Poland already has a nationalist government, and the rise of the Konfederacja party threatens to pull it even further to the right. It wants to slash taxes and break up the welfare state — a radical agenda that’s rallying parts of the right-wing base.
Sławomir Mentzen, the coleader of Konfederacja who helped reform its image, makes a campaign speech on August 27, 2023, in Krakow, Poland.
(Klaudia Radecka / NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Ahead of Sunday’s general election, both Polish and international media are speculating on the rise of the radical-right alliance Konfederacja (Confederation). For German daily Die Welt, Konfederacja has succeeded already, as it has established itself as a potential force of government alongside either the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party or its neoliberal rivals in Civic Platform (PO).
Certainly, Konfederacja seems radical — leader Sławomir Mentzen has proclaimed “We don’t want: Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and European Union.” But this party’s rise is especially notable in a country whose ruling Law and Justice party is itself widely labeled “radical” or “far-right” given its record of restrictions on abortion, racist policies towards Middle Eastern refugees, and anti-LGBTQ campaigns. It’s worth asking what the difference is between these forces — and what difference, if any, Konfederacja could make to Poland’s next government as a potential coalition partner.
Konfederacja was established as an electoral alliance of various right-wing groups in 2018, three years into Law and Justice’s stint in government. The alliance’s first campaign in the 2019 European Union (EU) elections failed to secure it any seats; yet later that same year, it made its breakthrough into Poland’s legislature, electing eleven MPs.
Today it is based on three factions: Ruch Narodowy is a nationalist party that was established on the wave of the infamous Independence March organized in Warsaw each November 11. Then there is KORWiN (now renamed New Hope), a conservative-liberal party led previously by Janusz Korwin-Mikke (a former member of the European Parliament, and now an MP), and Konfederacja Korony Polskiej led by Grzegorz Braun. The whole movement is also supported by antiabortion and antivaccine activists, as well as part of Catholic fundamentalist think tank “Ordo Iuris.”
From the outset Konfederacja held positions that set it clearly to the right even of PiS, including a mobilization specifically regarding the massacre of the European Jews. Indeed, Konfederacja was strongly involved in a campaign against the United States’ 2017 “Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act,” which requires the State Department to report to Congress on steps that forty-seven countries have taken to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs for assets seized by Nazi Germany and postwar communist governments. Konfederacja accused PiS, a party supportive of the Trump administration, of being passive toward a law that was described as dangerous by antisemitic circles in Poland. Robert Winnicki, leader of nationalist faction Ruch Narodowy claimed that “Their yarmulkes slipped over their eyes! The ones that they adore at every opportunity. They’re already attached to their brains.”
Konfederacja leading lights Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Grzegorz Braun are known for their antisemitic opinions, including support for Holocaust denial theories.
Konfederacja leading lights Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Grzegorz Braun are known for their antisemitic opinions, including support for Holocaust denial theories. Korwin-Mikke claims that Hitler did not know about the Holocaust and imposed lower taxes than independent Poland had done. Among other far-right positions, he opposes women’s right to vote and calls Vladimir Putin “his excellency.” Braun is also involved in contacts with Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland — a link which is controversial even among right-wing circles. He has stated that Poland is a German-Russian colony ruled by Jews. Both men claim to be monarchists.
During the pandemic, Konfederacja politicians were the most vocal opponents of obligatory vaccination and supported the antivax activists in their campaign against this policy, imposed by the PiS government. Braun even made a death threat to the minister of health during a parliamentary session.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine began last February, Konfederacja saw a decline in its popular support due to its anti-Ukrainian line and ghettoization among nationalist and antivaccination voters. Yet this situation changed after Robert Winnicki resigned from activity due to health problems and Janusz Korwin-Mikke withdrew from the leadership due to his advanced age (Korwin-Mikke was born in 1942). The new leader of KORWiN party, the economist and antitax activist Sławomir Mentzen, changed its name to “New Hope” and, together with Krzysztof Bosak from Ruch Narodowy, began to change Konfederacja’s image.
