Explainer: Whatever happened to Polish liberal conservatives?

Poland's lower house of parliament. Photo: PAP/Leszek Szymański

Jarosław Gowin, the deputy Prime Minister and Higher Education Minister has given an extensive interview in the political “Kultura Liberalna” monthly where he set out his reasons why, as a liberal conservative, he chose to ally and govern with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS).

Jarosław Gowin is an academic from Kraków who was elected to the Senate for the Civic Platform (PO) in 2005. He is an intellectual who, at the time of rule by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the People’s Party (PSL) between 2001 and 2005, was an advocate of close cooperation between Law and Justice (PiS) and Civic Platform. He hoped the two would ally in a coalition government after the 2005 general election.

A tale of two republics

Mr Gowin was an exponent of the idea of the “Fourth Republic” (IV RP). Poland is currently in its third form of a republic and is sometimes referred at home as the Third Republic (III RP). The period of communist rule is not treated as independent Poland by most Polish historians and is referred by its name “PRL” (Polish People’s Republic).

The ideas of moving towards IV RP grew during the period of post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and Polish People’s Party (PSL) coalition rule between 2001 and 2005, that was marred by several corruption scandals. Both Civic Platform and Law and Justice politicians discussed the idea of radical institutional reform at that time.

In the interview, Jarosław Gowin said he felt betrayed by post-1989 third Republic Poland. “It became an oligarchy, a state that was stagnant with privileges for interest groups that discriminated against the majority and were a source of social division.”

Orphan of the PO-PiS coalition that never was Mr Gowin remained within the Civic Platform despite that party’s rejection of coalition with Law and Justice in 2005. That rejection stemmed from the divisions that occurred during the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections and the fact that having lost the races for both the Prime Minister’s seat and the office of President, Civic Platform preferred to move into opposition rather than play second fiddle to Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński – the twin brothers who founded PiS.

Jarosław Gowin describes the failure of forming such a coalition as “traumatic”. Liberal conservatives like Mr Gowin remained scattered among several parties.

Conservative voice in the PO

Mr Gowin was a prominent exponent of pro-market economic policies and conservatism on polarising issues with the Civic Platform as it came to power in 2007. He became a surprise choice to head the Justice Ministry in 2011, where he forced through a range of deregulatory measures and attempted to reform the judicial system.

Jarosław Gowin’s conservatism on axiomatic issues and liberal instincts on the economy created tensions between him and the pragmatic Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

He left the Ministry of Justice in 2013, and contested the leadership of Civic Platform with Donald Tusk, polling 20 percent of the members vote. He felt the party was “drifting leftwards” and that the state it was defending was becoming one of “self-appointed elites with little regard for social mobility”.

Soon after he left the party and built his own liberal conservative political grouping “Poland Together” (Polska Razem).

Migrating towards Law and Justice

Mr Gowin’s new party contested the 2014 European elections but failed to obtain representation. In the summer of that year, the party formed an alliance with Law and Justice and stood candidates on its slate in the victorious parliamentary election of 2015.

In 2017 Jarosław Gowin’s party was rebranded as “Agreement” (Porozumienie) and has tried to attract liberal conservatives and independents, not yet allied to Law and Justice, to come on board.

Electoral cleavages in Poland are not based around economic views

If you ever have just three pieces of information on anyone’s views in Poland by which to determine how the given individual may vote in an election, attitude to the economy would not help you very much. Much more useful would be to find out their views on Poland’s communist past, whether they are practicing Catholics and whether they want the EU to become more integrated.

If someone is a practicing Catholic, believes the communists had far too soft a landing in the new reality after 1989, and that EU should be a union of sovereign nation-states, then it is likely that they will be voting for the right and its government.

If, on the other hand, someone is not religious, does not want to dwell on history and wants a federal EU, chances are they will be supporting one of the liberal and leftist opposition parties.

Liberal conservatives do not have one political home

This explains why economic liberals, whose views on the church and the communists past are not always conservative, can be found in both the pro-government and anti-government camps.

Mr Gowin recognised this when he said: “I represent a minority point of view. I am a conservative and free marketeer.”

He added that people with such views in Poland are dispersed between Law and Justice, Civic Platform, ‘Kukiz 15’, the Freedom Party of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, Marek Jurek’s party (a splinter grouping that is now separate from Law and Justice and is called “The Polish Republican Right”), and his own grouping, Agreement (which is part of the Law and Justice government).

Neither Law and Justice nor the Civic Platform are parties committed first and foremost to economic freedom. The Civic Platform’s roots were certainly in economic liberalism, but it has drifted noticeably towards social liberalism and Euro-enthusiasm. Law and Justice has always emphasised the need to break with the former communist system, but on economic issues, despite its record between 2005 and 2007 when it cut taxes, it has been more sympathetic to state intervention and social spending.

When in office, the Civic Platform actually raised taxes, hit private pension funds and took a limited interest in the plight of small and medium companies, though it was certainly sympathetic to foreign capital and big companies. Its lack of liberalism on the economy coupled with a move towards the left on issues such as state funding for IVF treatment and consideration of introducing civil partnerships for gay couples were the reasons Mr Gowin finally left the party in 2013.

More at home with Law and Justice

Jarosław Gowin has found it much easier to agree with Law and Justice on issues such as abortion, seeing the EU as a union of nation states the powers of which should be limited and removing the remains of the communist past, than on economic matters.

