Anyone who has taken an interest in seeing the creation of a strong alternative left in Poland, will have experienced the frustrations of seeing numerous initiatives fail almost before they got off the ground. With parliamentary elections round the corner then it seems that once again the left will be represented by one party: the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD).
It was not supposed to have been like this. After all this is the land of Solidarność - the largest alternative opposition movement to Communism, born out of a trade union movement and espousing a programme of the self-management of workplaces as a means to create a self-managed republic. Although by 1989 this movement had become lured by the market and dominated by the Church, a seemingly strong independent left current still existed within it.
Yet none of the left movements that emerged out of Solidarność were able to seriously challenge the 'post-communist' left. The grouping around left Solidarity activists such as Jacek Kuroń became swallowed up in the liberal-centre, becoming the human face for the shock-therapy reforms. The most serious attempt to build a left party out of the Solidarność left was the Labour Union (UP) - led by Ryszard Bugaj in the early 1990s. Despite winning 7% in the 1993 elections, this vote was dwarfed by the SLD gaining 20%. UP refused to go into coalition with the SLD and then failed to enter parliament in 1997, only returning once it entered an electoral coalition with the SLD in 2001. Ever since UP have been reliant upon and subordinated to its larger, more powerful partner.
A similar - although inverse - fate was experienced by the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). This party was built upon the traditions and structures of the PPS - a mass party before the war that had been formed at the end of the nineteenth century. The PPS stood as part of the SLD slate in 1993 and remained in parliament until 2001. It was initially heavily criticised by some for forming an alliance with the 'post-communist' left, yet was able to operate as a relatively independent left force both inside and outside of parliament. However, when the PPS decided to challenge the SLD in the 2001 parliamentary and presidential elections, it gained less than 0.25% of the vote, while the SLD surged to more than 40%.
When the second SLD-led government (2001 - 2005) began to fall apart - ridden with corruption scandals and implementing strong neo-liberal economic policies - another attempt to form an alternative left was made. This time it came in the shape of the Polish Social Democratic Party (SdPL), formed by a number of prominent SLD MPs. Although the SdPL claimed that it was going to build an true social democratic party in Poland, there was little to separate the two parties programmatically. Despite the SLD's vote falling to just over 11% in the 2005 elections, the SdPL won less than 4% support and failed to enter parliament. By 2007 it too had entered an electoral coalition with the SLD.
Since this time there has been no serious left challenge to the SLD - despite the fact that support for the SLD has remained relatively low. The group Krytyka Polityczna have certainly managed to exert some influence over the public debate and have helped to break the stranglehold that the conservative-right have over cultural life in Poland. However, they have failed to articulate a clear political project for the left and they presently seem uncertain and divided about whether they want to evolve as a cultural centre or real political force. The Polish Workers' Party (PPP) has some strong regional presence and trade union influence. They have been present in a number of important industrial disputes and social campaigns. However, the PPP has also been unable to register any notable electoral result.
Some have argued that the left should give up its electoral ambitions and concentrate on working within communities on social campaigns. The argument runs that the dominance of the political scene and media by a few elite parties makes it impossible for a viable left alternative to emerge. There is some merit in this argument, in the sense that for any progressive left alternative to emerge it must simultaneously build up local bases of support and grow through campaigning on issues that affect people outside of the arena of electoral politics. However, for the left to desert the field of electoral politics is to admit that they are unable to influence and change people's lives for the better where it really matters.
The question arises as to whether the left should once again attempt to build a left alternative to the SLD or ally with it. In recent days there are signs that those on the margins of the SLD are moving closer to it as the pressures of the forthcoming elections mounts. It is likely that the SdPL parliamentary group will be closed down, as there are now too few MPs after a number left to join the SLD. Concurrently, it has also been revealed that it is likely that UP will merge with (or more precisely be submerged into) the SLD to form one party. The leader of UP has explained: 'Poles associate the left with one party - the SLD. We accept this and there is no point fighting reality'. On the other hand Bugaj - now long departed from UP - has stated that this is the inevitable ending point for the political trajectory pursued by UP. He claims that the SLD - which did not want social rights written into the constitution, which introduced a flat-income tax for business, supported evicting people from their houses and introduced the most commercial model of social insurance in Europe - cannot be considered to be on the left.
The problem for the left is that both of these statements are essentially true. The left of Polish politics is dominated by a group that has often - although not always - betrayed its left credentials. The nadir of this was during the term of the second SLD-led government, when PM Leszek Miller openly moved to the right even of Blairism and the Third Way. Since this time a new leadership has emerged around Grzegorz Napieralski, which has underlined that it is building an authentic broad left-wing party in Poland. Yet the left electorate still has to endure the likes of Miller acting as the party's unofficial spokesperson and praising the economic policies of his government. Those who authentically stand on the left have long had to deal with these schizophrenic messages from the SLD.
It now seems certain that the left will compete this year's parliamentary banner with one dominating party - the SLD. In these circumstances the left inside and outside of the SLD has to place as much pressure on the SLD to maintain some of its left principles and programme. This will be particularly important as the SLD could well find itself having to decide on whether to join a PO dominated government. If the SLD does achieve a positive result in the Autumn yet decides to remain independent, then it would have the chance to help build a strong left-wing party in Poland.