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Polish Lessons

There is a tension at the heart of populist political parties that may ultimately lead most of them to electoral defeat. They depend heavily on the votes of the old, the poor and the poorly educated – “I love the poorly educated,” as Donald Trump once put it – but they are also right-wing parties that do not like what they call ‘socialism’. (Other people call it the welfare state.)

So while they fight the ‘culture war’ against liberal values and bang the nationalist drum (which is popular with these key voting groups), they usually shun the kinds of government programmes that would actually raise the incomes of their key voters. It doesn’t sit well with the ideologies of the people who lead these parties, who are neither poor nor poorly educated.

A case in point is Britain’s governing Conservative Party, which has made the journey from traditional conservative values to rabid nationalism and populism over the past decade. But at the same time it has pursued ‘universal credit’, a punitive reform of the country’s generous welfare programmes that has left most of its working-class voters worse off, and forced some to turn to food banks.

The Conservatives have been getting away with it, in the short term, because Brexit is an all-consuming emotional issue in which the same old, poor and poorly educated part of the electorate mostly voted ‘Leave’ in blatant contradiction to their economic interests.

However, it does not make electoral sense in the long term. Populists always manufacture some sort of crisis for their supporters to focus on at election time, but few others will work as effectively as Brexit. Sooner or later their economic policies, which hurt the poor, will betray them. Unless they heed the Polish example.

In last Sunday’s Polish election, the populist Law and Justice Party won 43.6% of the vote (according to the exit polls) in an election that saw the biggest turn-out since the fall of Communism in 1989. That is a full 6% higher than the vote that first brought them to power in 2015, and will give them an absolute majority in the Sejm (the lower house of parliament).

The Law and Justice Party is not an attractive organisation. It cultivates the national taste for self-pity and martyrdom (the ‘Christ of the Nations’), and always finds some imaginary threat to ‘Polish values’ that only it can protect the nation from. In 2015 it was Muslim refugees (none of whom were actually heading for Poland); this time it was the alleged LGBT threat to Polish culture.

In power, it has curbed the freedom of the press, attacked the independence of the judiciary, and purged the civil service, replacing professionals with party loyalists. Several times it has been threatened with sanctions for its anti-democratic actions by the European Union, which has the duty of defending democracy among its member countries.

Law and Justice’s rhetoric is divisive and filled with hatred. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski explained that the government wanted to “cure our country of a few illnesses” including ““a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”

So far, so bad, but fairly typical of the new generation of populist parties in the West. What is very different, and gave Law and Justice its resounding victory in this election, is that it addressed not only its voters’ ideological concerns but also their economic needs.

Perhaps it’s because the Polish right, suppressed under Communist rule for more than four decades, never developed the kind of libertarian, Ayn Rand-worshipping ideology that infects much of the right in countries further west. Or maybe it’s because of Polish nationalism’s long alliance with the Catholic Church, which actually does respect and care for the poor.

At any rate, Law and Justice manages to be economically left-wing even though it is culturally right-wing. In power, it raised the minimum wage, promising to double it by 2023, and lowered the retirement age. It gave pensioners an annual cash bonus and boosted farming subsidies. (It won most of the rural vote.)

Above all, it brought in the 500 Plus programme, which gives parents 500 złotys ($130) a month for each child. It’s pro-family (which pleases the Church), it encourages big families (which pleases nationalists, given Poland’s declining birth-rate), and while it doesn’t make much difference to middle-class families, it transforms the life of a poor family with three children.

And all that money going into the hands of the citizens produced an economic growth rate last year of 5.4%, one of the highest in the European Union. No wonder Law and Justice increased its share of the national vote in this month’s election.

So if you are not fond of populism, pray that populists elsewhere do not discover Poland’s secret. They do need to be culturally conservative, because they are always blood-and-soil nationalists, but there’s no particular reason why they shouldn’t be economically liberal. If they want to last, that’s the way they have to go.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 14. (“A case…interests”; and “And all…election”)

Bangladesh in Trouble

How’s this for a staunch defence of free speech in a secular state? Earlier this month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh denounced anyone who criticised religion or expressed their own lack of religious faith in striking terms: “I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”

So does she mean that it’s all right to kill people who write such words? Hack them to death with machetes, usually? She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t exactly say no either. And this is regrettable, because quite a few people are being hacked to death in Bangladesh these days.

In the current wave of murders, most of the victims have been “secular” bloggers who publicly stated that they were atheists and offered reasons for their lack of belief. They did not criticise or mock Islam directly, but merely insisting that religious faith was not necessary or rational was enough to “hurt religious sentiment”. For some people, it was reason enough to kill them.

Four high-profile secular bloggers were hacked to death in separate attacks in Bangladesh last year, in a campaign of murder that was clearly more than just random incidents of religious rage. What was remarkable was the response of the government – or rather, its lack of response.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina leads a country of 160 million people that is officially committed to defending the freedoms of speech and belief of citizens of every religion (and of no religion at all). But while she publicly deplored the murders, she was careful at the same time to insinuate that the bloggers were outrageous people who had in some way deserved to be killed.

She also insisted that these murders were the work of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), or more precisely of its political ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party. She firmly denied that foreign extremist forces like Islamic State or al-Qaeda (which would certainly approve of the killings) are active in the country.

This probably seems to Sheikh Hasina to be sound practical politics in a country where 90 percent of the population is Muslim. So while not openly approving of murder, she publicly sympathises with conservative Muslims who think they have the right to live in a society where their beliefs are never publicly questioned.

It’s also good politics for her to blame the violence exclusively on the opposition parties, since admitting that foreign Islamists are involved would mean that she was failing in her duty to defend the country. But the result of her pragmatism and passivity has been a rapid expansion in the range of targets that are coming under attack by the extremists.

On 23 April Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, who edited a literary magazine and founded a music school – and never blogged about religion at all – was murdered by machete-wielding men as he left his home in the northern city of Rajshahi to go to the university. He was an observant Muslim, but he was involved in cultural activities which many hardline groups condemn as “un-Islamic”.

The following day gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan, editor of a LGBT magazine, and actor Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were hacked to death in the magazine’s offices in the capital, Dhaka. In other recent violence religious minorities have been attacked: Shia and Ahmadi mosques, Christian priests and Hindus. (Several of the murdered bloggers belonged to the 10-percent Hindu minority, and their issue was religious belief in general, not Islam in particular.)

So is Bangladeshi society drifting into the chronic terrorism against minorities of all sorts that afflicts its former ruler, Pakistan? The answer, unfortunately, is probably yes – and the blame lies mainly with the two women who have polarised Bangladesh’s political life for so long.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is one of only two survivors of the family of Mujibur Rahman, the leader of Bangladesh’s independence struggle and its first prime minister. (He was massacred with all the rest of his family in a military coup in 1975.) The opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who led a subsequent military coup and declared Islam to be the state religion, only to be killed in yet another coup in 1981.

In theory, at least, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League represents the ideal of a secular Bangladesh that embraces its minorities, and Khaleda Zia’s BNP depends mainly on the support of conservative Sunni Muslims whose ideal society is explicitly Islamic. Such divisions exist in every Muslim society, but they are made far sharper by the mutual hatred of the two women who have utterly dominated Bangladesh’s politics for the past 25 years.

The BNP’s alliance with Islamist parties pushes it ever closer to the religious extremists, and Sheikh Hasina’s pandering to conservative Islamic sentiment (in order not to lose devout Muslim voters to the BNP) is taking her party in the same direction. And Islamic State and al-Qaeda definitely are active in the country. Bangladesh is in deep trouble.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. “In the current…kill them”; and “Prime…1981″)