Poland’s governing conservative party has become the party of reason

Polish liberals used to vote with their head and conservatives with their heart. Now the roles have reversed, argues political commentator Rafał Woś

editor: Grzegorz Adamczyk
author: Rafał Woś
Participants join an anti-government march led by the centrist opposition party leader Donald Tusk, who along with other critics accuses the government of eroding democracy, in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The mainstream wisdom once held that liberal voters were rational and voted with their heads. This was contrasted with supporters of anti-establishment parties that voted according to their emotions. In today’s Poland, the exact opposite is true. 

I spent a large part of the conservatives’ term in office working for a publication that was hostile to the ruling party. I remember well the cyclical excitement at every wave of protests against judicial reform or for the EU. Every time, my colleagues were convinced that these events were game changers. They never were. The conservatives have for almost a decade won every election. 

It was no surprise then that I am hearing the same rhetoric coming from the liberal camp after the big march for Donald Tusk. I don’t rule out that the opposition could somehow cobble together a majority in parliament. But, if that happens, it will not be because of the demonstrations. Poland is a mature democracy. It will be because the voters feel it is in their interests for the opposition to win. 

In essence, the march in favor of Tusk was a class-based phenomenon. Just as Polish politics is now class-based, even if it is often dressed up in the costume of culture wars or history. It is now a clash between the well-off who benefited from the post-1989 changes and those who did not. The conservatives have addressed the have-nots with social transfers, increased minimum pay, providing more resources for the provinces rather than the big cities, and funding organizations and individuals that were left out by the liberals. The liberal class just cannot forgive the conservatives for that. 

The changes the ruling conservatives have introduced are real, and millions of Poles have benefited materially and symbolically. They are better off in Kaczyński’s Poland than they were in Tusk’s. The liberals have attempted emotional blackmail against these voters, saying they have been “bought” and should feel ashamed of themselves. 

The liberals are therefore appealing to emotions, whereas the ruling conservatives are appealing to reason. The screams about the end of democracy and threats of retribution against the ruling party have engulfed Poland’s intelligentsia. 

The ruling conservatives sometimes play that game too, but it is through force of habit and it is no longer their forte. Their strength these days is the appeal to interests and reason. In this way, the roles of the enlightened liberal establishment governed by reason and conservatives and populists governed by emotion have been consigned to the dustbin. Maybe someone will recycle them.

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