is gaining ground, not just in neighbouring Hungary and in Central Europe, but across the European Union. An “alternative idea for Europe” is emerging, which conjures up interpretations of democracy and solidarity, of the articulation between national and supra-national, as well as notions of identity, values and religion that run right to the heart of the European project as we know it.
Through the case of Poland, this paper thus intends to contribute to our understanding of the profound political shifts underway in Europe today. It starts by analysing the social dimension of PiS’s political project, its emphasis on the province, on redistribution, and on the role of state intervention. It then turns to the distinctive ideological grammar and historical repertoire that shape the Polish government’s politics of national identity. Doing so, it looks at how these two strands of Law and Justice’s project – social policy and nationalist assertion – feed off one another. For it is the conflation between personal and national dignity, between redistributive justice and national revival, which defines PiS’s specific brand of politics, and its strength. It is not just through the distribution of material benefits that Law and Justice appeals to Polish voters, but also by giving them a stake in the national drama, by offering them a shelter, a place in the world – a place of which they can be proud, a country that is theirs, and theirs only.
Ultimately, this paper is an invitation to reflect on the conditions for a renewal of liberal pluralism in Europe today. Can an alternative be built to the Kaczyński-Orbán-Salvini agenda – an alternative which would do justice to the aspirations for place, identity, community and equality which are mounting across Europe while holding firm on the four freedoms, on universalist principles and on liberal pluralism? These are the questions which the Polish liberal opposition and the Polish left, but also the next European Parliament, will have to tackle head on.