Spring has come to Poland – in the form of a new left-wing party. In recent years, the country has moved sharply to the right under the Law and Justice Party (PiS), which won an overall majority at the last general election (the first party to do so in the post-communist era). PiS has combined generous welfare policies with an emphasis on the traditional family and a hostility to alternative lifestyles. It has also tightened its control of the public television broadcaster and the judiciary.
In response, the centrist Civic Platform (PO) has struggled to act as a strong and effective opposition. Meanwhile, the left, which failed to win a single parliamentary seat at the last election, has remained enfeebled.
The new party, named Spring (Wiosna in Polish), aims to change this. It aspires to remake Poland as a secular, diverse and egalitarian country “where no one is left behind”, in the words of its founder, Robert Biedron. In advance of this autumn’s general election, Spring’s supporters hope to oust PiS and end the left’s long marginalisation – a formidable task.
“In Poland, there has already been a cold winter for too long; now, after a few years, it must finally end,” said Biedron at the party’s long-anticipated launch in Warsaw on 3 February, where he presented his team and programme. “We are that spring, that freshness.”
Biedron, who is 42, has been hailed by some as a Polish Emmanuel Macron, an image that he has consciously cultivated. The country’s first openly gay MP, who has been physically attacked on the streets by opponents, achieved renown as the mayor of Słupsk, a town of 90,000 inhabitants near the Baltic coast, from 2014 to November last year. As mayor, Biedron experimented with a new style of politics exemplified by democratic participation, environmental sustainability, increased transparency and secularism (he refused to hang a portrait of the pope in Słupsk’s town hall).
Yet despite his urban, cosmopolitan image, Biedron knows small-town Poland better than most politicians. Born in 1976 in the country’s rural and conservative south-east, he concealed his sexuality. A trip to Berlin in his late teens, during which he connected with gay activists, inspired an enduring commitment to LGBT rights. In 2001, he founded a pioneering organisation, Campaign Against Homophobia, which remains active across Poland. A decade later, he was elected to parliament from a small centre-left party Twój Ruch (Your Movement), before leaving in 2014 to stand for mayor of Słupsk as an independent.
Last summer, I made the long train journey from Warsaw to Słupsk to meet Biedron at the neo-Gothic town hall. “Many people in small towns feel left behind and vote for populists as a last resort,” he told me, referring to forces such as France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Lega and Donald Trump.
At the same time, he was critical of the old centrist parties’ technocratic response. “Claims that values and dreams do not count are false; if one governs that way, the populists will come and lead the people towards their dreams and dignity,” he warned.
Biedron presents Spring as an alternative to both PiS and the centrist PO, the party that the European Council president, Donald Tusk, co-founded and led from 2003 to 2014. While centrists, agrarian conservatives and traditional social democrats have formed a broad anti-PiS coalition in advance of the European Parliament elections on 23-26 May, Biedron’s Spring has refused to join the alliance in an assertion of its independence.
By Polish standards, Spring’s programme is potentially transformative. As the country confronts rising air pollution, the party has vowed to close all Poland’s coal mines by 2035 and to invest in renewable energy. To support poorer Poles, it has promised to increase child benefit payments and to raise the state pension.
Perhaps most contentiously, in a country where the Roman Catholic Church remains omnipresent (93 per cent of Poles identify as Catholic), Spring aims to secularise the Polish state. Abortion is banned in nearly all circumstances (leading to as many as 150,000 illegal terminations a year), but the party would grant women the right to a safe abortion up to the twelfth week of pregnancy.
Spring would also abolish tax exemptions for the church, end Christian religious classes in state schools and extend marriage rights to gay couples. “In Poland, there is no room for telling people who to start a family with,” Biedron said at the party’s launch.
For Spring, the challenge will be staying true to such values while courting a broader electorate than urban liberals. Though there is high public support for left-wing welfare policies, the target audience for the party’s socially liberal agenda is much narrower.
Early polling, however, is unexpectedly promising. Since Spring’s launch a month ago, it has ranked third behind PiS and PO, with as much as 14 per cent of the vote.
Some supporters previously backed PO, which has condemned PiS’s authoritarian overhaul of the country’s institutions, but failed to champion issues such as access to abortion and equal marriage. Spring’s impressive poll ratings may merely reflect its novelty: the difficulty will be maintaining momentum beyond the European contests.
But Spring could yet emerge as kingmaker after this year’s Polish general election. Though the hardline Law and Justice Party retains a poll lead, some surveys suggest that it may not win enough seats to govern independently.
This could open the way for a government comprised of the PO-led centrist alliance as well as Spring – at a price. “I want to be, and will be, prime minister,” declared Biedron at the party’s launch. He would say that, of course.
Challenges remain: Spring is very much Biedron’s creature and he is the party’s only well-known politician. It has also yet fully to explain how it would fund its pledges, which would cost an estimated £7bn. Yet in Poland’s fraught political landscape, Biedron offers disillusioned voters something priceless: hope.
Annabelle Chapman writes for the Economist and Monocle
This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics