Thursday, 17 February 2011

We are more progressive than our political elite

Poland enjoys a reputation of a country rather hostile towards sexual diversity. Last week, a Robert Węgrzyn, an MP for the Civic Platform, did something to reinforce this view. When asked on the TV about his opinion on legal acknowledgement of gay and lesbian unions, he answered: "you can forget about gay men but I would gladly watch lesbians." His words provoked outrage and indignation, and his local party structures demanded that he be expelled from the PO. Węgrzyn apologised, half-heartedly, though he does not seem to be quite convinced he should. The apology notwithstanding, on his official website one finds also a statement entitled bravely "I did not offend a person". "I won't let myself be offended in public", he cautions, as if in a pathetic attempt to reverse the charge.

Węgrzyn is, at best, a third-rank MP, so one needs not ascribe too great a weight to his calamities. It is much more discomforting, however, that the foreign minister Radosław Sikorski came to his rescue. "Journalists complain that politicians are boring and speak only in slogans, but when someone makes a dubious joke they crucify him," he said on radio. And he added a joke of his own, saying that Węgrzyn "should get a rap across the knuckles and be made to do 30 push ups." Some may find Sikorski's sense of humour no less embarassing than the Węgrzyn's. The implied acceptance of corporal punishment is hardly enjoyable, as is the way the minister reframed the debate. Instead of taking the issues of sexism, homophobia and verbal aggression as seriously as they deserve, he seems to focus attention on the possible inconvenience into which the MP's words may have put the governing party.

The political correctness is still shallow, and the aacceptance of homophobic language within the political class seems to be widespread. But in what extent does this reflect the popular mood? When we look at the developments in public opinion during the recent decade, we can see that anti-gay opinions remain widespread, but the overall trend is progressive.

Trends in anti-gay attitudes in Poland, 2001-2010 (CBOS, June 2010)
The most striking change concerns the level of acceptance of the view that "Homosexuality is not a normal thing and should not be tolerated." Between 2001 and 2010 the ranks of those ready to agree with it halved, going from 41% down to 23% (green line). It seems there are more opponents of marriage equality than at the beginning of the noughties (red line), but this is explained by the growing ranks of those who support civil unions as a separate institution for LGBT people (yellow line).The most interesting change concerns the acceptance of LGBT Equality Marches. The number of those ready to curb the right of assembly to exclude LGBT is still high, but it went down significantly within a couple of months between July and December 2005 (blue line). It seems that the growth in acceptance of Equality Marches belongs to the lasting effects of the culture wars waged in the era of the "Fourth Republic."

The opinion is divided on civil unions. (CBOS, June 2010)

The attitudes of the Polish population towards LGBT rights are on average more conservative than in the West of Europe, and in some respects more conservative than in other Central European countries, like the Czech Republic or Hungary. But the Polish society is neither as conservative or as homophobic as our political class. One may expect that a moderate LGBT rights agenda should attract as many voters as it might repel. Oddly enough, the society has already moved on. It is the elite that seems set to stay behind.

Adam Ostolski

Monday, 31 January 2011

Nuclear power and public trust

Last week the cabinet accepted guidelines for the draft law regulating the use of nuclear energy in Poland. The ministers discussed i.a. the question of liability for 'nuclear damage,' separate insurance for the transport of nuclear material, government's guarantees, as well as the information of general public and local communities about the safety of nuclear installations. The governement's plan is to have the new nuclear regulation bill passed until June this year, construction works are to begin by 2016 and an nuclear power plant is to be operating since 2022. Whether the blueprint is realistic or not, the coalition seems determined to follow the chosen path, and the nuclear ambitions of the goverment enjoy support of major opposition parties. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus on the political scene.

And what about social attitudes? According to the surveys realized by CBOS (Centre for Public Opinion Research), between 1987 and 2008 the opponents of nuclear power clearly outnumbered those ready to accept it.

