When on Sunday Robert Biedroń entered the main stage in Warsaw’s Torwar stadium, he had his Macron moment with the Ode to Joy playing in the background. Is Biedroń Poland’s Macron the same way as the French president stopped the rise of Marine Le Pen in 2017? Can Biedroń be the response to the nationalist government of Law and Justice and it’s far-right challengers?
There are more questions than answers for now. The biggest question is if Poles can entrust their future with this 42 years old former mayor of Słupsk in Northern Poland. On Sunday we received some first answers. The biggest secret of the new party was its name. As of today the pollsters can use the name “Spring” to check on its popularity.
If the Spring was to come indeed, it would bring Poland Robert Biedroń as a prime minister later this year. At least this is what the Spring’s leader aspires to. He also promises to end the Polish-Polish war between PiS and PO, the two of which ruled Poland since 2005. On the policy front there are so many issues and proposals… let us just name a few that are likely to resonate with the society:
Spring does not like the current division of labour between the State and the Catholic Church. Biedroń wants to renegotiate the concordat Poland has signed with the Vatican in 1993. The financing of the Church in Poland should change (the Church received about 36,5 million Euro in 2018 from the state budget). Priests should pay taxes. Religion should not be taught in public schools.
Spring proposes liberalisation of the current law. The 1993 rules say that abortion is forbidden except for 3 extreme cases (rape, when the woman’s life or health is threatened, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged). Plus, under the PiS government some doctors started to use the conscience clause to avoid performing the procedure.
Biedroń proposes legal abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.
Gay marriage is not legal in Poland, so Biedroń and his partner, Krzysztof Śmiszek, one of many other leading faces of the new party, cannot marry one another. Civil unions were proposed on a few occasions and the best chance was when Donald Tusk government attempted to fill the gap in the Polish legislation on the issue. Yet even on the Tusk government initiative the progressive proposal failed with the conservative Polish lawmakers.
The new party would like to see a minimum pension at 1600 zł (375 Euro), tax free. That would be a major increase. They would like to expand the children benefits (500+ programme) to cover first children and single parents. The minimal salary should be at 60% of the average one in a few years. There should be free public transport, a bus should reach every commune and a train every county. Healthcare (doctors’ conscience clause should be illegal; in vitro should be reimbursed) and education (i.e. English for everyone, sexual education, hate speech prevention) are also two big policy areas for the Spring. Among other issues – the animal rights should have their spokesman, there should be more crèches and kindergartens.
End of coal
Biedroń wants Poland to have the best air is Central Europe. To do this, the country should decarbonise, which Spring would like to see done by 2035.
Robert Biedroń quoted important people. John Paul II: “We will change the face of this place”. If he is to succeed with the energy and liberal policies – that would indeed be a different country altogether.
About Paweł Adamowicz he said “We have to make his testament reality”. Clearly he is competing with Schetyna’s PO for the political heritage of the late mayor.
And he quoted Jacek Kuroń (Poland’s first minister of labour after 1989): “Do not burn committees. Create your own”. Yet some observers rightly pointed out Biedroń did not reach out enough to the unions, the farmers or the Silesia region, where all that coal making takes place. There, coal is associated with the Polish national interest.
He is ready to do politics. He wants to appoint the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the PiS rule and bring those responsible for the judicial reform and breaking the Constitution in front of the state tribunal.
The Western media are full of stories that a gay politician, a non-believer takes on a deeply Catholic nation. The domestic media are more cynical, give him a slim chance of about 7% electorate. One popular political scientist said: “It will be a party that will target directly the liberal-metropolitan electorate, people aged 30-40” (Rafał Chwedoruk). Others are more generous painting him as a socio-liberal third force in the upcoming European and national elections.
Everybody deserves a chance. Spring is new, they have been successful in building the momentum and running the Sunday show. It is true, Spring looks like other parties that came and went over the last decade. Will Spring be like the Palikot Movement, or the .Modern? A lot of people who came to Torwar on Sunday were first time engaged in a civic or political activity. Like Kukiz, another leader-based party, who also motivated many first time voters. Can Biedroń reach out beyond the disillusioned?
Everybody is threatened. The urban electorate of .Modern and PO is looking closely at Biedroń moves. As Biedroń said himself: he wants to “energize” PO leaders, Schetyna and Kopacz. But he kills also .Modern and Petru initiative Now with another reason: he is fresher, newer, more magnetic. This is also something that may pull people away from Kukiz, however conservative the electorate this party has.
Spring potentially is a threat for SLD. Old ex-PZPR (Communist party) officials and the retired military personnel will remain with SLD, but the capacity of this party to reach out to new voters is tempered.
Biedroń also pulls in new people who were discouraged with the hate speech and the Polish-Polish war, but were re-engaged with the local 2018 elections and outraged with the Adamowicz murder and now many of them start to believe again with the new party emergence.
There was a notion on Sunday absent in other recent new parties. .Modern wanted to be truly liberal economically and to challenge PO on the issues. Exactly the same story was with the Palikot Movement. Kukiz was gathering a protest vote and libertarian alter-globalist voices at the same time.
Biedroń does not only reach out to the PO, or the new voters. He wants to challenge the PiS in its core. Many participants of the Torwar meeting on Sunday were mentioning how “inspired” they felt and that Spring “is the third way”.
Then there is Law and Justice with their massive 3-3,5 million solid voting base. Spring is someone credible who tries to challenge Law and Justice on their social policy – PO, .Modern were untrusted; SLD has this image from Leszek Miller times as prime minister – to take away a glass of milk per kid per day from schools. Biedroń doesn’t have those limitations. He openly says all his Sunday proposals are expected to cost about 35 billion złoty.
He tries to be transparent and realistic, not to fall into the trap of easy populism. This is the way to reach out to many of the 3 million who were convinced to vote for PiS with their social policy platform.
The fact he is gay and takes on the Church? Most Poles are conservative, but most Poles do not care for private lives of their leaders. Homosexuality is a non-issue for most of the voters, unlike the media, for whom being “gay” is a no-starter in the national politics.
And the Church? Poland voted for a non-believer before (Aleksander Kwaśniewski, President 1995-2005) , there was a Lutheran prime minister in a Catholic country – Jerzy Buzek. The personal set of beliefs is a part of the package people buy or not. The people will not vote for Biedroń because he is or not gay. They will vote for him if he convinces enough people that he has the best shot at improving the average Polish live.
There is a reason for a green (Germany) or centrist (France) or citizenry (Spain) wave in many countries in Europe. People want to believe and people want to trust. But the candidates and the parties have to be trustworthy and believable. How long can we vote only for a lesser evil? How long a vote is a protest vote?
The Church is not as powerful as it used to be. Last year over 5 million people saw the movie “Clergy” about paedophilia in the Polish church. It shocked many. 5 million is more than 3 million PiS voters. There is room in Poland for Church-critical activities and opinions.
Yet, at the end of the day, Macron was possible also because of the weakness of the traditional centre-left and centre-right in France. Biedroń does not have the same situation: PiS and PO go strong, even if lately the ruling party was more on the defensive side of arguments.