On the economy and attitude to institutional reform, the differences are noticeable. Jarosław Gowin wants deregulation and cuts in tax for firms and individuals. This is not easy when the government is following a programme of social spending. Social spending which Mr Gowin likes as its concentrated on families (500+ child benefit for example). He never wanted to return the age of retirement to its previous levels (60 for women and 65 for men) but hoped that swallowing that Law and Justice policy would allow him to gain concessions from the ruling party on tax and regulatory issues.

The liberal-conservative Mr Gowin has found an ally in Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose instincts are to do more on economic development before moving for more social spending.

The two have to tread carefully, however. Law and Justice has built its electoral base on a mix of social spending, national pride and conservatism. Parts of its electoral base – such as the members of the “Solidarity” trade union and the orthodox Catholic conservatives – distrust free-market thinking.

Conservative instincts on institutional reform

On institutional reform, Mr Gowin is noticeably more comfortable with the higher education reform he has piloted via extensive consultation than with the judicial reform forced through by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro and the ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński.

The deputy Prime Minister agrees with the strategic objectives of the judicial reform but might have been inclined to use different tactics in their pursuit.

Referring to his higher education reforms he told “Kultura Liberalna” that he “decided to have a dialogue” as he understood that “deep reform requires allies”.

He argued that “compromise does not mean acceptance of the status quo” regarding overcoming the conservatism of many academics but also recognises that after reform “should come stability”.

Jarosław Gowin feels that the state “should be strong enough to resolve real problems. The third republic did not do that, as the situation in higher education shows. It failed to create a single university of note in world rankings”.

He recognises that the government’s judicial reform is “being conducted by different methods to those of my higher education reforms”.

“For many years, the judicial system was flawed, but nothing changed” as a result of peer pressures within the system.

This is why there is “no going back to what was before the judicial reform”, he asserted. However, he feels that the current situation is the transitionary pending constitutional change that is needed “in the next five years”.

Mr Gowin does not accept that as a result of the judicial reform the separation of powers has ceased to exist. He points to the need for “checks and balances between the three branches of government, believing that the judiciary in Poland has become “a state within the state” and escaped any semblance of “democratic accountability”.

Non-compliance with ECJ ruling?

Asked about his comments that Poland might not comply with an unfavourable ruling on its judicial system by the European Court of Justice, Mr Gowin said that this is fully in line with the Polish constitution.

“There are three sources of law in the EU – national law, European law and European courts adjudicating compliance and above both the constitution which, in line with the Constitutional Court ruling of 2005 is the highest source of law in the land.”

He added that “it is not the governing party’s fault that the constitution is not clear which of its articles should resolve the issue concerning the retirement of Chief Justice Gersdorf.” It was a matter of interpretation through Poland’s political process, and not for the EU.

Danger of authoritarianism?

Mr Gowin said he does not fear authoritarianism in Poland from either the left nor the right. He feels that the two sides are “so finely balanced amongst the electorate” as to make total dominance of one side or the other unlikely. In such a state, the danger of anyone being in power for very long is not great, he thinks.

But this implies that the radical reforms being introduced could easily be overturned by a government of a different political hue. This contradicts his view that “there is no going back” on the judicial reform.

No going back

When Mr Gowin says “there is no going back” he may be thinking of his own position as far as the liberal centre is concerned. He has burnt his boats with the Civic Platform. Now he has to make the alliance with Law and Justice work.

The rebranding of his grouping “Agreement” was partly connected to his wish to reach out to people with liberal-conservative views in other parties and amongst local government independents. His success in attracting such people has been very limited. As he has observed, liberal conservatives are still scattered amongst several political groupings.

The fact that they may agree on most economic and pivotal issues is not enough to make them join together in one party. Some distrust Law and Justice’s approach to institutional reform.

Others object to its social policies and its distrust of market forces. Others simply do not think there is room for them on board the Law and Justice ship at the local or the national level.

No international climate for liberal conservative unity

International trends do not bode well for liberal conservatives joining forces. Traditional parties of both the right and the left are having a hard time. Economic liberalism is no longer flavour of the month. The political right is radicalizing around identity politics, defence of the nation states and axiomatic conservative values rather than around free market economics. In this respect, the Polish right grouped around Law and Justice is becoming part of the mainstream, despite its anti-establishment rhetoric.

Jarosław Gowin states that he still supports liberal democracy as “government of the majority respecting the rights of minorities and the rule of law”.

However, he argues that “it’s not the only admissible model of government. The same values in different cultures can be realised by, for example, a constitutional monarchy”.

When asked about Viktor Orban’s support for non-liberal democracy, Mr Gowin declares that “reality, rather than terminology, is important here...We must maintain the democratic minimum embodied in free elections, build a strong but limited state, strengthen the army, institutions such as universities, remove barriers to enterprise and patiently repair the judicial system so it gains public trust.”

That he feels is more important than “whether we call that liberal democracy or something else”. What’s important is that we “remain in a state of freedom”, he added. He wants a state which is limited in its power with “maximum freedom for individuals, families, associations and universities”.

The broad church that is Law and Justice

Law and Justice is sometimes presented as a political force totally dominated by its leader Jarosław Kaczyński. This is an over-interpretation of reality. Law and Justice contains within it different shades of right-wing opinion which includes liberal conservatives. Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin is a prime example.

Liberal conservatives in Poland still do not have a party totally of its own. In the current state of polarization over the future of the EU, issues and attitudes towards Poland’s past this is unlikely to change.