Andrzej Lepper, turbulent leader of Poland’s left-populist Self-Defence party, yesterday was found dead. Apparently by hanging himself in his party office in Warsaw
Where to start? The English Wikipedia page gives the basics of his lively career, describing how he came from a modest rural family background and with little formal education worked himself up and up to become one of Poland’s leading politicians.
At the peak of his political fortunes his party won 11% of the vote in Poland’s 2005 general elections to become the third-largest party in parliament. Lepper himself likewise came a more than respectable third (15% of the first round vote) in the 2005 Presidential elections shortly thereafter.
There ensued a messy period featuring an unhappy coalition government between the Kaczynski twins’ Law and Justice party plus the two leading populist parties in parliament, Self-Defence and League of Polish Families. Lepper became a Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture. This eccentric arrangement duly crashed under the weight of excessive bickering.
In the ensuing 2007 elections both Self-Defence and League of Polish Families blew up and crashed from any seats in Parliament; the Citizens Platform government led by Donald Tusk swept to a heavy win. Thereafter Lepper has been a forlorn, diminished figure, beset by footling private and political scandals and family difficulties.
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What to make of Lepper’s rise and fall? He was a classic ‘transition’ spoiler phenomenon, echoing Zhirinovsky in Russia although nothing like as, ahem, vivid:
Lepper by contrast was much more ‘stolid’ if not oddly conventional. He rose to prominence during the turbulent post-communist 1990s by the usual populist tactics (noisy championing of the ‘little man’ especially in rural areas and periodic road-blocks) but necessarily (and unlike Zhirinovsky) calmed down as his party won more and more votes.
By the time I went to Poland as Ambassador in late 2003, Lepper’s party was doing well, with polling oscillating up to 15% or more (a result good enough to secure a strong Parliamentary presence).
As Ambassador I had a supposedly tricky decision. Poland was a new EU member. Lepper was likely to do well in the 2005 elections and perhaps get into government. Should I meet him to see for myself what sort of leader Poland might get, as British Ministers might need to engage with Lepper at EU meetings? Or would doing so give him an undeserved and wrong-headed boost of credibility/respectability/legitimacy?
This raises a profound point of diplomatic technique, which in turn links to one’s view of politics and political change.
My view was that I should go and see him, even if that might dismay some Polish liberal-minded friends.
First, my own main duty was to help London understand what was happening in Poland, which meant dealing with Poland as it was, not as polite Warsaw opinion wanted it to be.
But second, part of the drama of the whole post-communist transition was all about slowly but surely calming down politics after the brutalising effects of decades of one-party stagnation. Foreign diplomats engaging with people – especially the ‘problematic’ ones – in a friendly but direct way was all part of the process of restoring normal life and respectable standards. It opened horizons and raised expectations: once a populist gets a taste of diplomatic life and the odd canapé, s/he tends to want to stay in that magic elite circle, which means moderating behaviour and language.
Putting it another way, by engaging with people you do give them a respectability they may not deserve. But you also get leverage you otherwise would not have. Precisely because they get a new sort of vicarious respectability from meeting you, they now have something new to lose. And, usually, they are very loath to lose it.
Slightly undignified for the diplomats, and vexing for mainstream middle-class liberal locals. But it works.
London thought hard about this for all of two seconds, and agreed. So off I went to call on Mr Lepper in his party offices.
Needless to say, Lepper was quite good company: canny, interesting, folksy-funny and genially opportunistic. We had a pleasant and sensible exchange which achieved a few seconds of notoriety in the Polish media. My main problem was not staring too obviously at Lepper’s caked-on fake almost orange sun-tan.
And lo! it transpired that when Law and Justice pipped Citizens Platform to the post in Poland’s 2005 general elections, the Kaczynski twins decided to form a coalition with the two populist parties who also got into the Sejm. Lepper became Deputy PM! And Minister of Agriculture! Horror!
Apart from the fact this strange coalition government as a whole was a priori dysfunctional and sub-optimal, political life in Poland spluttered on adequately for a while.
Lepper himself did well enough as Agriculture Minister. He was clever and diligent. He mastered the brief, popped over to Brussels for Agriculture Council meetings and made no blatant policy mistakes. A visiting House of Commons Committee met him in his office and had a more than sensible exchange with him about how Poland’s fragmented farming sector was coping with the CAP and so on.
In due course the Kaczynski twins collapsed the arrangement and called the 2007 elections which brought Donald Tusk’s Citizens Platform a sweeping victory. Both Lepper’s party and League of Polish Families were more or less wiped out as political forces, just as Jaroslaw Kaczynski had planned.
This, of course, is why I respected the Kaczynski twins as a powerful force for normalising Polish politics, even if that view much vexed the Warsaw chattering classes. The Kaczynskis really were concerned to tackle ‘social exclusion’ in Poland, by bringing lots of frustrated rural and small town voters (many of them the human flotsam and jetsam of WW2 displacements from today’s Ukraine who ended up dumped on collective farms) into the political mainstream.
Lepper’s Self-Defence and to a lesser extent Polish Families delivered handy lumps of these rural, marginalised voters who otherwise might drift away to more extreme ideas. Hence the cynical brilliance of the Kaczynkis’ scheme: they would create this unworkable populist coalition government, steadily suck out the electoral juice from their partner parties, then throw away the discredited leadership husks.
All of which went precisely to plan. Polish politics today is more ‘inclusive’ – and far more stable – as a result. A huge gain for Europe.
Let me tell you about one meeting of EU Ambassadors hosted by the Austrian Ambassador soon after the new improbable coalition government was formed in 2005.
One senior colleague who should have known better proposed that the EU Ambassadors send back monthly reports to capitals about the problematic state of human rights in Poland following the creation of this disastrous new extremist/populist government.
I argued that this was wrong in principle. It was very good news for Europe that these supposedly populist parties now had a taste of government. What was better for the EU? Having these people getting occasional smart lunches in Brussels and learning about modern negotiation of good EU standards, or manning road-blocks to protest EU policies?
The whole point of ‘transitions’ in post-communist countries was, I said, slowly but surely to bring marginalised people into the normal mainstream political process. That was what the Kaczynski twins were doing, much to their credit. Yes, some of the people concerned did not meet usual high standards of Euro-fastidiousness and table-manners. But the best way for them to get there was through patient engagement, not patronising sneers. The fact that Eurosceptics Lepper and Polish Families had entered government and now would start to engage with Brussels processes was a real success for European integration, not a failure!
And, I concluded, if we were really concerned about ‘rising extremism in Europe’, the desecration of Jewish graves by Islamist fanatics in some major EU capitals might be a much better place to start.
This terse view won the day, and the proposal was promptly dropped.
Transitions from communism or other embedded dictatorships necessarily take a long time – decades. Be patient. Deal with these societies as they are, for all the social and moral contradictions.
When in doubt, err on the side of engagement and inclusivity. Be democratic. For all their flaws and failings, people like Andrzej Lepper can play a necessary and ultimately unexpectedly positive walk-on role in normalising things.