While Bosak was an MP from 2005–7 and again since 2019, the younger Mentzen, aged 36, has no such experience as a politician. The two men present Konfederacja as an intellectual right-wing movement which seeks to simplify the tax system and improve the situation of Polish entrepreneurs. The pro-Kremlin agenda was silenced, although the coalition is still faithful to anti-Ukrainian and anti-immigrant rhetoric that is also weaponized against Law and Justice. This summer polling support for Konfederacja surged to 16 percent.
Ahead of Sunday’s election, mainstream media have spoken of the most important vote since 1989, which will decide whether democracy triumphs or else a semi-authoritarian regime will rule Poland for next four years. Beyond the central contest between Law and Justice and Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, also important in deciding the overall outcome is the race for third place, between Konfederacja, Lewica (The Left), and the Christian-Democratic/neoliberal Third Way coalition.
Pollsters have shown that Konfederacja’s new voters, ahead of Sunday’s contest, are different from those who supported the party before. Back in 2016, Mentzen supported a poll tax rate of PLN 250 ($60) per month for every Pole over eighteen years of age and a twofold increase in real estate tax. He also preferred monarchy to democracy, arguing that “dictatorships do not have to be bad. For example, Chile, Singapore, and South Korea” had turned out well because “they introduced a free market.” But while Konfederacja leaders have a longstanding ideological radicalism, the voters present a quite different picture. According to polls, they do not reject democracy, stand against leaving the European Union, support the liberalization of the abortion law, and are only as religious as left-wing voters.
Konfederacja favors the cancellation of many taxes, replacing them with a flat tax or even a poll tax, and the privatization of public services.
In this sense, it is important to understand the importance of the rival parties’ positions on the economy, not just on socially progressive causes. The key thing that unites the Konfederacja bloc is the aim of breaking PiS’s monopoly over the parliamentary right. Since the political decline of the center-left Democratic Left Alliance in 2005, the political scene in Poland has been split between the neoliberal, technocratic Civic Platform and the avowedly “populist” PiS. The latter, while a party of the Right, uses the language of being “profamily” and “procommunity” to oppose the Civic Platform’s agenda, also through welfare measures like introducing a citizen benefit of 500 PLN ($120) a month for every child. The benefit is commonly supported even by many of PiS’s opponents; Konfederacja is against such welfarism, though says it will not abolish this measure. An antitax front and an advocate of semi-libertarian economics, Konfederacja favors the cancellation of many taxes, replacing them with a flat tax or even a poll tax, and the privatization of public services.
Wolves in Libertarian Clothing
Konfederacja and PiS have their similarities. Both support strong xenophobic sentiment against immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and focus their campaigns on this issue. All Konfederacja MPs supported PiS in tightening Poland’s abortion law, although it was already one of the most restrictive in Europe.
Still, in today’s Konfederacja program we do not find a single word about abortion. It prefers that new voters never hear such past radical positions as Sławomir Mentzen demanding civil marriages without the possibility of divorce, the MP Dobromir Sośnierz claiming that eating dogs might be as good as eating other meat, candidate Tomasz Stala admitting his past monarchist and fascist views, or fellow aspiring MP Żaneta Nochowicz claiming that the Earth is flat and Donald Trump travels through time. Many younger voters who do not read papers and check the news only via social media see only the antitax and pro–free market rhetoric. This always finds followers, as many Poles born after 1989 believe that social welfare is the source of modern capitalist problems and that a Darwinist form of capitalism is the solution to all its ills.
Konfederacja’s rise ought not be seen as an inevitable and linear process — indeed, recent polls before the election have seen it fall back to the range of 7–10 percent. Sławomir Mentzen has not performed well in debates, and some of Konfederacja’s base rallied to the PiS during a recent dispute over Ukrainian grain imports to Poland, which antagonized many farmers and created a nationalist cause célèbre for the ruling party. Also in doubt is whether Konfederacja voters do indeed want this party to cooperate with PiS if they together win a majority of seats: indeed, party members admit that their voters look more kindly on the neoliberals of Civic Platform. Konfederacja’s more likely strategy is to spread chaos, making demands on the democratic parties and PiS that can push Poland toward another set of elections.Original post