Why My Parents Backed Poland’s Far-Right Party

The Postwar Generation Struggled. I Hope That the Newly Elected Parliament Will Bring Them Into the Fold

A record-breaking number of Polish voters ousted Poland’s far-right party from power last year. As they celebrate, historian Anna Cichopek-Gajraj offers perspective on why a disparaged “Poland B” fears this newly elected parliament. Image of Poland’s National Assembly. Courtesy of The Chancellery of the Senate of the Republic of Poland/Wikimedia Commons.

“Poles are idiots!”

“What are poor people going to do?”

Last October, just days after Poland’s most recent parliamentary elections, I listened as my craggy-faced 83-year-old father angrily shouted these words through the phone receiver in his apartment on the outskirts of Kraków. He and my mother were both distraught. Their party, the populist, right-wing Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) of Jarosław Kaczyński had just lost its majority.

For Poland’s last three parliamentary elections, my parents have put on their Sunday best and exercised their democratic right to vote by opting to support PiS. Yet simultaneously, the party has eroded key pillars of the very system that granted them that fundamental right. As historian Brian Porter-Szűcs has summarized in the Globe Post, since PiS first took power in 2015, it has “transformed the state-run media into a propaganda mouthpiece, purged the civil service, strengthened partisan political control over state-run businesses, and above all, eliminated the independence of the judiciary.”

While it’s tempting to reduce my parents—and the 7.6 million others, 35% of all Polish voters, who voted for PiS—to uninformed right-wing zealots, such simplification lacks empathy and further marginalizes these individuals. Instead, it’s important to understand the roots of PiS support—which for many people, including my parents, is deeply embedded in their experiences of communism and the country’s transition to a capitalist economy in the 1990s.

Born during World War II in poor working-class families, both of my parents were shaped by the Polish People’s Republic. Like most Poles, they never engaged in political struggles for or against the communist regime. Rather, socialism gave him and my mother opportunities they could not have dreamt of without it. They became a classic example of social mobility in postwar Poland.

Between the early 1960s and late ’70s, with no money or higher education, they moved to the vibrant city of Kraków, secured decently paying jobs, acquired an apartment with a modest down payment, had access to free health care and free education for their child, and could afford most there was to be afforded.

There were shortages, but the sausage for which they queued for hours, often at night, tasted much better, they say, than any of the things they have access to in abundance today. There was no real chocolate and no bananas, no nice clothes and no fancy perfumes, but this lack was equally distributed: They did not have things, but their bosses didn’t have them either.

While it’s tempting to reduce my parents—and the 7.6 million others, 35.4 percent of all Polish voters, who voted for PiS—to uninformed right-wing zealots, such simplification lacks empathy and further marginalizes these individuals.

To this day, my parents remain grateful for those years. So when the PiS government rose to power in the mid-2010s, it offered a vision that seemed rooted in the socialist economic order they remembered fondly. (Unlike the Republican Party in the U.S., Polish conservatives like PiS do not embrace libertarianism, but instead campaign on populist economics of fair distribution of wealth. One of my dad’s main arguments in support of PiS has been its “500 plus” policy, which gives families 500 Polish Zloty, around 130 USD, per child every month.) Most importantly, the party addressed my parents’—and millions of other voters’—anger at the unfulfilled promise of capitalism and democracy.

In 1989, when the ruling communist party was abolished, my parents were both 50 years old, a stay-at-home mom and a white-collar professional. In other countries, people their age might be eagerly looking toward retirement. But for my parents and millions like them, turning 50 meant the end of the only world they knew.

The initial exhilaration of political change and freedom quickly gave way to anxiety and fear over employment, money, and the future. The “shock therapy” policy imported from the United States brought about such a rapid transition from a socialist planned economy to a neoliberal capitalist regime that there was a widespread loss of employment: For instance, my father’s state-run company was closed, taking with it his job. He witnessed the rampant corruption of rapid privatization with wild takeovers and fortunes amassed overnight by the shrewd, the lucky, and often the unscrupulous.

My parents did not lose their spirit. They dreamt the big dreams of storied capitalism. They applied for an alcohol license to run a small beer wholesale company. I will never forget how they danced, cheered, and celebrated the day it was granted, our little apartment bursting with hope and joy. In 1991, they opened the business.

But without capital or training in ruthless business acumen, they were destined to fail. After three years, they went bankrupt, left with huge debts and bailiffs knocking on the door. My mom fell into a depression. My dad struggled to make sense of it all.

That was how the great historical moment of transitioning from socialism to capitalism played out for our small family and millions like ours.

For the next 20 years, my parents aged while watching Poland make its phenomenal ascent “into the West” as an Eastern Bloc economic tiger. Neighbors moved out to nice villas further in the city outskirts. Beautiful cars appeared in front of our shabby apartment building. Well-stocked supermarkets mushroomed, killing familiar small neighborhood stores.

In turn, they felt more and more isolated and aggrieved. Receiving pensions of 250-300 USD per month, they felt that the new, democratic Poland had left them by the wayside—and that the liberal governments did not care for or about them.

Then came PiS, speaking directly to the core of my parents’ discontent. The party offered the millions of Poles barely surviving on minimum pensions and wages simple imagery of those who got poor and those who got rich at the poor’s expense. They used an easily digestible vernacular of good and evil, enemies and heroes, patriotism and treason, in the relentless propaganda of public TV. They promised to hunt down the thieves and weed out corruption. They manipulated retirees’ religious devotion and their discomfort with rapid, left-leaning changes. They spoke of “us”—villages and small towns, or what the liberals disparagingly called “Poland B”—versus “them”—corrupt elites.

In all their demagogic nonsense, there was always a kernel of truth that my parents could use to justify their support: corruption. We all knew it was a real problem. The 1990s privatization process was rife with criminality. The wealth gap was growing. The PiS promised to “cleanse” the society of all these ills. If democratic institutions got destroyed in the process, so be it.

But the tide has changed with a record-breaking 74% of eligible Polish voters turning out in an election that ousted PiS from power. Now my parents are worried. They fear that the benefits they received under the PiS government—increased monthly pensions, additional annual payments, and an expanded list of free medications—will be revoked.

Will their fears come true? Will the new government ignore them, and millions like them?

Given that so many of my parents’ generation are in desperate need of assistance, I hope not. Beyond addressing their obvious material needs by increasing minimal pensions and lowering medical expenses, I hope that the new regime understands that it is important to respect them for who they are. Their limited education, socialist nostalgia, and elderly religious devotion should not relegate them to a marginalized social status, akin to a disparaged “Poland B.”

Already there are promising signs: A new state budget for 2024 has maintained additional annual payments for pensioners. The new Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has reassured PiS voters that no previously existing benefits will be “taken away” from them. He has also repeatedly stated that his government will respect and care for all citizens, not just his constituency.

Two and a half months after the elections, even my parents have taken note. My dad surprised me recently when he said that he feels that the country is going in the “right direction.” I hope that the new government will continue to craft its rhetoric and policy with compassion to allow my parents and others dignity in the twilight of their lives.

Anna Cichopek-Gajraj is a native of Kraków, Poland, and a history professor at Arizona State University. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond Violence: Jewish Survivors in Poland and Slovakia in 1944-1948. She is currently working on a social history of the global displacement of Polish Catholics and Polish Jews in the first 20 years after World War II.

Buy the Book Bookshop
PRIMARY EDITOR: Jackie Mansky | SECONDARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.