Nuclear power plants in Poland -- for or against? (CBOS, August 2008)

Since 2008, the opinion seems to be shifting. According to different surveys, there is either a small majority in favour, or a small majority against the Polish nuclear programme. As far as the public opinion is concerned, the issue is undecided.

The change in public mood can be also seen in the report Europeans and Nuclear Safety published by the Eurobarometer in March 2010. Poland is among the countries, where more than a quarter of the population (25% - 30%) supports an increase in the use of nuclear energy. Even though as many as 50% of the respondents agree that the risks of nuclear power as an energy source outweigh its benefits, while only 38% thinks the opposite, there is a visible shift in the opinion. In 2006 only 26% tended to think that there are more benefits than risks involved. The rise of 12 percentage points is the biggest one in Europe, with Ireland (+10pp) and the Czech Republic (+9pp) coming next.

Interestingly enough, six out of eight countries with biggest support for an increased use of nuclear energy (25% - 30%) are postcommunist ones. What does this strange legacy of the Iron Curtain precisely mean? Is it just the fear of being dependent on Russia as energy provider? Or does it also express an East European civilizational complex, the feeling of being belated in terms of technology, and the wish to "catch up with the West"?

Whatever the explanation, there still the issue of public trust. Will government be able to convince the public that nucleaer energy may be safe? And, which is more difficult, that it can be produced safely even in Poland? There are in Europe countries like Sweden or the Czech Republic, where the great majority of people believe that nuclear energy may be safe. There are countries divided, like France or Germany, where only half of the population seems to be convinced. But Poland -- together with Romania and Ireland -- represents still another pattern. While many people tend to agree that It is possible to operate a nuclear power plant in a safe manner (64%), they seem less convinced that The nuclear safety authority in Poland sufficiently ensures the safe operation of nuclear power plant(s) (38%), and even less that The Polish legislation sufficiently ensures nuclear safety (31%).

Europeans and Nuclear Safety (Eurobarometer, March 2010)

It seems that a significant portion of the population believes that nuclear energy may be produced safely, but... not in Poland. Poles mistrust their own government and institutions more than they mistrust the technology.

And they may well have good reason not to trust. On 3th December 2010, the President of National Atomic Energy Agency (Państwowa Agencja Atomistyki), Prof. Michał Waligórski, was dismissed from his function. His pro-nuclear stance notwithstanding, he had had a highly critical assesment of the atomic draft law proposed by the government. Along with many specific concerns, he had pointed out that the goverment's nuclear programme was "chaotic and inconsistent," and had "incomprehensible logical structure." He was also asking, why the government ignored the Safety Infrastructure Guide (DS424) adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Civic Platform's government found his remarks "unconstructive," and instead of changing the policy, changed the man. It seems that even those in favour of Poland's nuclear ambitions may have good reasons to be scared.

Adam Ostolski

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Civic Platform's white power

I am well aware that many voters choose us as 'the white men's last hope.' This is what Jarosław Gowin, a prominent politician of the Civic Platform (PO), pronounced last Sunday in an interview for Or rather white collars', he hastened to explain. Our core voters, that is the young, educated and entrepreneur-minded, may turn their backs on us unless we finally reform the state finances, healthcare or pensions.

The journalist did not go into details over the notion of 'white men' and its racist connotations. Instead, he asked what would happen, if white collars indeed turned their backs on the ruling party. The answer was as follows: To me, entrepreneurs are the salt of the earth, the most valuable social group. Should we disappoint them, we would better look for another job.

Should it be shocking? Jarosław Gowin smoothly combines Catholic and free market fundamentalism. He is widely known to be a free market hawk even within the largely pro-market Civic Platform. He is also famous for a virtually superhuman ability, since he once confessed to having heard the cries of frozen embryos. (Gowin is the author of a draft law regulating IVF. He wants IVF to stay basically legal, but would penalise the freezing of embryos.) The public may be thus used to extravagant statements on his part. None the less, I find the lack of public reaction to what he said surprising. To date, obviously racist statements by even marginal politicians did not go either unnoticed or uncondemned in the media. This time, only the nationalist "Nasz Dziennik" seems to bother; perhaps they envy Gowin for his impunity?

