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Political Cynicism: The Case of Poland

By Patryk A Wloch, on 4 October 2019

Dr Przemyslaw Sadura is a lecturer in the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw, and a visiting scholar at UCL SSEES. 

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

Following surprising increases in Polish voter turn-out during the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, we conducted field research on the attitudes and voting behaviors of the rural and semi-rural voters in Poland. Upon analyzing existing data, we formulated a questionnaire and conducted our own survey, following which we carried out a series of focus groups. The research looked at the existing and potential electorates of all major parties in order to develop a complete picture of political attitudes across the country. Their findings reveal that Polish voters remain rational actors with a good grasp of politics — at least as far as they think it concerns them — but are still vulnerable to partisan manipulation.

Who is Bigger

Based on our survey, we estimated the current and potential size of the electorates of the three largest political camps in Poland. The core electorate of a given party consists of those who declare their intention to vote for that party in the upcoming elections. The potential (or “reserve”) electorate consists of those people who have not declared an intention to vote for the given party but have supported it in the past, or designate it as their second choice, while also expressing full or partial confidence in that party.

The PiS Electorate:

  • base electorate – 35 percent
  • reserve electorate – 20 percent
  • together (ceiling) – 55 percent

The PO Electorate:

  • base electorate – 25 percent
  • reserve electorate – 22 percent
  • together (ceiling) – 47 percent

The Lewica Electorate:

  • base electorate – 8 percent
  • reserve electorate – 12 percent
  • together (ceiling) – 20 percent

Jarosław Kaczyński’s party has the support of an absolute majority of Poles within its reach. That means it can also hope to attain a constitutional majority. PiS could potentially achieve the same status as Fidesz enjoys in Hungary, regularly attaining more than 50 percent of the vote.

Political Cynicism

A new phenomenon that has come to dominate Polish politics is the conscious and open acceptance by voters of pathological behaviour on the part of political parties. Political cynicism is being displayed by voters on all sides. It functions as a higher form of political initiation, a kind of co–participation in politics, which all voters see as a hotbed of evil. That all is why political participation 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 act like politicians, calculating the plays necessary to win and openly accepting underhanded moves. They consider what they should say, whom they should seek accommodation with, what to promise to whom. Just like politicians, they do not pretend to believe the things they say about the other side.

One can get the impression that the political divide in Poland is so deep that voters from the two main factions have no one to feel ashamed in front of. Both sides have lost the point of reference that they used to provide for each other. That is why we see the emergence of two separate media spheres and two separate political universes.

For most of the discussion, PiS voters demonstrated distance from PiS. When asked how they had voted, they grew serious and admitted that they had cast their ballots for the ruling party. They gave two reasons: attachment to the Catholic Church and the financial assistance they receive from the state. As one respondent put it, “that 500 złoty, even though I am against that kind of government spending, I think it is sometimes helpful.” One can get the impression that the religious-nationalist framing of the PiS campaign served as a kind of code that was taken seriously by only a minority of PiS voters. For the rest, this facet of the party is a negative rather than a plus. The facial expressions of PiS voters resemble those of government ministers participating in Radio Maryja events. They are not happy, but they know that this is how things have to be done. This kind of competition over who is more liturgically proficient resembles the behavior of communist politicians under the old regime.

On the PO side, this cynicism is manifested in the relatively widespread belief that although politicians from that party have been implicated in scandals and lies, that they are rich and haughty, they have not brought Poland shame on the international stage and they look out for economic development and democratic freedoms. Voters do not pretend to be idealists. They tell interviewers and other participants directly that they are waiting to see who will offer them more.

Unethical behavior by populist parties has forced traditional parties to abandon their own moral standards. And the evidence suggests that if mainstream politicians want to try to beat populists at their own corrupt game, their supporters will reward them for it. Our findings reveal the extent to which cynicism has taken hold of the Polish electorate. Consider, for example, the following representative responses from a PiS voter:

Should politicians like Kaczyński be forgiven for engaging in corruption to some degree?

– Not necessarily. If we’re talking about individual material benefit, then no, he’s finished.

What if it weren’t to benefit himself, but his mother?

– If it were for the party, for the greater good, then yes, I’d be inclined to forgive him.

For the party, not for himself?

– Yes.

Conclusions

Individual corruption may be bad not only because it violates moral standards, but also because it damages the image of the party. It is easy to imagine that hardline supporters of US President Donald Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would offer similar responses. Across the East and West, political cynicism is upending the rules of politics, and creating two separate ethical spheres. Acts that voters would regard as unacceptable in most other domains of life suddenly become virtuous in a partisan political context. Drawing from the results presented above, we theorize that Poland currently faces three potential paths, which they have dubbed the Hungarian, Slovak, and Bavarian scenarios.

The abbreviated version of the report and scenarios in English can be accessed below:

http://politicalcritique.org/cee/poland/2019/poles-political-cynicism-research-report/

If you would like to get the full Polish version you have it here: https://krytykapolityczna.pl/file/sites/4/2017/10/polityczny-cynizm-polakow.pdf (PDF)

and here: https://krytykapolityczna.pl/kraj/polityczny-cynizm-polakow-raport-z-badan-socjologicznych/

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