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Will Poland’s Election Be a Referendum on De-Communization?

Date: 18 October 2007

IWP's Academic Dean and Professor of History Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz has written a cogent commentary on the Polish elections, placing them in their recent historical context and examining what, if any, effect they will have on the process of de-communization.  Prof. Chodakiewicz's essay appeared recently on  The full text follows.

"Will Poland's election be a referendum on de-communization?"
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Following months of bickering, Poland’s populist-conservative coalition government finally collapsed in September after two years in power. Early elections are scheduled for this Sunday, Oct. 21. Some suggest that they may turn into a referendum on de-Communization. To grasp the players and issues at stake, a whistle stop tour of Poland’s political history and geography is in order.

The Grand Transformation

Poland’s current political order took shape at the end of the 1980s. Far from being an outcome of the democratic process, it is the ultimate progeny of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and backstage deals. It was not the general electorate but Communist elites who shaped the system. They eventually invited other leftists to consummate the deal during the so-called Round Table Agreement in the spring of 1989.

The conventional wisdom says that in 1989 Poland’s Communists willingly gave up power or at least agreed to share it and to play according to democratic rules. Western pundits, including such liberal experts as Timothy Garton Ash, purr about “free” elections of June 1989. In fact, the elections were rigged. Only 35 percent of the seats in the parliament were open to contest. The rest were excluded: They were reserved for the Communists of the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) and their puppet allies from the Democratic Party (SD) and the United Peasant Party (ZSL). Thus, despite the much hailed Solidarity victory, which took all but one of the seats open for contest, the communists and their collaborators retained the absolute majority. It was this very sham parliament that elected, with the votes of Solidarity’s leftists, Communist Poland’s last dictator, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, as the nation’s first “free” president. The election was indirect and Jaruzelski won by a single vote.

Poland’s Round Table Agreement, its sham elections, and the presidency for Jaruzelski of the summer of 1989 were simply links in the chain of events initiated by First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the U.S.S.R. Having assumed power following the sudden demise of three consecutive Kremlin gerontocrats, Gorbachev set out to reform the Soviet Union by the dual weapons of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). The latter was to facilitate the former. The objective was to save socialism and not to destroy it. However, the outcome was quite different than Gorbachev anticipated. His reforms unleashed such powerful social and national forces that central control over the events became impossible, leading to the collapse of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the bloc.

The Deception

In Poland, left to its own devices, the party leadership endeavored to replicate the deception operation of 1944-1947. This ruse was intended mostly for Western consumption. At the end of the Second World War and in its aftermath, Moscow wanted to reassure Washington and London that, following its “liberation” by the Red Army, Warsaw was indeed “free.” Moscow trumpeted everywhere that Poland was a “democracy” and its opponents were “fascists.” At that time, Stalin ruled the Poles through his local Communist proxies. The occupation by proxy was masked by a sham “Parliament,” in place since 1944, a sham “coalition” government of 1945, a sham “referendum” of 1946, and a sham “election” of 1947. The trick was also for domestic use, to neutralize the anti-Communist underground by apparently providing a non-violent venue to oppose the Soviet occupation.

Throughout this period, the Communists controlled the secret police, the military, and propaganda. They fiercely put down the anti-Communist insurgency. However, the Kremlin’s proxies ostensibly allowed the accommodationist, pro-Western, and leftist Polish Peasant Party (PSL) and the Christian democratic Labor Party (SP) to operate in the opposition, while secretly terrorizing and assassinating their activists. The Communists further worked closely with renegade socialists, democrats, and liberals as their puppet collaborators.

This was the same paradigm of deception and control that Poland’s Communists endeavored to implement at the end of the 1980s. Thus, on the political plane, Jaruzelski and his secret police boss Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak sought out willing collaborators among Solidarity’s leftists and convinced them they were willing to “share” power with them. This part of the project was sealed at the Round Table Agreement in April and May 1989, with the Catholic Church, always preaching non-violence, blessing the deal. The sham “elections” of 1989 were the next step. Further, to guarantee their grip on power, Jaruzelski became president and, hence, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kiszczak maintained control of the secret police until April 1990.

As in the scenario of the mid-1940s, the Communists allowed some opposition political parties to function. However, only collaborationist and accommodationist groups flourished. They were given state funds and preferential credit to operate and publish their newspapers, including the main leftist mouthpiece Electoral Gazette (Gazeta Wyborcza). Anti-Communist groups of course were not extended such treatment. In fact, there is documentary proof that as late as June 1989 the Communists assembled proscription lists of Solidarity dissidents who disagreed with the Round Table spirit. Active measures and secret police surveillance operations against anti-Communist opposition figures continued until the mid-1990s, and perhaps later.

