Shaking Up Politics in Poland

03/02/2015 10:53 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015
Lukas Plewnia/Flickr

Most countries in East-Central Europe have seen the development of two main parties, one liberal and one conservative. In some cases, the former Communist parties, like the Bulgarian Socialist Party, have occupied the liberal position. In other cases, former liberal parties, like Fidesz in Hungary, have moved across the political spectrum to secure the conservative position. In Romania and Bulgaria, ethnic-based parties have managed to carve out influential roles as third parties. Right-wing nationalist parties, like Jobbik in Hungary, have achieved a similar result.

In Poland, the former Solidarity bloc has split into two main parties: the centrist Civic Platform (PO) and the more conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS). The former Communist party, Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), continues to poll around 10 percent.

It's not easy for new parties to gain a foothold in Poland. First they have to jump over the hurdles of party registration. Then they have to clear 5 percent of the vote to get into parliament. In 2011 the Palikot movement surprised everyone by catapulting into parliament with 10 percent of the vote. The movement was named after Janusz Palikot, who broke with the Civic Platform to create his own party. A maverick politician, he championed libertarian positions in favor of legalizing marijuana, supporting LGBT rights, and reducing the influence of the church in the secular sphere.

Long-time feminist activist Wanda Nowicka ran on the Palikot ticket in 2011 and won a seat in parliament. "For me at that time, the Palikot movement was not a very serious political initiative," she told me in an interview in her Sejm office in August 2013. "In a way I thought it would be a long shot on my part to try with them, given their low respect in society. Then I thought about it longer. I consulted with some people whose opinion I valued, and they convinced me to try. I didn't have any conviction that I would win. But running for parliament is always an opportunity to speak about issues you care about."

Palikot attracted the attention of voters as much for its methods as for its positions. He promised, for instance, to smoke a joint inside parliament to support his campaign to legalize marijuana. He produced a pig's head during a TV interview to protest corruption in sports.

"If you want to be a well-established party using moderate methods of acting, you have no chance against those that are longer established and have solid foundations and structures. They will eat you," Nowicka continued. "And the way to show that you are different, in most cases, is by using different methods rather than offering different messages. On some issues you can make a difference -- for instance, on sexual and reproductive rights, decriminalization of marijuana, church-state issues. This is what the Palikot movement contributed to the debate; that's for sure. But if society decides that you are using too drastic methods, at some point you lose your credibility to make a difference."

When we talked in August 2013, Nowicka had been embroiled in a dispute with Janusz Palikot that had alienated her from the movement. Since that time, however, the Palikot movement changed its name, and Nowicka changed her mind.

"Despite making efforts to reform, such as changing its name to Your Movement (YM), the party is not doing well," she informed me in an email update. "It has lost two elections, to the European Parliament and local governments. Many MPs left the party. Currently, there are 16 MPs of YM plus myself. In fact, I decided to reestablish my collaboration with the party after the leader apologized to me some months later and asked me to come back. However, I have not formally joined the parliamentary club."

As before, her focus is on the issues, such as her push for greater political representation for women and increased access to abortion services and in-vitro fertilization. "For me it's a shame that the ideas promoted by this party, about which I care a lot, are getting lost in the debate," she added. "Now you don't hear YM as strongly in public debate as it was before. Now again you have the established parties that have been here for ages and acting like the only spokespersons for society, which they are not. Therefore, I decided to reengage with YM in the hope that there is still a chance that the party will recover before next year's presidential and parliamentary elections."

It's not the people but the mainstream politicians, she argues, who are the problem. Public opinion polls favor a change in the status quo. "The problem is that society is not very active or well organized," Nowicka concludes. "Although people here don't like the way politicians prioritize issues as they do, they are not strong enough to elect others who would set different priorities. If they manage to do this, to get rid of this right-wing discourse, it probably wouldn't require that much change, because the politicians would then focus on the issues that people care about. This political class wants this discourse to prevail and wants the church to be a legitimate actor that has a say on the lay policy of state. It won't happen immediately. Polish society doesn't have to change its thinking. It just has to be more active politically to change the status quo."

The Interview

Tell me about your decision to enter politics.

I've been in politics since the beginning of 1990s as a civil society activist, especially as a women's rights activist. At that time I established and ran the organization Federation of Women and Family Planning. I was occasionally trying to enter politics in the 1990s. I ran several times for the Sejm and Senate and was once even elected to the regional Mazovian government (Sejmik Mazowiecki) for four years.

But my recent decision to try to run for parliament was not very well thought through. Actually I responded to the call of two parties. First it was SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) that wanted me on their list. But due to the fact that at the last moment they changed what they were prepared to offer me, I resigned. I was not really determined to go through with it, and it didn't look likely. It was not my dream.

And then came another proposal from the Palikot Movement, and again I considered this for a couple weeks before deciding to accept. For me at that time, the Palikot movement was not a very serious political initiative. In a way I thought it would be a long shot on my part to try with them, given their low respect in society. Then I thought about it longer. I consulted with some people whose opinion I valued, and they convinced me to try. I didn't have any conviction that I would win. But running for parliament is always an opportunity to speak about issues you care about. For these reasons, I decided to try again.

When I decided to run, public support for Palikot was minimal, if at all. So the chances that they might win was not an argument to run but rather an argument not to. I also thought that in a way I would be legitimatizing a movement that was not seen as very serious. To some degree, that was what happened. Probably some people would not have engaged with the Palikot movement if myself and some others from civil society hadn't decided to do so.

It was not a very rational decision in the sense that there were grounds for success. Rather, it was an irrational decision that turned out to be good in the end. In a way it was also a bit of an intuitive decision.

The Palikot movement got about 10 percent in the 2011 elections -- and that was a big surprise.

It was a huge surprise. When I decided to run, it was at the end of August. We did a press conference with Palikot announcing that I would be running with him. The elections were on Oct. 9. So it was a bit more than one month before the elections. In the beginning the support for the movement was almost none, only 2 percent. It was gradually growing. But we hoped to get 5-percent maximum. And we thought it would be good to achieve at least 3 percent so that the party would get financial support [the threshold for qualifying for state support of a political party].

How would you evaluate the impact of the Palikot movement and your role in it?

I think the Palikot movement played a huge role in raising important issues and in changing the political debate. But it couldn't change the legal system -- with 40 votes in parliament out of 460, you can't make any legislation. But certain issues were introduced to the public discourse by the Palikot movement. These were the so-called issues of conscience, such as around church and state, LGBT rights as well as gender and women's issues. These issues were very often laughed at by the establishment. However, they had to be taken up for debate because the support for many of those issues was significant and could not be ignored.

The Palikot movement was struggling with tactics, whether to be more radical. It chose to be more radical and very shocking in the methods of communication they used with society. At the same time, that helped the movement enter the debate. Whenever more polite methods are used, they never succeed in having impact or at least visibility. The depiction of the party as relying on scandal and using shocking methods just for shock value is to some degree justified. But this is what society got. And it allowed the Palikot movement to become an active player on the political scene.

The other impact, and probably the more important one, has been to show society that the political scene can be changed. It happened at a moment when we thought that the political scene was so petrified that no other political initiative could succeed. Our electoral system serves the purposes of big parties. There is a very high threshold for entering: 5 percent. You have to collect a lot of signatures to be legitimate and participate in the elections. That makes it almost impossible for initiatives without resources -- and the new ones don't have resources from the state -- to succeed. For society the Palikot movement was a big shock, and it demonstrated that it's possible to shake up the political scene without state resources. That caused a mental change. In a way it provides a model for other political initiatives to follow, and not just ones from one side of the political spectrum.

It reminds me of the Hungarian party, LMP, Politics Can Be Different. They said essentially the same thing. Politics there is petrified; there were only two major parties: Fidesz and the Socialist Party. They too wanted to prove that a new political initiative could succeed. And they won about the same percentage of votes as the Palikot movement. But people fear that LMP may disappear in the next elections. And I hear that there are similar concerns here about Palikot.

This is a broader problem. It's not just Palikot movement. Also in Italy there's the party of Beppe Grillo and others. For the others that arose from the Czech Republic and elsewhere, it seems that entering politics doesn't mean staying in politics (with the exception of the Pirate Party, which might survive).

Of course, Palikot is in a very bad position. I am the last one to defend it. It made a lot of mistakes, and it continues to make them. Partly it's because of the mistakes they have made, but it also seems that certain barriers to this kind of initiatives continue. If you want to be a well-established party using moderate methods of acting, you have no chance against those that are longer established and have solid foundations and structures. They will eat you. And the way to show that you are different, in most cases, is by using different methods rather than offering different messages. On some issues you can make a difference -- for instance, on sexual and reproductive rights, decriminalization of marijuana, church-state issues. This is what the Palikot movement contributed to the debate; that's for sure. But if society decides that you are using too drastic methods, at some point you lose your credibility to make a difference. You can't be only a party that talks and doesn't show some success. It's a vicious circle or a catch-22 situation with such initiatives.

Can you give me an example of one of the important mistakes that Palikot made?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.