Photos: Lucyna Lewandowska
Edit: Elvira Krithari
Translation: Gigi Papoulias
“It is obvious that we will not represent everyone, but if you share our values of solidarity, equality, freedom and rule of law – you are welcome to join us,” Robert Biedron, head of Spring (Wiosna), founded two months ago in Poland, tells Solomon MAG.
Biedron is currently one of the most interesting political figures in Europe. Openly gay and an atheist, a former mayor of a small town (population 90,000) near the Baltic coast, he cultivated a provocative (by Polish standards) political profile when, for example, he refused to hang the pope’s portrait in the town hall of Słupsk. This, in a country where the pope is considered something of a rock star, and where a 12-year-old girl from a provincial region had to endure a pregnancy and birth because of strict abortion laws.
As the country’s first openly homosexual member of parliament, 42-year-old Biedron has suffered many violent attacks on the street by homophobic people who are against diversity. As mayor he was asked to perform marriage ceremonies for many couples: “I’m jealous when I see how happy they are, I’ve been with my partner for 15 years and marriage is still a dream, it is not fair that in 2018 two adults who are in love can’t get married,” Biedron has stated in the past.
His Spring debuted a month after the brutal murder of Gdansk’s mayor Pawel Adamowicz in January 2019. Pawel Adamowicz, although he identified himself as a conservative Catholic, he had a very progressive agenda. He was murdered while on stage at a charity event, receiving multiple stab wounds from a young man who was recently released from prison.
Two years earlier, in 2017, the nationalist organization All-Polish Youth had symbolically published a death certificate for Adamowicz as a punishment for his liberal views. At the time, the conservative government of Law and Justice – PiS, turned a blind eye.
In a particularly polarized political climate in Poland, it’s probably a blessing that most of the international media considers Biedron a hero. Liberal Europeans insist on calling him the “Polish Macron” while others see him as a potential savior of the fragmented left in post-communist Poland.
And this is his gift: he managed to listen to the various progressive voices in Poland that for a long time felt they had no real representation in parliament.
The wager on Polish liberalism
“We consider the division of ‘right’ and ‘left’ as impractical and anachronic. We don’t want to waste our time for vast arguments or accusations because there are issues like pensions, healthcare or education to solve. This is a task for a progressive, pro-European and courageous party, like the Spring,” Dariusz Standerski head of Spring’s policy design, told Solomon MAG.
Disengagement from the right-left divide is nothing new, nor is it exclusively a Polish phenomenon. Emmanuel Macron claimed victory in the French presidential elections in 2017 with the motto “neither left nor right.” In an analysis of Macron’s political development in the New Statesman, French historian Gilles Candar commented: “When one says that they’re neither left nor right, it usually means one thing: they’re not left-wing.” In practice, the easing of labor rights, tax reforms which favor the rich, and pension cuts by the French government, rather confirm the historian’s comments. Can the Polish Macron’s Spring avoid a similar fate? It seems we won’t find out anytime soon, as polls indicate that Biedron’s party will not win the election.
Beidron uses the “neither left nor right” idea most likely for reasons of political marketing. Besides the conservative PiS party, he manages to keep his distance from the fading leftist parties, which after the 2015 elections, are not even represented in the Polish parliament.
The main criticism against Biedron is that he’s merely trying to make an impression before elections without having a specific platform. Indeed, many identify him with Janusz Palikot, the eccentric leader of the Palikot party, who initially attracted progressive Poles with his radical program. However, as quickly as Palikot acquired supporters, he also swiftly lost his momentum. “Many denounce Biedron as being Palikot number two. Of course he is a lot more charismatic. If he succeeds in gaining 15-20% of the votes, he’ll become a necessary partner in a coalition government. Let’s hope he learned from Palikot’s mistakes,” Jaroslav Kociszewski, a political analyst and veteran journalist, tells Solomon MAG.
Also, when the opposition parties of the liberal conservatives (Civic Platform), the social democrats (SLD), the agrarians (PSL), and the environmentalists (Greens) decided to run in the upcoming European Parliament elections on May 23-26 as a united front against PiS, the Spring party refused to participate. In this way Biedron did not want to be identified with the supposed “center” either.
The recent political juncture
In recent years there has been a strong shift from excessive Euro-enthusiasm to conservatism and far-right politics. PiS is in its second term, having won the 2015 elections by an absolute majority. It was the first time that this happened after the fall of the socialist regime in 1989.
PiS combines social policies and a more inward-looking economic policy with traditional values (similar to the Greek three-pronged, “homeland, religion, family”) with an animosity to anything that’s progressive or “different”.
