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Beautiful home: Poland

Published on January 18, 2012 by: in: Politics

I expect that a leader will not only be  able to understand social expectations and as a result to win the elections, but also to formulate visions, know ways of bringing those visions to life and most importantly, that he will be able to create agreements for the sake of those visions.

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LiberteWorld: Why Civic Platform (PO) needs power  and what are the reasons it should wield it, apart from the willingness to have it and – certainly – defence of Poland against PiS?

Aleksander Kwaśniewski: If I were to find an argument which would assess current actions of the Civic Platform positively I would indicate international and European politics. At present, we are not a country that is in conflict with great neighbours such as Germany or Russia. We are not Eurosceptic country, we do not overuse historic politics at the expense of challenges for the future. We have become an essential Union’s partner, who is predictable, responsible and creative.

However, I do not hide my growing disappointment with the management skills of the Civic Platform. If a liberal concept is limiting state’s role, I understand that it is a logical intention with which I can either agree or disagree, but it is understandable. On the other hand, there is an unaccountable defectiveness in managing the areas that are statutory attributed to the state. Too much was said and too little was done.

LW: So the water is lukewarm not hot, isn‘t it?

AK: Civic Platform has its own arguments – if we managed to go through financial and economic crisis in the world, and if we had increase in gross domestic product, that this is the reason why we should appreciate Civic Platform and vote for this party. Regardless of how much luck and how many intended actions of the government it included, it is worth remembering that for the electors it is a nuance that the situation is good when the GDP amounts to 3,6% and it is bad when it is 2,8%. A great number of communities are disappointed, including those which were a strong powerbase of Civic Platform in 2007. Civic Platform accepted concept which I don’t understand, meaning indifference to the communities that supported it. In case of Platform, it can be stated that the party holds business community in contempt or is indifferent to it. Youth has even less importance for the party. Cultural community was remembered only when the pact for the culture was signed. Intellectual and high education community is absent. There are no town or countryside communities. Question appears, on whom Platform wants to build its support. General argument that Platform is better than Mr. Kaczyński is no longer useful. The argument still exists but it is no longer as strong as it was four years ago.

LW: What are your dreams for the next five years? According to you which vision and projects should be realized within this time?

AK: As far as great projects are concerned, after twenty years we completed a phase in Poland. We built a solid foundation. Poland is a democratic state, moreover, it is a state of law which is better or worse managed. We are an independent country, a member of the European Union and a  member of NATO. We established close relations with all neighbours and created an educational boom. Consequently, two million people study. Furthermore, we feel safe and observe an economic growth. The foundations were built and none of them is to be shaken. There is not one today that could be validated or undermined. When the foundations are laid properly a question arises what construction should be built on them. In fact, Poland has a great task to perform. The point is that the building should be firstly, modern, secondly, nice and thirdly, comfortable. Consequently, we should not be stuck in a mediocrity that accompanies us. Furthermore, we should not agree on such a provincial condition and wishful thinking. Today we have every reason to construct powerful Poland, a European country with a modern social structure, stable economy and achievements in the fields we are predistened to. We should accept such a modernization plan as a task not for the next government of Platform but for all following governments in the next twenty years. At this point, the economy must be strengthened in two elements. Firstly, in a reform of public finances that was promised many times before. Secondly, in creating competitive conditions of Polish economy. Increased participation in scientific and technological development, promoting close relations with scientific communities and creating something which will result in Poland competing on quickly changing markets. Undoubtedly quality of education should be improved, especially high school education. It should be a great project. Furthermore, we can assume for example that in Poland each young person at the age of eighteen speaks two foreign languages, surely English and another chosen by himself. It can be Russian, German, French or Chinese. All we have to do is create possibilities. Isn’t it an excellent goal?

LW: Brilliant.

AK: Is it possible to achieve? Of course, it is! The second vital element are high schools. We should have an aim that two schools in Poland will be in a hundred of the best schools in the world. One university and one technical university. We must help these high schools. If they develop at their own  pace, nothing will be done. The third matter is culture. We must find a way to promote Polish culture, to make films, spectacles and exhibitions; to end discussions about finishing the building of modern museum, to construct great exhibition halls; to create an atmosphere and to make it fashionable. I do not suggest that we should fight for championship title in football competitions. Despite the fact that it is close to my heart, I am aware that it is unreal. I do not see any obstacles to being a country which is taken into account in a cultural circulation in Europe. We have music, films, outstanding artists and artistic school at high level. Let’s make Polish cities  make urban plans, to distinguis them from cossacks’ farmsteads or gypsy camps, to look esthetically. It is a paradox that Poland, which is proud of tradition of Solidarity written with a capital letter, when it comes to daily solidarity written with a small letter is a country far behind Europe. We are not leaders of solidarity, mutual help, lack of envy, every day kindness and supporting people who are more talented than we are. However, the personal envy is stronger than the solidarity.