The Communist endeavor to retain the reins of Poland’s economy was even more sophisticated. Already in 1988, in congruence with “Polish perestroika,” state decrees were enacted to allow party leaders and managers individually to take control of their enterprises and commence their privatization. The Communist “reforms” were “market-like” experiments along what later became the Chinese model, where the party has never relinquished control.

In Poland (like later in the U.S.S.R. and China), the well-heeled and trusted members of the Communist nomenklatura simply individually took over the enterprises they had hitherto controlled on the behalf of the party and the state. The idea was that no foreign or anti-Communist entrepreneur should have control. The assumption was that once the contemporary wave of Communist “renewal” receded—that is once perestroika and glasnost were over—the individual nomenklatura members would revert to the old Marxist-Leninist mode of control over the economy. Once again, the party would be openly in charge. As it happened, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded, the members of the Communist brass were left handling their nest eggs individually.

A Free Poland

When the Red Army finally withdrew in 1993, Poland became free. However, meanwhile, the erstwhile Communist bosses solidified their grip on their now-privatized perks and privileges. They not only retained control of the enterprises they appropriated for peanuts, but also enjoyed access to preferential credit. Their post-Communist banker friends at state banks extended interest-free loans to them and even sometimes encouraged them to default on payments because the taxpayers would pick up the tab anyway. Pyramid schemes proliferated and check kiting was common. Next, the kleptocrats savored their virtual monopoly on government contracts. Since the government was the chief dispenser of the largesse, Poland’s “capitalism” was built by the kleptokrats at taxpayer expense. The looting of the state treasury proceeded apace. All the while, the old Communists were lionized as “economic experts” and “new capitalists.” They also enjoyed almost exclusive access to Western investors. Because there was no de-Communization in Poland, the old nomenklatura remained at its posts and took full advantage of its position to continue to enrich itself and wield power.

This nefarious outcome created an enormous amount of cynicism, on the one hand, and resentment, on the other. The cynics were former Solidarity leftists and others who joined in and benefited from the new system. Everyone else resented what came to be known as “The Web” (Uklad). However, until 2005, the Web looked indestructible. Exasperation with cynicism and corruption periodically brought Poland’s right-wing to power. Each time, however, the Polish rightists proved inept and unsophisticated, thus disappointing their electorate and paving the way for a subsequent electoral victory by the post-Communists. Well-organized and well-funded, the post-Communists enjoy the overwhelming support of the “business” community. The right, on the other hand, remains largely wed to populism and etatism, partly for tactical reasons. Thus, Poland’s democracy was born in the original sin of the “free” elections of June 1989 and has suffered the consequences ever since.

It is through the aforementioned prism that we should scrutinize the current political contest in Poland. On the left, it is a struggle to retain as much as possible from the institutions, structures, and personalities of the period of the Soviet occupation of Poland. On the right, it is a battle against continuity of the pathologies associated with Communist totalitarianism. Hence, the rallying cry of the right has been “law and justice.”

Law and Justice

The last Polish coalition government was dominated by the conservative Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc—PiS). Its core harkened back to the Christian democratic Centrist Alliance (PC) of the early 1990s. Its leaders participated in the human rights dissident movement in the 1970s and in Solidarity in the 1980s. They participated in the Round Table Agreement but later rejected the outcome. Throughout the 1990s, they weathered the vicissitudes of Poland’s hectic parliamentary politics, where the disenchanted electorate periodically “threw the rascals out” so that Communists and post-Communists alternated with anti-Communists and non-Communists in power, no single coalition ever winning two consecutive elections.

After the defeat at the polls of the moderately anti-Communist Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) in 2001, erstwhile PC leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski founded the Law and Justice party. He invited broadly understood centrist and rightists groups to subordinate themselves to him. Like most Polish parties, the Law and Justice is a confederation rather than a unified and disciplined political entity.

In September 2001, the PiS won almost 10 percent of the vote and performed well in the opposition. Four years later, nearly 27 percent of the electorate supported it, making the Law and Justice party Poland’s largest. Further, rather unexpectedly, the PiS candidate Lech Kaczynski, who happens to be the party leader’s twin brother, also won the nation’s presidency in October 2005. The victors formed a coalition government that, after a while, was taken over by Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The Civic Platform

Initially, the electorate and pundits expected Law and Justice to form a coalition with the centrist Civic Platform of the Polish Republic (Platforma Obywatelska Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej), the runner-up in the elections with a bit over 24 percent of the vote. Founded in 2001, the Civic Platform, or PO, is a hodgepodge alliance of left-liberals, libertarians, and conservatives, most of whom trace their roots back to Solidarity. The PO leadership participated in the Round Table Agreement and benefited from it for the most part.

