Poles – choices

Many Dutch people (but probably not only they) ask why Poles voted in the last parliamentary elections (2015) for the Law and Justice party (PiS), which in the face of the open anti-EUness of this party is treated as a rejection of the European Union. How it can be: we gave Poland so much money, why Poland was so ungrateful? – a dramatic question arises, which shows how much the Dutch do not understand what happened in Poland in 2015.

This issue is partly explained by our A letter to the Dutchman, in which we clearly state that the 2015 parliamentary elections were NOT A REFERENDUM ON THE EUROPEAN UNION. Below we present a more in-depth attempt to explain this political choice of the Poles, seemingly surprising and rejecting European values. The main materials used by the author of the text are: a survey of the “Polityka” weekly magazine entitled “What kind of Poland Polish people want”; report “Good change in Miastko. Neo-authoritarianism in Polish politics from the perspective of a small city” and the “Polityka” interview with the philosopher Agata Bielik-Robson entitled “New Middle Ages” (full bibliography at the end of the article).

First two important explanations.

  1. The title Miastko (means: Little City) is a fictitious name, but research was carried out in an authentic town in Mazovia, where the PiS party received the highest support in the elections. It should be noted that interviewees represent the folk and middle class.
  2. “Good change” is the PiS electoral slogan and a propaganda definition of changes introduced by this party after coming to power.

In order to facilitate understanding of political motivations of Poles, one must refer to the past of the nation, which shaped such mentality, emotions and political attitudes that still strongly differentiate Poland from the more progressive Western countries. In the interview for “Polityka” Dr. Agata Bielik-Robson quotes the opinion that “some ideas have to take root, they need to get the so-called long duration”. Because of its dramatic history Poland did not get such a chance. According to Dr. Bielik-Robson, in Poland the Middle Ages never really ended, and our country is in a matter of time disturbed in relation to the West.

A good example is general illiteracy which lasted here up to the end of the first half of the 20th century (20% in 1938!), which in countries such as the Netherlands, England or Germany had been virtually eliminated already at the beginning of this century. In Poland, therefore, there was an insurmountable division into enlightened, literate elites and illiterate masses, which still and now results in strong, anti-elitist attitudes in the Polish, mentally mostly rural society.

In addition until the Second Republic (1918-1939) the Polish countryside existed in almost slave-like conditions. Civilizational backwardness in combination with illiteracy made it impossible for peasants to be educated and to achieve social advancement. This situation was obviously changed by the post-war period, but the effects of educational underdevelopment are still visible today.

The state of backwardness has perpetuated (and is still perpetuating) the specificity of Polish religiosity, and – as Dr Bielik-Robson believes – a pagan, indigenous peasant cult of fate, what means a passive and humble expectations of what fate will bring, strongly present in the Polish Catholic Church. (In contrast to Protestant countries, the Church in Poland, more folk than intellectual, did not get too involved in the enlightenment educational activity inside masses). This is matched by the very strong cult of the Mother of God as the guardian of the nation, the protector of the oppressed, etc. It is always easier to pray for auspiciousness than to take matters into your own hands.

The same applies to the state, which as an institutional protector should (in the opinion of many Poles) act as the organizer of the life of the individual and the guarantor of his social security. This mission was served better or worse by the People’s Government of the PRL (Polish People’s Republic), ie 1944-1989, providing work, free health care, privileged access to studies for peasants and workers, free employee flats, holidays, etc. It allowed Poles to enjoy a kind of “immaturity”, the lack of necessity to look after them by themselves.

Along these social gains, there was a strong political appreciation of the “working people of the cities and villages”, ie the working-peasant class that was in the PRL – as the Constitution assured – the main ruler. Also strongly present were, supported by the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party – PZPR (especially in the 1960s) anti-elite sentiments, even taking the form of a campaign against the defiant intellectuals.

After the collapse of the PRL (or so-called “komuna” = commune) in 1989, the caring model of the state was replaced by the model of a capitalist-liberal state. The Polish society gained a very desirable civil liberties, such as liquidation of the communist party monopoly, free elections, abolition of censorship, freedom of travel abroad, etc., but on the other hand, lost its  social protection umbrella. People who were more resourceful or closer to the authorities  made fortunes while masses, cherished by the commune, lost much economically and prestigiously. For many beneficiaries of the previous system those who benefited from the political transformation thus appear as “treacherous elite-liars, which, as it is widely “known”, steal and prey on common people. – Big, colossal sums were. And so you can say that ordinary people meant nothing for them – says one of Miastko citizens.

An excellent support for these opinions was information about luxury diners (with octopuses food) of the representatives of the Plaftorma Obywatelska (Citizen Platform) party, ruling in the years 2007-2015.  This party, which was the only one in the history of free Poland to win (in 2011) the second parliamentary elections in a row, now appears to many people as a party of swindlers, losers, immoral people, corrupt and disrespectful of ordinary Poles. The positive changes that have taken place in Poland thanks to investments made for EU money are not seen as the PO’s merits. According to citizens of Miastko, the highways would have been built by every party that has had unity funds at their disposal.