LW: It is striking that since Law and Justice won the election, or even since the Rywin scandal, in the  Round Table circle, which affirms the Third Polish Republic, there is no vision of the kind you have just talked about, a  vision that would appeal to people. Why didn’t these circles, which in fact created the Third Polish Republic by the Round Table and, so to speak, led this transformation to the end by the symbolic entering the European Union, present this kind of vision, or why did not this vision meet appropriate social approval?

AK: I would explain this by exhaustion and fatigue. When you reach the finishing line after a long run, you need a moment to catch your breath. This moment lasted for at least two years, and the shock and the society’s disagreement with what Law and Justice offered resulted in the fact that in 2007 we were able to talk about coming back to normality. I believe that entering the European Union was not an easy time to formulate next vision immediately, and perhaps even from a historical point of view two years of this Law and Justice counterpoint, to put it mildly, was necessary. However, four years of the Platform’s government is really enough, especially in such a comfortable situation when almost all of the power is in their hands, and the mass media are mostly friendly. It may be even depriving for politicians in a sense, as they do not feel coerced enough into acting by outside opinions. A lot of time has passed, and such vision needs to be proposed. Speaking jokingly – my slogan in the 2000 campaign was: “Everybody’s Home: Poland”. Let it now be: “Beautiful Home: Poland.” The 2011 parliament election is the last call. Previously, I hoped that the Platform in the presidential election  would be represented by Donald Tusk as a real leader of this movement who would propose a consistent vision carried out by all levels of government.

LW: Was it not always the role of the elites – social, political – but understood in a broader sense than the party’s leader and his court?

AK: The problem of the European elites is a really fast pace of changes. Due to the Internet, we are faced with a blizzard of thousands of items of information. When I switch off my computer I wonder what is it that I really learnt. Because of this muddle, it is in fact nothing. This shortage of time, the mass of information, the tabloidization of the media resulted in a situation when the voice of the elites is for people who have time for talking, thinking, splitting hairs. In this race taking place in today’s world, in which especially young people participate, nobody has such comfort. The role of the elites is to introduce these topics and discuss them, whereas politicians cannot be driven by only short-term aims, that is the next election, but they sometimes have to talk about issues which go more beyond the nearest future. Politicians are in a difficult situation because elections are not won by discussing complex matters, elections are not won by talking about things which are unpleasant, elections are not won by frightening people, unless it is frightening with Law and Justice (laughter).

It is a choice of decisions which can in the long run be beneficial for the state, for us as a nation, and they involve a significant degree of risk. A politician’s job is not to announce that Monday is on Monday, and Tuesday is on Tuesday, one does not need to win election for that, everybody knows that. A politician’s job is to manage risk. I expect politicians to discuss fundamental issues.

LW: You have been travelling a lot around the world for a dozen of years. Where should we look for this new quality which has not been spoken about in Poland yet?

AK: There are countries which we should learn from. It is about going in for politics, but it does not pertain to only politicians, but the media as well, and also voters in a sense. I believe that the highest substantive quality of democracy still exists in Germany, that people talk there about fundamental issues very seriously, starting from the parliament. Even today, the Germans are not afraid to devote an hour to watch grey-haired men discussing for example health care or the problems of agriculture in their television programmes, also broadcasted in commercial channels, admittedly late in the evening. As President, I was once invited to Germany  to a meeting to talk about European and Polish-German issues, which took place on Sunday, around noon in a hall in Berlin. From 500 to 600 people came to the meeting. So I thought: „My Goodness! What would I have to do in Poland, and just how sensational  should this event be to make 100 people want to come on Sunday at 11 o’clock to any hall in Warsaw. You know from your own experience that it is extremely difficult to gather an audience in Poland which would come out of their own will, not only to tick their presence off, but to participate in a substantial discussion. It is a German tradition and we should learn the ability of a fierce confrontation of our views from that, but without crossing the boundary of good manners and good taste. It is worth to learn respect for the profession that you do. In Poland, politicians do not respect themselves and are surprised that they are not respected. In Germany, politicians respect each other.

We are currently experiencing a time which is neatly referred as election transfers. In my opinion, it is a very big problem of our democracy. I understand that it can be uncomfortable for some politicians in their political party from time to time, but changing party colours is becoming a mass phenomenon. What does it mean? It means that there is no respect for election procedures. A member of parliament who won some votes running from a particular list, should be bound by this mandate; he cannot brake this agreement just because he had an argument with someone, he cannot treat politics as some kind of a game. Politics should include some degree of ethics. Otherwise, it will discourage the voters. If I have voted for Mr Kowalski from a left-wing party and he turns out to be Mr Kowalski from a right-wing party, than what party did I vote for, left-wing or right-wing?