Why this silence? Gowin seems nothing wrong in figuring his voters as 'white men.' For him, apparently, it is just an innocent figure of speech. I think most of the enlightened public would not concede. But one thing is that he uses a racial metaphor, another -- what is the group who is to be hurt. If Civic Platform supporters are to be seen as 'white men,' who are those 'non-white' people to whom he implicitly refers? Who are those who would be less than happy with a next wave of neo-liberal reforms? And why are they figured as non-white?

Adam Ostolski

Friday, 7 January 2011

How Poland became greener in 2010

2010 was a strange year for Poland, with the Smoleńsk tragedy and its aftermath, early presidential elections, and floods. Also for the Greens, it was a long and unusual year, a year of breaking through. The electoral breakthrough in the local elections in November, with our first ever elected councillors and members of regional parliaments, did not happen in a void. First there were significant changes within the Green Party, as well as important changes in the general political context.

The sense of breaking through first came to my mind in April, during Green Party Conference. At the Conference we accepted four policy documents, precising our aims and values in the domain of electoral law, social policy, health service, and education. The discussion was informed, passionate, and fruitful. The new policy documents resolved a prolonged tension within the party concerning our stance on social and economic policies. It gave our leaders and activists a tremendous sense of empowerment.

Małgorzata Tkacz-Janik
(photo from Wikipedia)
Then there was a series of changes in the political situation. In the presidential elections, the Greens supported Grzegorz Napieralski, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). His political programme proved closer to the Green vision than the programme of any other candidate. Then there were long and difficult talks about a coalition in the local elections. We achieved an agreement, and in the November elections many Green candidates (though not all) ran on Social Democratic ballot. Now we have two members of regional parliaments: Małgorzata Tkacz-Janik (co-leader of the Greens) in Silesia and Ewa Koś in West Pommerania, and three members of municipal councils: Beata Kubica in Opole, Krystian Legierski in Warsaw and Sebastian Kotlarz in the rural commune of Kąty Wielkie. Sebastian Kotlarz was elected as an independent Green candidate in a first-past-the-post constituency, he highlighted his Feminist convictions in his campaign. Krystian Legierski is not only the first Green councillors in Warsaw, but also the first out gay candidate elected to a political office in Poland; we have made history.

But there was also an important breakthrough in Polish media. In 2010, two strong taboos were definitely broken. First, there is no longer a taboo concerning the Church and State relations in Poland. Until August 2010, the overwhelming majority of Polish people discontent with the dominant position of the Catholic Church in political life or its economic privileges had been virtually voiceless and invisible. Those who would question the privileges of the Church would be often dismissed as 'extremists.' Now it has all changed. The position of the Church started to lose its unquestionable status in April, when the Church supported the controversial burial of the late president Lech Kaczyński in the Wawel Cathedral. Then the media started to discuss the workings of the Property Commission that was responsible for transfering to the Church institutions valuable properties and tremendous sums of money on grounds that seem quite unclear, to say the least. And then there was a conflict about the cross put by scouts in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw in the days of Smoleńsk mourning. On 9th August, a huge crowd of young people come to demand the displacement of the cross and a closer separation of Church and State. Now it is evident that anticlerical demands have supporters ready to come out and defend their right to be heard.

And there is also a second taboo that did not survive the turbulences of 2010. It is the Polish system of pensions introduced by the infamous government of Jerzy Buzek. Until recently, it was unquestionable. Now, even some neoliberal experts denounce it as irrational and costly. So there is also much more space for its progressive critics to speak out.

The Greens start the new year empowered -- with our new programme, with our councillors, and with media more open to debate. But 2011 will also be a year of challenges, parliamentary elections and debate on nuclear energy in Poland not least important among them.

Adam Ostolski
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