MITCHELL A. ORENSTEIN
PHILADELPHIA — Scholars and journalists have tirelessly covered the rise of populist nationalism in Europe, and especially the hardline governments in Hungary and Poland. With a few hours and a lot of googling, one can learn much about how both countries’ governments have commandeered public media, cracked down on privately owned TV stations and newspapers, weakened constitutional courts, attacked immigrants, promoted hate speech against Jews, Muslims, and other minority groups, and unleashed online trolls. But one would still be unable to answer the fundamental question: Why are these governments so popular?
The answer is one that most analysts have overlooked: these governments are not only nationalist; they are also socialist.
Consider Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party won 38% of the vote in the October 2015 parliamentary election. In April 2018, despite mounting authoritarianism and official complaints from the European Union, opinion polls put support for the far-right PiS at 40%.
The PiS does not owe its rising popularity to its anti-immigrant stance alone. In fact, the Catholic nationalist right has won around 30% of the vote in Polish elections since 1989 with consistently anti-Semitic, anti-EU, anti-immigrant, and anti-Russian appeals. What is new about this PiS government is its more moderate face.
PiS is led, at least superficially, by younger politicians, including President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who succeeded Beata Szydło (also a relatively new face in Polish politics). Each was focus-grouped for broader public appeal. The strategy worked. In 2015, PiS won its usual base, plus an additional 5-10% of more moderate voters.
And, having lured these moderates, PiS has kept them, by offering what previous governments have rejected. Although the Civic Platform, which governed until 2015, grew out of the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, it betrayed its working-class base by pursuing radical neoliberal economic policies that increased economic inequality. The former communist party, having embraced social democracy in the 1990s, betrayed its roots in the same way.
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By contrast, PiS has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child. Families apply each September, when children go back to school. Except for poor families, a family with only one child receives nothing, while families with two children qualify for the monthly benefit. Families with three children get 1,000 złoty, and 500 złoty for each additional child.
The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%.
Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
No wonder liberals have trouble gaining traction with the electorate. Many Poles see a government that finally does something for ordinary people, and all liberals can do is complain, ironically, that it is anti-democratic.
The truth is that Family 500+ is working. Poland’s fertility rate – which had fallen after 1989 to among the lowest in Europe – has risen since 2016 from 1.29 to 1.42 births per female. In its first year, Family 500+ provided a significant stimulus to the economy, as poor families spend nearly all of the benefit on consumer items. One footwear chain’s revenues grew by 44%. Sales of family holidays increased by 14%. Instead of borrowing to pay for the expensive “school sets” students are required to purchase, Poles used their 500+ benefits instead. And while women’s employment rates decreased as women left minimum-wage jobs, salaries, particularly for store clerks, rose sharply.
Given the dramatic success of the program, other countries are following suit. Lithuania introduced a less generous version of Family 500+ in 2018.
Those who care about democracy in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere in Europe and beyond should acknowledge that many voters are buying into the nationalist right’s vision of a social state that advances national priorities, cares for the poor, and supports families. Liberal democrats cannot out-xenophobe the nationalist right. But they can and should slip their own ideological blinders and learn a thing or two from their adversaries about policies that work for the people.
Mitchell A. Orenstein is Professor and Chair of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Hilary Appel, of From Triumph to Crisis: Neoliberal Economic Reforms in Postcommunist Countries.