The interventionist reforms imposed on the media, the justice system, as well as the tightening of abortion legislation, have caused a huge wave of reaction, especially in the urban centers, causing the Poles to organize and demonstrate massively. Particularly, the Czarny Protest, against a near-total ban on abortions, created a powerful movement two years ago, with feminist organizations gaining considerable power and prompting Poland’s leftists to awaken from their lethargy.
Although Jaroslav Kaczynski, the leader of PiS, is not Prime Minister or President of Poland, he still exerts enormous influence and essentially governs from behind the scenes. On several occasions he has accused the EU of intervening in Poland’s internal affairs. Indeed, in recent years many have spoken about “Polexit”. Although Kaczynski may use Euro-sceptic rhetoric, he is aware of the pro-European attitude of the Polish people and is limited to sensationalist, empty statements.
Kaczynski is a unique persona: he’s a conservative, anticommunist politician who lives with his cat, has no driver’s license, has never been married, and rarely leaves the country. His identical twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, died a plane crash in 2010. Since then, he has blamed the Russian secret service for his brother’s death. He founded the PiS party with his brother in 2001, and by 2006 they were both in power with Jaroslav as Prime Minister and Lech as President.
Civic Platform – PO (Platform Obywatelska) is the PiS party’s main rival. It is a center-right, Christian-Democratic party with a liberal agenda for the economy and its former head is Donald Tusk, the current European Council President.
PiS will remain in power until at least November 2019 and together with Civic Platform they form Polish two-party system.
“The labels ‘conservative Poland’ or ‘Catholic Poland’ are nothing but stereotypes. Polish society is not conservative. The politicians are conservative. This is why there’s now room for a new progressive movement. More than 80% of Poles are for the EU,” Robert Biedron points out, rather optimistically, to Solomon MAG.
On the other hand, political analyst Jaroslav Kociszewski believes that there is a large number of voters in Poland who are still quite conservative. “However, it is more complicated than it seems,” he says. “Voters in Poland are currently being bought by right-wing populist politicians who use anti-immigrant rhetoric and go hand-in-hand with the extreme conservative Polish Church.”
However, as he points out, the opposite trend exists: the liberal and more left-leaning wave of voters is constantly increasing, despite the total bewilderment of the Polish left. “That’s why I think there’s room for a party like Spring or something similar to Spring. But it’s still somewhat cloudy. I don’t think they’ll win the election, but they don’t have to. The political scene, in any case, is currently monopolized by the PiS right-wing populists and the conservative right-wing Civic Platform.”
In an effort to change the stereotypical image of politicians, Robert Biedron said, in an interview with a famous American YouTuber: “Politicians are everyday people. They make mistakes, drink, watch porn, drive fast.” Biedron tries to appeal to the 25-35 age group, to people who feel they are not at all represented by the PiS conservatives or the neoliberal agenda of the Civic Platform. “Many times he even swears in his interviews or uses slang that young people use, to make him seem more current,” says Kociszewski.
The PiS government, with its populism and use of nationalist patriotic symbols, has attracted mainly the older inhabitants of the Polish provinces, who live in fear of unemployment due to technological developments and globalization, and feel neglected by the older neo-liberal policies of the Civic Platform. The use of anti-communist and anti-Russian propaganda is dominant in the ruling party’s rhetoric, “but the young people born after the fall of communism have not experienced it. This kind of propaganda can’t touch them, they don’t remember these times. They have a more European identity,” Kociszewski points out.
Spring’s political agenda
Biedron’s cosmopolitan image is more familiar to young people living in urban centers than in the vast provinces where traditionally, PiS voters reside. In a country where urban centers are sparsely populated – Warsaw’s population is 1.7 million, Poland’s total population is 38 million – for Spring, the provinces are a bet that they’ll have difficulty winning. Especially since PiS has created some small social benefits that have made them very popular, such as the €120 allowance for every second child born in a family.
In the same manner, Biedron has announced part of his program to raise public health spending to 7.2% of GDP over the next five years and to increase the lowest pensions of €230 per month to €370.
But this will not necessarily gain him votes, especially from voters ideologically aligned with the right. “However, he can win votes from people who respond to the promise of benefits and populism. PiS has managed to perfectly combine rightist propaganda with social benefits. Biedron is trying to copy it and is already being criticized for this,” Kociszewski said.
The bet for Spring, (as well as for any progressive movement that seeks to gain influence and power), in addition to the demands for more freedom of speech or the alleviation of gender discrimination, is to identify and combat economic inequalities.
As Polish sociologist Jan Sowa describes in an interview with Open Democracy, many new progressive movements in Poland have tried to distance themselves from politics and talk generally and vaguely about civil society, “expecting a cleaning lady that makes 1,500 zloty per month and her boss who makes 15,000 zloty to come together at the weekend and march to defend the Constitutional Court. They expect people to abandon their condition and embrace a false unity.”
Thus, it remains to be seen how fruitful will Robert Biedron’s Spring be.