On populism and situation in Poland – An interview with Marek Tatala

05.24.2018 | CIPE in News

An Interview with CIPE partner Marek Tatala, the Executive President and Economist at the Civil Development Forum Foundation in Warsaw, Poland. He has degrees in Political Science and Economics from the University of Bristol, England and the Warsaw School of Economics. He is a graduate of the Atlas Leadership Academy of the Atlas Network.

The interview was originally published by the Libertarian Club – Libek, an organization promoting the values of individual liberty and economic freedom in Serbia and the Western Balkans. Established in 2008 the organization works to create a prosperous society of free and responsible individuals based in individual initiative, entrepreneurship, and the rule of law. This interview was published as part of a collection, titled: “Abusing the People: Global Challenges of Authoritarian Populism,” which is a part of the effort to counter authoritarian populism in Serbia, Western Balkans and around the world.

The full version can be found on LIBEK’s website: https://libek.org.rs/en/news/2018/03/08/publication1 


On populism and situation in Poland – An interview with Marek Tatala

1. How do you understand the roots of the authoritarian populism in Europe? What are some of the similarities between European populist ideas, movements and parties, that they have in common despite the differences between the countries they come from?

Support for the authoritarian populist parties in Europe has been on the rise for years. However, it does not mean that there were no populists in the past. I think we should rather talk about the waves of populism, similar to economic cycles, but not necessarily correlated with them, as the roots of populism are not only in the economy. Moreover, these waves do not have to be synchronized among countries, though we see that today’s growing left and right populism is a pan-European trend. The most recent estimates of this trend were done by the Swedish think tank Timbro. In the Epicenter Network’s summary briefing about Timbro’s Authoritarian Populism Index, we can read that “on average, around a fifth of the European electorate now vote for a left or right wing populist party”. Finally, we should be aware that populism may have long term consequences. In my own research about institutional and political causes of the Greek crisis, I emphasized the impact of the 1980s populism which through its devastating impact on the political culture and foundations of the economy significantly contributed to the crisis in the late 2000s.

Because the wave of populism is high again in Europe, and other parts of the world, there are many attempts to identify similarities between European populists. The list is long and it seems that it is getting longer with each new article or book on this topic. I will only emphasize those similarities which, from my perspective, are very common, and at the same time very dangerous for economic growth and stability as well as for personal freedom. Firstly, hostile attitude towards rule of law; secondly, strong and often emotional critique of globalization and regional economic cooperation; thirdly, the pursuit of providing safety by the state at the expense of personal liberty. The first and second characteristics, if converted into policies, pose a real long-term threat to prosperity, while the third characteristic is dangerous for our basic individual liberties and is weakening the responsibility of human beings for their own lives.

Identifying roots of authoritarian populism is an important task before we start to fight against it. There is definitely not a single root that we can for sure connect with all the populists around the world. Economic factors might be important but I think what is more essential is perception about some economic phenomena. We should also remember about non-economic root causes, like cultural factors or desires to achieve safety, and again I think it is also a question about the perception of some events or threats. Therefore, much effort should be devoted to efficient anti-populist communication in both the traditional and new media. Moreover, some roots are very country-specific so reliable nation-specific diagnosis by the anti-populist side of civil society, NGOs, or political parties is always necessary. Especially, if they want to deal efficiently with populism without trying to outbid the populists.

2. Some journalists and intellectuals think that the growth of populism in Europe and the United States is a consequence of what they call “neoliberalism”, claiming that populism comes as a consequence of free markets and the shrinking role of the state. What do you think about this?

We should always ask people who claim that something is a consequence of “neoliberalism” to define what they really mean when they use this label. Using various labels is popular in a public debate but they are often meaningless. For example, terms “leftist” or “rightist” in politics tell us today very little about the true political agenda. Some parties call themselves right-wing but their proposed or implemented policies are more left-wing than ideas of many social democrats. Good examples of such right-wing parties are the Polish ruling Law and Justice or Marine La Pen’s National Front. Moreover, “neoliberalism” is a word that has become an insult which was well explained by Oliver Marc Hartwich in his article “Neoliberalism: the genesis of a political swearword”.

