Packing off politics

ON SUNDAY Poles will elect a slew of mayors, municipal and regional councillors. They will choose from among professional politicians, experienced local hands and celebrities with a desire to dabble in politics (the picture above depicts a pop starlet who touts herself as “beautiful, independent and competent”). This is the third such election since the centre-right government of Jerzy Buzek devolved real power to local authorities in 1998. That reform is rightly regarded as one of the great successes of Poland’s transition to fully-fledged democracy.

Local politics is spared much of the mudslinging and bickering that goes on at a national level. Many of the country’s most respected mayors are independents, while local coalitions are pragmatic. It works well (or at least less badly). Local roads, for example, have improved a lot more than those run by the central government.

Despite that, the Sunday poll will in part be a referendum on the ruling centre-right Civic Platform (PO) and their competitors such as the increasingly vehement other centre-right party, Law and Justice (PiS).

PO’s campaign panders to Poles’ disgust with the inconsequential partisan palaver that fills the media. Its campaign slogan promises to “put politics aside”. Many find that a bit rich from people who are in power (or even rich) thanks precisely to politics. In Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest daily, Witold Gadomski castigates PO for its latest television ad in which a clutch of everymen claim to be preoccupied with arcane (and distinctly non-local) matters, such as the damage done by vested interests to the EU, or the fate of the Yamal gas pipeline. “Is politics really more important than local matters?” a voice asks disparagingly at the end. Well, that depends what you mean by “politics”. Mr Gadomski is certainly right to remind the ruling party that “politics is important”, to cite the title of his editorial.

Politics is about aligning common interests, both at the local and national level (…) Politicians should be explaining this to voters, not dissuading them from engaging in public affairs. Democracy relies on informed choices. The better informed the citizenry, the more rational their choices. This isn’t the first time the PO is luring voters with populist slogans. It is a pernicious tack to take, both for Poland and for the PO. There are those who can easily outbid the PO in the populism stakes.

This electoral ploy is predicated on the (justified) belief that in Poland the word “politics” has come to signify inane slinging matches—politicking, if you will. Unfortunately, any attempts to do serious “politics” typically unravel. This is partly the fault of politicians of all stripes who find it easier to offend rivals than opine intelligently on matters of topical concern. The media, especially the broadcast and electronic sort, deserve flak, too. They tend to elicit, highlight and propagate the most egregious outbursts. Websites, newspapers, radio and television programmes devote inordinate time to analysing the latest soundbite. The more fatuous, the better. Nor is the public entirely blameless, given how eagerly it laps all this up.

The PO’s overt disdain of such antics is warranted (though its politicians are as culpable any other party’s). The rub with its latest electoral ploy is that rather than mock politicking, it pokes fun at politics. Last time Poles voted in local elections in 2006, the turnout was a dismal 40%. The PO’s campaign may result in even fewer people bothering to cast a ballot. Hardly a prospect that a party with “civic” in its name should relish.


Full article and photo: