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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Polish nationalism resurgent
By Jan Repa
BBC Central Europe analyst

The enlargement of Poland's conservative government by two parties, variously described as populist, nationalist or anti-EU, is proving controversial.

It has evoked unease in Brussels, among Jewish organisations in the West, and among politicians and political commentators in neighbouring countries like Germany.

Student protest in Warsaw, 9 May 06
Students protested in Warsaw against the new education minister

An official in the government has also quit her job in protest against the populist Andrzej Lepper being invited to join the government as agriculture minister and deputy prime minister.

Irena Lipowicz was in charge of Polish-German relations at the foreign office.

Her departure followed the resignation of veteran diplomat Stefan Meller as foreign minister.

New education minister Roman Giertych, an ultra-conservative Eurosceptic, is also a controversial figure.

Last September's Polish parliamentary elections proved a disaster for the then ruling ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance.

It had reconstituted itself in the early 1990s as a Western-type social-democrat party and claimed to draw inspiration from the UK's New Labour and its leader, Tony Blair.

In its place came the Law and Justice Party (PiS).

Traditional values

Law and Justice pursues a conservative social agenda - opposed to more liberal abortion legislation, gay marriages and the legalisation of "soft" drugs.

It would also like to reinstate the death penalty.

Andrzej Lepper, head of the Self-Defence Party, and Roman Giertych, leader of the League of Polish Families
Eurosceptics have joined the conservative government
Its economic policies have been described as "centre-left": a strong state-run welfare system and continued state ownership of several strategic industries.

Law and Justice supports further EU integration "on terms advantageous for Poland". It also continues to back Polish military involvement in Iraq.

More controversially, from a Central European perspective, Law and Justice leaders claim that Poland's peacefully negotiated transition to democracy, 17 years ago, was actually a "stitch-up" between the Communists and a coterie of centre-left dissidents.

They perpetuated some of the abuses of the old system and sought to marginalise people of a more traditionally patriotic persuasion, the party says.

Hence Law and Justice's claims to be carrying out a root-and-branch clearing out of corruption and to be building a new Polish "Fourth Republic".

Controversial leader

Since Friday, Law and Justice has been joined in government by two even more controversial parties: Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families.

Self-Defence now have the ministries of agriculture and maritime economy, while the League has the education portfolio.

Self-Defence was founded in 1992 as a pressure group representing certain rural interests: former collective farm labourers, small local businessmen, and lower-level members of the Communist-era rural bureaucracy.

It drew attention to itself by noisy demonstrations - blocking roads and depositing manure outside government offices.

Latterly, it has smartened its image and sought to broaden its appeal to the urban working and lower-middle classes. It had its best result so far in September's parliamentary elections, winning 12% of the vote.

Self-Defence's former opposition to the European Union is tempered by the knowledge that many of its supporters now benefit from EU subsidies.

In joining the government, it has also agreed to tone down earlier claims that social welfare spending could be boosted by increasing the national debt and by raiding Poland's currency reserves.

Self-Defence has also tried to forget some of the more controversial assertions of its leader, Mr Lepper, who once praised Adolf Hitler's economic policies and claimed that Poland should cultivate close relations with Russia and Belarus.

Conservative Catholics

The League of Polish Families has a much older political pedigree.

Established five years ago from a fusion of several so-called "Catholic-nationalist" groups, it claims to be the successor of Poland's main pre-war right-wing opposition party - the National Democrats.

Its leader, Roman Giertych, is the grandson and great-grandson of prominent National Democrat politicians.

The National Democrats called for a centralised state, in which the Catholic Church - as a symbol of national identity - would have a privileged position.

They advocated the forced assimilation of national minorities and the elimination of Jewish influence in business and the professions.

Vehemently anti-German, they urged Poles to overcome their traditional prejudices and seek a close understanding with Russia.

The League of Polish Families campaigned against Polish membership of the European Union.

Its youth wing regularly takes part in anti-gay and anti-abortion demonstrations.

It opposes "excessive" foreign investment - and wants the state to retain control of "strategic" enterprises.

Like Self-Defence, it has called for the immediate pull-out of Polish troops from Iraq.

The League won 8% of the vote in September's elections - but has since declined in opinion polls.


SEE ALSO:
Polish foreign minister resigns
28 Apr 06 |  Europe
Country profile: Poland
07 May 06 |  Country profiles


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