It is true that “liberalism” or “neoliberalism” are sometimes presented as causes of growth of populism around the world, but in my view it is incorrect and lacks any empirical backing. Many people wrongly associate various negative phenomena in the world with “liberalism” or “neoliberalism”. Poverty, hunger, corruption, environmental destruction or financial crises are the things that free market ideas are often blamed for, without any in depth analysis.

I think Milton Friedman was right in his 1974 interview with the Reason magazine when he said: “I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one.” In my opinion, blaming “neoliberalism” for stimulating populism is another example of this simplicity among some intellectuals or journalists on why deep root causes of authoritarian populism, as I have already mentioned, are much more complex.

3. Free market reforms in Poland that served as an introduction for transition of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe have been described as some of the most important reforms in Europe after the Second World War. However, during the implementation of these reforms there were various challenges and resistance from opponents. Why do people find it hard to embrace transitional reforms? From your perspective what is the greatest legacy of Polish reforms?

Poland has been rightly presented as a success story of peaceful economic and political transition. For more than two decades the country was developing at a pace exceeding an average of 4% a year. It was faster than other countries of Central Europe. Per capita income, adjusted for differences in price levels, increased from 29% of income per capita in Germany in 1992 to 55% in 2015 as summarized in the Civil Development Forum’s report “The next 25 years: what reforms we need to implement to catch up with the West?”.

Thanks to the initial free market reforms, and continuation of the pro-reform path, we observed both rapid and stable rate of economic growth in Poland. Ukraine had a slightly higher GDP per capita in 1990 than Poland. However, we see today how the lack of successful economic and political transition has led to a huge divergence between these two countries. Poland was not only a regional economic tiger because of its growth after 1989 did not differ much from the growth in South Korea and was faster than in Chile or Malaysia. Therefore, it is not surprising that Arup Banerji, World Bank Regional Director for the European Union said recently that “Poland is an outstanding economic and development success story, moving from middle-income to high-income status in record time.”

Moreover, the political transition was also smooth and peaceful and different political parties from left-wing social democrats to right-wing conservatives ruled and changed in power after elections without any violence. The institutional framework has significantly improved thanks to domestic efforts and external incentives such as EU and NATO admissions.

Despite all of these remarkable successes we still hear some resistance to radical reforms and rapid transition in Poland. Firstly, some opponents of the reforms speak about “social costs of reforms”. I think this is highly misleading. Many “social costs” were not a consequence of free market reforms but of over 40 years of real socialism in Poland. The reforms initiated in the late 1980s and early 90s just revealed the truth about how inefficient, bankrupt and crony was the previous regime.

Secondly, some critics indicate what should have been done better and we hear it from many perspectives – some say that the reforms were too much free market-oriented while others claim they were not free market-oriented enough. It is much easier to criticize certain policies of the past reformers with all the knowledge we have today. It often happens without any considerations for the economic and political uncertainty back then. Leszek Balcerowicz and his pro-reform team operated in a specific political environment including conditions inherited after over 40 years of socialism and with the Soviet soldiers still on the Polish territory. Despite all the uncertainties, challenges and obvious imperfect information about Poland’s success story after 1989, in comparison to many other countries, is the best proof that the Polish reformers were right.

4. Speaking of Poland, the populism and authoritarian tendencies of the current government are frequently discussed. How is the populism in Poland different from populism in other countries? What are some authentic factors that shape the situation in Poland?

When we look at different characteristics of the authoritarian populists, the ruling Law and Justice exhibits many of them. I would like to refer to just three features of populism that I have already mentioned. The ruling party is hostile towards rule of law and critical towards regional cooperation (e.g. within the EU, with respect to the EU values and standards) and some aspects of globalization. Law and Justice also emphasizes that safety is more important than liberty, treating both values as substitutes. The economic populism of Law and Justice is also quite strong.

In the declaration presented by the Center for International Private Enterprise and its partners in Brussels this year, it was emphasized that “the promulgation of opportunistic economic policies in pursuit of partisan gains, to the detriment of society and the economy, as well as the elimination of checks and balances and ad hoc policy changes, threaten long-term economic prospects and democratic health.” I think that this is a very adequate description of current situation and challenges in Poland.