In 2002, the PO and the PiS very successfully ran joint lists in local election. The former party’s vigorously pro-market platform neatly complemented the latter’s socially conservative message. However, when Kaczynski approached PO leader Donald Tusk to form a coalition government, the Civic Platform leader declined despite very generous terms. Insiders have revealed that the leaders clashed over the electoral promise of the Law and Justice party to bring transparency to the nation’s public life, to punish Communist crimes, and to vet Communist secret police agents. Most importantly, the Civic Platform was averse to join the PiS on a crusade to destroy the so-called “Web” of informal connections between politicians, businessmen, and secret police.

The politicians and pundits associated with the Civic Platform objected to destroying the post-1989 arrangement because, at best, they pragmatically reconciled themselves with the Web or, at worst, handsomely benefited from it.

The Coalition

After the PO turned it down, the PiS improvised, eventually forming a coalition government with two small parties: the left-populist Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona) under Andrzej Lepper and the right-nationalist League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin – LPR) led by Roman Giertych. The coalition partners were admittedly strange bedfellows, with disparate backgrounds and often-conflicting agendas. However, they broadly agreed on several issues. These included most of all state intervention in the national economy, pro-family legislative measures, and national assertiveness on the international scene, both against Russia and Germany. The government was national security and anti-corruption minded. It vowed to restore historical symbols, including most prominently the memory of the Warsaw Rising of 1944 and the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940, to their proper public place. It promised to punish Communist crimes. For the most part, this socially conservative and mildly nationalist coalition was also staunchly pro-U.S. and Euroskeptic. Being outsiders, neither the Self-Defense Party nor the LPR openly objected to destroying the Web. Both publicly endorsed the vigorous anti-corruption drive initiated by the PiS.

The Left and Business

From the very start, the coalition government came under vicious fire from within and without the country. Abroad, the European and American media were egged on by the often-hysterical opposition in Poland. The Civic Platform led the way, of course. Arguably, however, it was the remnants of the left-liberal Union of Freedom, in 2005 renamed the Democratic Party (Partia Demokratyczna—PD), who were the shrillest. The vituperations increased after the PD, along with a few far-left post-Solidarity and post-Communist groups, including the Union of Labor (UP) and Polish Social Democracy (SDP), joined the mainstay post-Communist Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD) in September 2006. Thus, the Solidarity leftists, many of whom had originated in the Communist party as Stalinist and Trotskite dissidents, officially rejoined their erstwhile comrades in an entity dubbed The Left and the Democrats (Lewica i Demokraci—LiD). Their most prominent leaders are former President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Wojciech Olejniczak (SLD), Marek Borowski (SDP), Jan Litynski (PD), and Janusz Onyszkiewicz (PD). For their opponents, the Web has come full circle. The informal arrangements of 1989 were finally formalized publicly, in politics at least.

In an apparent paradox, the LiD party enjoys the support of many among Poland’s entrepreneurial class. As mentioned, many of them are post-Communist kleptocrats who benefited from the privatization of the nation’s economy. It is because of such personal connections that the post-Communist governments were perceived as friendly to the business sector. In fact, they were hospitable toward their erstwhile comrades who were bankrolling the electoral campaigns of the post-Communists in exchange, first, for allowing them to appropriate public assets well below market prices and, then, for awarding the newly minted “capitalists” government contracts at the taxpayer expense.

The malignantly unnatural structure of Poland’s business community explains the apparent mistrust of entrepreneurs and the preference for government intervention by the otherwise rather sound Law and Justice party. The problem is real enough. The persistence of corruption has earned Poland poor marks by Transparency International for almost two decades now. It is important thusly to contextualize the behavior of the PiS because the complex reality of Poland’s post-Communist society often escapes even such otherwise astute observers as the editorial writers of The Wall Street Journal. Maneuvering

After the collapse of the PiS-LPR-Self-Defense coalition, its participants and other contenders began their electoral maneuvers. So far, according to the Polish media, the Law and Justice party sets the pace. Its electoral campaign is very professional, sophisticated, and, “Americanized,” as a respected academic Zdzislaw Krasnodebski has noted in the centrist daily Rzeczpospolita. The PiS continues to clamor against the Web and to appeal to tradition and anti-Communism. It has secured the support of a large part of the Catholic Church, including some of its media, in particular the staunchly evangelical Radio Maryja. It even enlisted as its senatorial candidate a greatly respected former Fighting Solidarity underground leader, the legendary anarcho-syndicalist and anti-Communist Kornel Morawiecki.