LW: Could we speak about the democratic crises in  Poland and the rest of  the world?

AK: Politics is undergoing major changes and unfortunately democracies are troubled at the moment. I wouldn’t like to label it as a democratic crisis but would like to comment on some of the difficulties.

Firstly, this is a problem with the supply of human resources. Today’s political market is incompetent in comparison to banking, business or media market. It’s not by luck, that most of the young people who find their way in to politics come from youth party structures, most of them starting out as assistants or secretaries to experienced politicians. There is nothing wrong with that but this is very narrow supply of human resources. So big democracies, like the USA have a problem with human resources.

LW:With talents?

AK: Yes, talented people should be in politics. Many people who come into politics achieved something in the other fields and this means they are often older and might lack energy and creativity. And this is one of the troublesome situation, not to say a critical one. The second factor is the increasing media influence. From the time when 24 hours TV channels were created, it’s hard to say if it was politics that create these channels or the other way around. This created a demand to plan what would be said today or what would be delivered to the public tomorrow, making public relations an important issue.

On the other side it makes the media become tabloid. Today, the politician who would need more time to explain some more complicated problem, for example concerning the nuclear power, doesn’t have the chance. I can’t forget one of the debates, which I took part in during the electoral campaign, I was told “You have 20 seconds for talk about Polish-Russian relations”, tt’s great (laughing).

The financial crisis showed that the countries with well-developed democracy structures are not able to react quickly. Many of my interlocutors came to the conclusion that the best system, the most effective, is the enlightened authoritarian, enlightened dictatorship. But the problem with dictatorship is that we don’t know if it’s enlightened or not, only when it’s finished. A democratic system ensures that we are not able to skip some of the frames, some of the borders as it would be possible in a dictatorship. Democracy needs to be defended but we have also to realise that we come to the point which requires some conscious analysis.

LW: Coming back to the Polish field, we see that relations between the State and the Catholic Church established in 90s are under tension. Society is undergoing dynamic changes, opening up to the external world outlook. Could you see it as the beginning of a crisis or do you think this consensus will last for a while?

AK: I’m thinking it will last. Undoubtedly the Catholic Church’s position in Poland  is strong and undoubtedly the compromise with the left wing government of the beginning of 90s helped to strengthen its position.  I think this policy was correct. Not only was justified but it also came from our historic conditions. Of course, the left wing Social Democratic party had less power at that time than The Civil Platform has today. I would say that in 2012 we need some measures to prevent this matter from creating a big conflict. For sure the State must  follow the constitution, guard the neutral world outlook, and respect the autonomy of both sides.

LW: Is today different?

AK: Today’s State requires some revision, but in my opinion, it’s not in a position we could describe as dramatic. On the other hand the Catholic Church is in a crisis situation. I think that  society secularization is taking place at this very moment. And it’s the church’s role to find the answer of how to encourage children to attend the religious lessons, adults to attend masses and to convince the faithful to abide by the doctrine.

There are some questions that require serious debate and should not be avoided any longer. I mean the in vitro question for example. Another problem which requires to be resolved is persistent life therapy or euthanasia. This problem, regarding patients, their families and doctors, will have to be regulated. The next big issue is to regulate relationships between unmarried couples and also same-sex couples. In the discussion we couldn’t neglect the fact, that in highly developed countries, where these kind of relationships are becoming more and more popular, lots of the children are born outside marriage. Today, in Poland, 20% of children are born to unmarried couples. If somebody asked me, a social-liberal, if it’s right, I would answer, no, it’s not. We are dealing with a crisis of marriage, unwillingness for establishing a family and a demographic crisis.
And the family crisis is not a small matter, even from a left-wing position.

There are no real reasons for that.  On the other hand they need to be seriously addressed by the State, citizens and the Catholic Church. I would search for  the platform for that dialog, to attempt to explain each side  of the argument to each other, because I’m afraid that the truth does not lie on one side or the other.

LW: Mister President, why a centre-left party, such as New Labour, has never been created in Poland? Neither Civic Platform, nor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) can be described as such. Is it possible to create such a party? Is it possible to change this closed nature of Polish political arena, which you mentioned earlier, that causes lack of competitiveness and decreases the overall quality of politics? Can you see these kind of possibilities?

