“Not my circus, not my monkeys”: Poland’s illiberal turn

There is a saying in Poland that goes “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy”, which translates to “Not my circus, not my monkeys”. As a Polish citizen having lived abroad for most of my life, this mindset has been quite appealing in light of recent developments in the country. It’s easy to be apathetic when so much of the media coverage paints the government negatively. But one thing is easy to forget, some things might not be all too bad on the ground.

Poland’s ruling government, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), has received widespread scrutiny both within and outside the country for its “illiberal” approach to internal affairs, with EU institutions, political opponents, and foreign media often accusing the ruling party of undermining democracy, rule of law and civil liberties. Currently in its third year in power, the government has worked to take control over state media and exert increasing influence over the judicial system; proposed even stricter abortion laws (which are already some of the toughest in Europe); and caused an uproar in Europe for its unwillingness to accept the EU’s refugee allocation quota.

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Despite all this, the government has remained mostly popular among the Polish people, having reached a record-high of 43% of public support in late 2017, nearly twice the support of the main opposition party Platforma Obywatelska (PO) who held power for eight years prior to PiS. There have been several up- and downswings throughout the years, but it remains the highest of all political parties. So how do we explain this popularity?

The shortcomings of their opponents

Perhaps the current government’s strongest driving force lies in attempting to fix some of the failed social policies of the previous government, led by Platforma Obywatelska. Guided by a liberal and pro-Europe political and economic platform, PO left many poles feeling voiceless and excluded from the large economic growth the country has been experiencing since 1990. Having seen continuous economic growth and successfully guiding the country through the recession, Poland under PO also experienced increased financial gaps between the urban population and citizen living in rural areas. In 2011, Poland held among the least equal distribution of income in the EU and child poverty has remained an urgent issue in the country. So, following over two decades of failing social policies and unequal distribution of wealth, PiS took the opportunity to deliver on some promises to strengthen low-income families.

Sharing the fruits of a growing economy

Guided by a strong Catholic agenda and with its primary focus lying in traditional family values, PiS has taken steps to provide a significant financial boost to families. Its 500plus programme which came into effect in 2016 provided a large increase to child benefits, which came to be one of the highest in Europe. The policy means that low-income families receive a monthly sum of 500zl (117EUR) for their fist-born child and all families for every subsequent child. In this regard, the PiS government was the first to deliver on promises to aid low-income households.

Despite the drastic increase to public spending, the Polish economy has also continued to grow, with a 4.6% increase in 2017, accompanied by record low unemployment in the past 25 years, as well as increased household consumption across all levels of society.

Saving the country from foreign “threats”

The PiS government has for a long time led an EU-sceptic platform. As the conservative right has risen to power, the relationship between the EU and Poland has soured. When holding office for the first time between 2005-2007, the party had already showed its discontent with the European Union. High on their agenda was the promise to defend Polish morals against EU interference, and the then Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczynski was adamant in working towards Poland regaining its full sovereignty.

In recent years the citizens of Poland and the conservative government have become increasingly wary of the criticism placed on the country by EU institutions. This culminated in the large refugee influx in 2015, when Poland came to be heavily criticized by the EU and global media for refusing to accept Syrian refugees into the country. The leading party’s main agenda was to do everything in their power to prevent the “enforced multi-culturalism” by the EU, a sentiment which found significant support among the majority of Poles: in a survey from 2017, the data revealed that 70% of Poles were opposed to accepting refugees from Muslim countries.

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Having become a permanent resident of Sweden, my life is comfortable and secure, and understandably, it’s easy to take for granted that questions of civil liberties and human rights are a given. At the same time, the citizens of my hometown haven’t gotten far since I left in 2002, and people still struggle to make ends meet. Perhaps it isn’t strange that things such as media and judicial independence, or even the well-being of refugees, might not be on the list of priorities for a majority of the country. While social welfare is clearly coming at a great cost, it might just be what the Polish people need at the moment.

Michal Gieda

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