The Polish culture war is only just beginning: The liberal elite will attempt to remake the nation in the West’s identikit progressive image

Leader of Civic Platform (PO) Donald Tusk speaking on election night in Warsaw, Poland, 15 October 2023. EPA-EFE/Piotr Nowak


Like every post-election honeymoon, this one too is full of triumphalism, reckoning with the past and cancelling programmes of predecessors.

As it is proving increasingly difficult to reconcile the interests of the 12 parties comprising the future liberal-Left governing coalition, politicians focus more on their resentments toward predecessors than on their own programmes. What may ultimately bind this eclectic coalition is a new great project of moral and ideological reformatting of the Polish nation, in the spirit of the progressive democracies of Western Europe. 

Politicians of the winning coalition and their acolytes in the media and academia are demonising the last eight years of Law and Justice (PiS) rule. They call it a “mortal” threat for democracy,  “nationalistic authoritarianism”, in moments of media hype the outgoing government is characterised as fascist.

Progressives vow to purge once and for all state-controlled institutions and media of those associated with Law and Justice. Of course, some things are easier to promise than to carry out. The process may take some time – not only because the formation of a new government will take another six to eight weeks, but also because dismissing supervisory boards from state-owned companies, the media, and especially the courts staffed by the outgoing government, will require separate laws and breakneck constitutional fiddles.

The process will be arduous and, above all, will require the constant stoking of hatred against circles associated with Law and Justice. Otherwise, public attention may turn to the inevitable economic difficulties. Soaring energy prices, deteriorating corporate performance, and a rapidly growing budget deficit will make it difficult to deliver pre-election promises.

The new rulers will have enough examples of fraud and waste by Law and Justice politicians for a while. But what progressives are counting on the most are the deep divisions between the two Polands – in short, between intelligentsia Poland and working-class Poland. 

To get a good understanding of the nature of the divisions, it is worth looking at the geography of the election results. Law and Justice won in 1,246 municipalities. Almost all of them are in the poorer eastern part of the country. Progressive opposition parties controlled 1,231 municipalities, mostly in western Poland. Territorially, PiS dominates, but the largest urban concentrations were in the hands of the opposition – hence the difference. 

Poland’s political border, for centuries, has been on the Vistula River dividing Poland into two different communities. We all speak the same language, but how we express ourselves, and what attitude we have toward family, church, and nation, makes us radically different.

Contempt and the usual antagonisms between the educated elite and the “province”, as the eastern electorate is often called, are further inflamed by economic differences and the government’s redistribution programmes. 

Western Poland and the largest cities account for 85 per cent of Poland’s GDP. The per capita GDP of western Poland and the big cities is 2.5 times that of eastern Poland. In the most extreme cases, the difference is nearly 6 fold. Warsaw’s GDP per capita today is 54,000 euros. This is the income level of Stockholm, Frankfurt, or Copenhagen. In contrast, the GDP per capita in the poorest region of eastern Poland is 9,300 euros. 

Leaving aside for a moment the whole ideological anti-PiS narrative, the biggest difference PiS has made are not the badly executed judicial reform, nor the numerous disputes with Brussels, but the great redistribution programme. Social spending has increased by 65 per cent in last eight years.

This means that the government’s huge social redistribution programme aimed at poor families, rural regions, and pensioners, was financed with the money of the wealthier western part of the country. In the view of many Warsaw journalists, teachers, academics, and bureaucrats, this has been reflected in slower growth in their personal wealth.

No one in the opposition, least of all parties appealing to socialist ideals, will admit that the sources of resentment are economically based. Progressive media mainly rail against alleged threats to the rule of law, nationalism, state capture by politicians, and the despoilation of the media.

In the liberal narrative PiS voters are derided as “parochial Catholic”, lacking in education, or aged, detached from reality and unmodern.  By placing an equals sign between the “backward”, “primitive” PiS electorate and conservative values, Poland’s future rulers are perfectly in line with the Euro-liberal poetics of traducing all conservative circles as misguided at best and inevitably doomed to extinction.

Without waiting for a new government to be formed, future elites, politicians, Left-wing journalists cheering them on, academics, and progressive NGOs are preaching the need to quickly eliminate from public life anyone who represents conservative views. Under the terms “civilising” and “Europeanising” Poland, they mean the rubbing out of the church from public life. They mean banning religion in schools and, in its place, opening the youth to progressive gender teaching.

Politicians, including those in the running for ministerial positions, are promising to dismantle the existing public media and establish them anew in a format that will ensure that views linked to conservatives never appear there again.  So “those stray masses”, exposed to the pasture of the “poisonous propaganda” of the Right, could undergo something like a moral detox.

In a nutshell, 40 per cent of the population – the 35 per cent who voted for PiS and the voters of the conservative Confederation party – would be subject to re-education. How do you re-educate such a significant part of the population? By controlling the media and redirecting the money stream toward the “civilised” part of society.

Progressive elites have no intention of abandoning social spending. After all, they consider themselves Leftists. Only the funds are now to be directed to teachers, to the courts, to the already very liberal universities, to financial support for abortion and invitro clinics, and to help the “neglected” LGBTQ communities. 

Further down the road, the curriculum will be changed, the number of history lessons reduced, and the compulsory school reading to be selected accordingly.

And finally, there will be a well-designed campaign to shame anyone who would think of listening to the teachings of the church, celebrate the values of the traditional family, or go on patriotic marches. Cancel culture in its Polish iteration is to target and cut off from state finances anyone who dabbles in conservatism.

Over the past 35 years, Poland has made huge economic leaps. Polish cities and villages have become more like Western cities and villages; Polish companies are successfully competing with Western companies.

Now the ambition of Leftist elites, aided by Western partners in Berlin and Brussels, is to culturally fit Poland into liberal Europe. By leaving behind and marginalising the circles that are the traditional base of conservatism, the new coalition hopes to remove some of the last obstacles to full centralisation and subordination of nation states to the Euro-bureaucracy.