And the strong sense of personal dignity and the moral rigidity of the middle class are very important features of the Polish right-wing voter. A deep conviction about his own morale, which puts him above the corrupt PO elites, is a factor that makes this part of society have a strong justification for its aspirations to exercise power. An aspiration which can be accomplished only through the support of the PiS party.

Ambitions go much further – the PiS elector considers it his duty to protect Europe from the flood of a stranger culture represented by refugees from Muslim countries. This is not only about fear of strangers (a typical feature of a less educated Pole), terrorism or economic fears (opposition to paying refugees allegedly high benefits or not accepting the simply will to improve their lives). The Pole must carry out the mission of defending the true European values and protect the naive Europe against Islamism. In this sense minimalist and not thrilling ideology of providing society “warm water in the tap”, professed by PO leader Donald Tusk, was far from the expectations of a higher rank.

One could ask what about the love of civil liberties, freedom of speech, democracy, independence of courts and all the values for which Solidarity was fighting in the 1980s and which have been now brutally broken by PiS. According to research in Miastko, also judges (including members of the Constitutional Tribunal) being removed from courts with violation of law are perceived as representatives of corrupted or discredited elites. The very beloved by lower educated Poles accusation of the thievery of the rulers is back in such opinions like this one: – Actually, with everyone you are talking, if you say about the court, everyone confirms they are thieves” – says one of Miastko citizens). No wonder then that the PiS contest with the courts and the Tribunal is accepted as a struggle against institutions that are anti desired “good” changes.

These are just only few selected motives of the choice made by PiS voters during the last elections to the Polish parliament (Sejm). However, they are important, because they show clearly that it was not an EU referendum, nor was it pure corruption related to the promise (realized) of a monthly grant of PLN 500 for each family for the second and subsequent child (regardless of its material status).

This also explains the large social consent to withdraw Poland to the realities of the PRL (justified by effective anti-communist propaganda and rhetoric, by the way) and great PiS’s electoral result allowing this party to rule alone. And probably the rule is safe as support for the party is growing.

Summing up results of their research, the authors of “Good Change in Miastko” have a special name for what is happening in Poland: “a neo-authoritarianism”, which is a niche version of old authoritarianism (mass), embedded in a different social context. “Kaczyński [Jarosław, PiS president – rg] supports a diverse audience. The folk class, for which there is no place in the middle class society, offers participation in the national community [strong nationalist trend in the PiS program is a separate topic: see: National Poland – rg]. Skillfully stokes the subjectivity of the victim and engages people with the promise to settle the perpetrators. The aspiring one gives a sense of moral superiority. For everyone, it generates conflicts with the elites and builds a sense of dignity by pointing out weaker groups what makes one can feel strong. “

This gives a rather sad picture of the contemporary, small-town Polish society. Happily, the whole Polish society is not a monolith in its views. According to the “Polityka” poll “What Poland do Polish people want?” the vision of Poland by Jarosław Kaczyński largely deviates from the expectations of Poles. In selected issues, opinions are as follows:

Control of power

58% – the winning power should be limited by the constitution, courts and minority rights / 24% is against


57% – courts should remain a fully independent, separate authority / 31% – for state control

Economy model

45% – Polish economy should be based on state-owned companies or with Polish capital / 36% – on private enterprises subject to the rules of law and the free market

The social model of the state

45% – caring / 41% – helping only the poorest

The Church’s participation in public and state life

69% – for secularism and treating religion as a private matter / 21% – for the influence of the Church on the state


27% – relations with the EU should be tightened / 40% – maintaining the status quo / 18% – loosening / 3% – for getting out

Editorial conclusion:

“Most Poles did not abandon the idea of liberal democracy in the Western European style; they are instinctively attached to it, treating it as a valuable heritage of a great change in 1989. But it also probably will not give up the welfare state, guaranteeing some economic security, true or even declarative.”

The latter explains why Poles agree to such far-reaching changes in the political system. In the context of the 500+ program, which many families brought a significant improvement in living conditions, this option seems quite understandable, even if difficult to accept. And the next local elections, in the autumn of 2018, will show how high the level of the PiS support is.

Read also: Poles: a self portrait

Renata Głuszek


  1. Dobra zmiana w Miastku. Neoautorytaryzm w polskiej polityce z perspektywy małego miasta; Maciej Godula przy współpracy Katarzyny Dębskiej i Kamila Trepki
  2. Jakiej Polski chcą Polacy; Polityka nr 49 (3139) 6.12-12.12.2017
  3. Nowe Średniowiecze, Polityka nr 5 (3146), 31.01-6.02.2018

Published: February 15, 2018

Photo: Renata Głuszek

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