AK: When I observe what is happening with Palikot or Poland Comes First (PJN), I know there is no chance of changing the situation. We have to be cautious with saying that Polish political arena is closed and needs to be changed, I fear that we are becoming anxious. When we were forming the Constitution in 1993-97, one of our main goals was to stabilize the government and the political arena, as it was in a complete mess. Governments changed, parliaments dissolved, with over twenty parties in the Parliament there was no possibility to form coalitions. As a result, currently there are four parties in the Parliament and it seems that there will be four parties next term. Can we really view our political arena as closed after only two terms? What about Englishmen or Americans? The political arena has been stabilized, we do not know for how long, but it is safe to assume that for the next term. According to forecasts, no new parties will enter the Parliament. Polish situation is specific in the sense that we have a main party, the governing party, which is rather eclectic.

LW: Like Front of National Unity…

AK: In a way, yes. Especially if more transfers follow, then we will see how effective this ideologically amorphous party is, how many votes it will collect, both from the left and the right, and how effectively it will govern.

As far as the Left is concerned, the New Labour’s notion of such opening took place and in this way one could define SLD’s politics and mine as the President. In the field of socio-economic politics I was naturally in favour of market superiority and neo-liberal economic conception, with some responsibilities of the state towards those in need or in extreme situations. As the Left we have paid a substantial price for this, but so has Schröder in Germany or Blair in England. Our liberal supporters eventually turned to the Right, and those that we tried to help considered our help to be insufficient and stayed at their homes or voted for other parties. To cut the long story short, Miller and his government rendered great service to Polish economy by, among others, reducing the CIT to 19%, but disappointed many traditional left-wing voters and simply was not left-wing enough. All left-wing governments in Europe in the last 20 years have run up against such a dilemma. To be honest, it seemed that the recent economic crisis resurrected the left-wing way of thinking in the sense of a broader involvement of the state. However, it turned out in 2008 that all right-wing governments, starting from the neo-conservative Bush administration, did not hesitate to increase state interventionism. At that time Angela Merkel and CDU were also pumping a lot of money into their economy. So was Sarkozy’s right-wing government. So suddenly it turned out that the Right had no scruples, whatsoever, to follow the path of increased state interventionism. Consequently, this dispute, which could be of ideological importance, became distorted and vanished – to democracy’s disadvantage.  If I were to predict the course of actions on Polish political arena, I would say that this state of affairs will hold, at least for the time of the next term. And if there are any tensions, then they only stem from PO’s inner programme or ideology related disputes. If they are up against current challenges, parties such as SLD may gain on popularity as an alternative, as a different way of thinking, but not revolutionary, i.e. shattering all that has been achieved so far.

LW: Does the trick of the trade in Polish politics constitute in the ability to notice what voters want and to adjust to those expectations? SLD used to be an expert on that some time ago, while other post-Solidarity parties threw themselves at the political arena and perished. Tusk drew conclusions from this and thus he avoids “swimming against the current” of voters’ preferences.

AK: The democracy constitutes in the fact that an elector has a vote. Therefore, what an elector thinks, what he expresses during elections is of crucial importance. If people desire peace and tranquility, then no politician should propose a revolution. If people want to barbecue, then no one should lead them to battle. And if people desire changes and are ready to fight for them, then no one should brainwash and instruct them to go home and take a rest. Understanding social needs, understanding voters’ will is one of politicians’ tasks, and that is not a reproach, it is simply necessity. This is the nature of democracy. And in this sense the quality of politics is obviously connected with politicians’ ability to listen to people’s needs. Apart from understanding those needs and expectations politicians should also possess the ability to analyse what is today and what will be tomorrow and afterwards; to notice opportunities, notice risks, design things, propose, lead, gather people around those tasks and make them engaged. This is what the true leadership is all about. Every leader has to know where he wants to go. And here one has to admit that for the last 20 years Poland has been doing very well, since we knew, despite different governments, where we wanted to go. If Poles need a boost, if they need a clear goal in order to do something, then we have to set this goal. And therefore I expect that a leader will not only be  able to understand social expectations and as a result to win the elections, but also to formulate visions, know ways of bringing those visions to life and most importantly, that he will be able to create agreements for the sake of those visions. Not only with his own camp, but with other circles as well. Naturally, we cannot forget that a politician is managing risk, a situation is bound to change, so at the very beginning no one can imagine what lies ahead. Since everything is uncertain, the more legal a state is, the more democratic procedures we have, the more civic our society becomes, the more electors vote, the more NGOs are active, the more this structure is developed and able to function jointly, the better for all of us.

Interview by: Leszek Jażdżewski and Michał Safianik

Translation: Katarzyna Wronczewska, Monika Mokrosz, Izabela Michalska and Maciej Rogoza

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About Aleksander Kwasniewski

Polish politician, served two terms as President of Poland between 1995 and 2005.

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