When we talk about some authentic factors that shape the situation in Poland three elements should be emphasized. Firstly, because Polish society is very homogeneous it is much easier for the populists to use threats connected with immigration or in general with “the outsiders”. Secondly, the economic situation in Poland is relatively good (and was when the populists won elections in 2015), especially when one ignores long-term perspectives. It is not necessarily because of any specific policies of the current government but rather despite their policies. Therefore, Law and Justice can still use redistribution and taxpayers’ money to pay for higher electoral support.  Thirdly, many misunderstandings, lies and conspiracy theories about successful Polish economic and political transformation give fuel to populists in Poland. It is much more difficult to fight with them in the age of so called fake news and the powerful social media.

5. Economic populism is very present in Serbia. This attitude often reflects in skepticism towards the free market economy, competition and free trade. This agenda is embraced by both left and right. Is economic populism present in Poland as well and in which form?

In 2016 4Liberty.eu Network devoted its 4Liberty.eu Review to the topic of populism, including my article “Economic Costs of Populism: Poland Should Learn from Greek Mistakes”. I defined there economic populism as this type of economic program which sacrifices medium and long-term economic growth and stability of the economy for the sake of short-term political gains. Economic populists often talk about improving lives of ordinary people. But their primary goal is to capture (or rather to buy) political support, win elections or keep political power.

Economic populism is also very present in Poland. It is something that connects populist parties from the right (e.g. ruling Law and Justice) with the radical left (e.g. Razem party, which seems close to the Greek Syriza or Spanish Podemos but fortunately with much less support). The Law and Justice party won democratic elections after a very populist electoral campaign, and as the economic conditions are still favourable it is fulfilling some of its promises. There are new social expenditures, including 500 Polish zloty or around 120 euro monthly for every second and child thereafter in families. The minimum retirement age, gradually increased by the previous government to reach 67 years in the future, was lowered to 60 for woman and 65 for men. It is irresponsible policy especially in the context of the Polish demographic situation and it will have serious long-term consequences for current and future generations. Economic populism is also visible in the so called “re-Polonization” which is de facto re-nationalization of some enterprises, including two large banks. Instead of completing privatizations the government is strengthening state owned companies. And then we have some “villains” (from the perspective of the ruling politicians) – like banks or large supermarkets – punished by proposed or implemented taxes and regulations.

Law and Justice has not presented any serious response to the real challenges in Poland, like low private investment rate, insufficient productivity growth, demographic problems, low employment rate among some groups or a bad situation in public finance. Instead, economic populism has been strong and long-term economic growth and stability of the economy are sacrificed for short-term political gains

6. What do you think will happen in Polish politics in the near future?

Despite anti-reforms and some harmful policies, the ruling Law and Justice still leads the majority of opinion polls. The economic situation is good and the costs of populism are hidden and dispersed. Moreover, some opposition parties are playing with the Law and Justice in their game of populism. It may lead to intensification of the destructive political competition.

This, in turn, can truly damage the Polish political system and political culture if not prevented in time. We should not allow for convergence towards populist equilibrium i.e. destructive populist competition between major parties that can lead to a populist trap (like it happened for example in Greece). Fortunately, the majority of the opposition is united around the idea of rule of law and here the cooperation between political parties, but also civil society organizations, should be even stronger to avoid long-term damages to the institutional framework of Poland.

Some areas in which the ruling party may want to introduce harmful and populist policies to capture votes even if economic populism ceases to work are: laws on media (to weaken private media independent from the government), justice system (to increase political control over courts) and electoral law (in favour of the ruling party). I hope that opposition to any of these moves will be strong in Poland. The last wave of protests in defence of judiciary independence achieved success as they led to two vetoes by the President of Poland.

Bad transitions, like one we see nowadays in Poland and other countries where the populist are in power, should not paralyze, but mobilize. The populist governments should become an incentive to reduce the influence of the government and politicians on our lives. The antidote for economic and non-economic populism is not bigger populism with a different label, but strengthening of individual freedom, rule of law and foundations of a free market economy.

In my statements at the U.S. Helsinki Commission briefing in July, I emphasized that Poland has a historic potential to be an inspiration for societies east of Vienna (e.g. Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia) and the Balkans looking for higher quality of life and greater individual freedom. The strength of Polish democracy and successful pro-market reforms should continue to serve as an example for the regions. It is one more reason why we should fight, in an efficient way, against populist ideas.