To its right, PiS does not appear to be threatened much by a new, if eclectic, confederation dubbed the League of the Right of the Commonwealth (Liga Prawicy Rzeczpospolitej). The League of the Right of the Commonwealth bears no chance of victory. However, it hopes to wean enough voters away from the PiS to enter the parliament. For now, it has to deal with defectors. For instance, the LPR’s Jan Szafraniec went over to the PiS and is running for Senate on its list.

The Civic Platform remains the main competition of Law and Justice. However, its electoral campaign has been lackluster so far. The PO has also suffered from the defection of two of its high-profile leaders. Having complained about his party’s drift to the left, the conservative Jan Rokita ostensibly withdrew from politics altogether. Another prominent founder of the PO, Maciej Pluzanski, switched over to the the PiS. Meanwhile, there is also movement in the opposite direction. Both the neoconservative odd man out Radek Sikorski and the liberal speaker of the parliament Bogdan Borusewicz left the PiS for the PO.

At the local level, the Civic Platform has flirted with the post-Communist Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe—PSL). The rural-based PSL took a serious beating in the polls, having lost much of its base to the populist Self-Defense. Therefore the PSL leaders have resolved to attract the urban voter by running former PO politicians for parliament. It is obviously an advantage for the PO to elect as many of its own as possible from other electoral lists. By combining its candidates with the PO, as is the case in the Sub-Carpathian region, the PSL hopes to squeeze into the parliament after all.


Political surveys in Poland have been problematic for several reasons. First, most Polish polling companies were launched by Communists and other leftists and liberals. The owners have been known to try to tip the scales of close contests, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. In other words, alleged polling outcomes were deployed as electoral propaganda. For example, in the previous elections the majority of polls falsely predicted a parliamentary victory for the Civic Platform and the presidency for its leader, Donald Tusk. The predictions failed to remain within the margin of error, thus lending credence to the accusations of manipulation.

Second, Polish respondents frequently lie to the pollsters. Why? It is an old habit of self-defense developed under Communism. One guessed what the authorities wanted and one endeavored to deceive the pollster, just to be on the safe side. Nowadays, people are often reluctant to contradict individually what is taken to be the collective national wisdom as defined by the mainstream media, which is mostly leftist and liberal. For instance, since the Law and Justice party has been excoriated daily in the press and on TV and radio, at least some of its supporters keep mum or claim other electoral preferences. Further, “public opinion,” that is mainstream rightist and leftist pundits, constantly appeal for supporting the large parties. They skewer and jeer at smaller groups, branding them “folkloristic,” “exotic,” or “extremist.” Therefore, the voters are averse to admit publicly that they prefer, say, the libertarian-conservative Union of Real Politics. On the other hand, many Poles are also still ashamed to confess openly that they vote for the post-Communists.

In any event, until recently surveys showed the Civic Platform consistently in the lead with a bit over 30 percent, closely trailed by Law and Justice with 28 percent. The Left and the Democrats barely crossed 5 percent. Polling experts have claimed no other party is likely to pass the 5 percent mark and enter the parliament. However, the most recent independent results by the usually reliable GfK Polonia polling company put the LiD’s support at around 10 percent, with PO at 26 percent and the PiS at 24 percent. Self-Defense has seen its support jump to 5 percent, and the Polish Peasant Party to 6 percent. The League of the Right of the Commonwealth may enjoy around 2 percent of popular support.

A Crystal Ball

All in all, gazing into the crystal ball, at least two scenarios may develop in Poland. The first, and most obvious scenario has the Civic Platform winning. Then it would have to form a coalition government. Law and Justice would be the logical choice, but it is doubtful that the partners have matured enough to cooperate. Therefore, if it is victorious, the PO will either construct a coalition with the Left and the Democrats or rule alone as a minority government.

Second, the voters could treat this parliamentary contest not as an election but as a referendum on de-Communization, on dismantling the Web. In that case, the PiS will win. However, it will be too weak to rule alone. Its leaders therefore hope to split the PO by co-opting its conservative and libertarian elements. The remnant would then join the LiD and Poland would have a two-party system, just like the United States.

Whether this will be an election or a referendum hinges on how the voters perceive the achievements and failures of the Law and Justice party on delivering on their past electoral promise. But that should be a topic of a separate inquiry.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is academic dean and professor of history at The Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He was formerly assistant professor of history of the Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. He has authored numerous works in both Polish and English