Confederation, the new force on the far right in Poland which broke through in the parliamentary elections, is the party of (male) privilege, not precarity.
With Law and Justice (PiS) winning a consecutive term in office and Civic Platform remaining the main opposition party, after October’s parliamentary elections not much seemed to have changed in Polish politics. The return of the left to the parliament (with 13 per cent support), did mean that for the first time the PiS government would be challenged there from a progressive left position. More disturbing, however, was the election of a number of MPs from the far-right Confederation party (Konfederacja), which won 7 per cent of the vote.
Confederation blends extreme nationalism, authoritarianism and social conservatism with a radical, neoliberal economic programme. It is made up of two main political forces.
One is the National Movement (RN), formed in 2012 and merging far-right fragments such as the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth. Prominent RN leaders, such as Krzysztof Bosak and Robert Winnicki, now sit as MPs. The other is KORWIN, led by the maverick politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke—an ever-present on the extreme fringes of Polish politics during the past three decades—offering an eclectic mix of extreme neoliberalism and social conservatism. As an MEP, Korwin-Mikke announced in the European Parliament that ‘women must earn less than men because they are weaker, smaller and less intelligent’.
Other prominent but independent far-right politicians were also elected under the Confederation banner. Among them is Grzegorz Braun, who once claimed that Poland ‘is a German-Russian condominium under Jewish trusteeship’.
The election of 11 Confederation MPs (all men) represents a significant breakthrough for the Polish far right. It is also a new challenge for PiS, whose failed strategy had been to monopolise the whole of the right of the political spectrum and deny space to extreme right-wing parties by adopting many of their policies and slogans. Confederation will attempt to push PiS and the public debate further to the right on issues such as immigration and LGBT+ rights, while opposing the government’s more pro-social economic programme.
Confederation promotes by contrast a social-Darwinist ideology, which justifies economic inequalities through targeting and stigmatising the poorest and most oppressed sections of society. It is not a populistforce, harnessing the support of an economically excluded mass to an anti-elitist political platform. Rather, it is supported by a relatively privileged section of society, who target those whom they believe are below them in the social order and threaten their elevated status.
In the recent elections, Confederation’s electorate was predominantly male (67 per cent), highly educated (over 43 per cent had a university education) young (three quarters were aged under 40 and half below 30) and dominated by social groups such as students, managers/directors and business owners. The relatively high social position of far-right supporters is shown by those attending the annual nationalist Independence Day march, out of which the RN was created. According to research carried out by the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology in Poland, almost 70 per cent of participants have a higher education and their average net monthly income is over 5,500 złoty (the median in Poland is slightly above 2,500 złoty).
What we are observing in Poland is part of the younger generation of voters turning to the far right, having assimilated the dominant, post-Communist neoliberal ideology. They have internalised the ideals of individual achievement and competitiveness, believing that the privileged have gained their position through effort and talent, while poverty and inequality are caused by inferior biological and cultural characteristics.
One of the features of contemporary Polish politics is the distinct difference between the political allegiances of young male and female voters. While the most popular political party among young (18-35) men is currently Confederation, the favoured option among young women is the Left coalition.
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There are also arresting gender differences in wider political attitudes. Young (18-39) women identify climate change as the greatest threat facing Poland, while young men choose the LGBT movement and associated values.
An explanation could lie in the rapid deindustrialisation which accompanied the transition to capitalism in Poland, eroding the social structures which underpinned the dominant male role in the economy and the traditional family model. Young men are more attracted to the aggressive far-right movement, which offers simplistic solutions ostensibly based on the ‘traditional values’ of nation and family. Conversely, young women have been at the forefront in recent years of opposition to the government’s attempts to tighten the country’s (already draconian) abortion law.
The small but significant step forward by Confederation in the parliamentary elections represents a new threat in Poland. Its leaders will be hoping that this is just the beginning and that they can strengthen their position over the next few years. They are seeking to build on the growth of right-wing nationalist and conservative attitudes within a section of society and to harness negative attitudes towards groups such as the LGBT community and immigrants.
The policies of Confederation however represent the interests of a small minority of society and are not supported by the vast majority of Poles. For its support to be contained, the revived Polish left must offer a radical and viable alternative—to the present government and the far-right emerging in the wings.
Gavin Rae is a sociologist in Warsaw. He has written extensively on the political and social changes in Poland and central and eastern Europe, including Poland's Return to Capitalism: From the Socialist Bloc to the European Union and Public Capital: The Commodification of Poland's Welfare State.