Unfinished Transformation or Neoliberal Economy? Exploring the Legitimisation Divide in Poland

  • Maria Theiss
  • Anna Kurowska
Part of the Palgrave Studies in European Political Sociology book series (PSEPS)


Political narratives formulated by the conservative Law and Justice party, which came into power in 2015, put into question most of the democratic achievements in Poland since 1989. This opened up a widespread political legitimation crisis. We explore this crisis at the individual level. An ‘unfinished transformation’ hypothesis assumes that the weakness of civil society and low civic skills in Poland may have resulted in the withdrawal of support for the political system. According to the second hypothesis, the ‘neoliberal economy’ in which neoliberalism may be perceived as a proactive anti-crisis measure as well as lack of social security contributed to the significant share of Polish society denying legitimation to political system. We find that both streams of argument have its merits.


The parliamentary election of October 2015 brought political change to Poland. After eight years of liberal Civic Platform rule, a right-wing party—Law and Justice—came into power. Not only has Law and Justice been the first party since 1989 to rule independently, but its position was additionally strengthened by the President Andrzej Duda being the party member. However, the meaning of its victory goes beyond mere change to Poland’s ruling party. The electoral campaigns—and, more broadly, the political narratives formulated by the party—presented 1989 not so much as a moment of Polish democratic change but rather as a smokescreen that hid the transformation of capitals of former regime members. In 2015 Law and Justice claimed for a far-reaching renewal of a political system, including changes in the constitution, EU-cooperation formula and the structure of courts and universities. Opposition parties emphasised the calamitous nature of the Polish political system’s performance, using the slogan of Poland ‘being in ruin’.

It is hence not presidential and parliamentary change per se but rather the narratives of Law and Justice and social support for the party’s ideas that allow us to pose a question about political legitimisation in Poland—and its drivers. In this chapter, we start from the premise that a legitimisation crisis contributed to political change in Poland in 2015. Our goal is to explore a societal divide about the legitimisation of the political system’s performance, taking into consideration the context of economic crisis in Europe and its peculiar character in Poland. We apply Schultz’s (2012) notion of ‘legitimation divide’ to the process of citizens granting and withdrawing acceptance to the political system. Legitimisation divide here denotes a split in society between those citizens who perceive the performance of the political system as legitimate and those who deny this claim. We test two hypotheses concerning the delegitimisation processes: (i) the role of political socialisation typical for a post-communist country and (ii) the role of the neoliberal economy strengthened during the European economic crisis.

The first, following Giza et al. (2000), we call theunfinished transformation’ hypothesis. This refers to a broad body of literature which emphasises the role of communist heritage in Polish civic culture. It is assumed that, despite the transformation of economic and political institutions after 1989, there has been insufficient change in citizens’ civic and political engagement in Poland. Thus, we have seen the cumulative effect of political socialisation based on refraining from civic engagement, familialism and low levels of social capital. These, in turn, negatively affect levels of political legitimisation (Garlicki 2014; Domański 2004). However, it should be noted that we agree with recent criticisms that address this hypothesis (see, e.g. Jacobsson and Korloczuk 2017).

The second hypothesis refers to the role of the neoliberal economy. Its advocates stress that high levels of precarious employment, weak social mobility and the massive migration of Poles to western EU countries result in the political dissatisfaction of Polish citizens (Ost 2016; Marczewski 2016). In our chapter, this hypothesis goes beyond individuals’ experiences of economic hardship. We question the Civic Platform argument that Poland has been a ‘green island’, the only EU country not affected by the economic crisis of 2008 (see Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2016). We interpret the proliferation of the neoliberal economy in Poland as a political means of transferring economic risks in times of crisis in the EU to citizens and allocating them the function of potential ‘shock absorbers’ (Marczewski 2016; Theiss 2016). So, we assume the economic crisis had a weak impact in Poland in part because of the neoliberal economy and privatisation of economic risk. It is plausible that this economic success had political consequences and contributed to the legitimisation crisis.

The remaining part of the chapter is structured as follows. The next two sections introduce the indicators of the legitimisation crisis in Polish public discourse and outline the framework for studying the legitimisation divide in Poland, respecively. The subsequent section introduces a synthetic indicator of delegitimisation at the individual level and shows its distribution as well as comparing the social characteristics of Poles perceiving the performance of the political system as legitimate and those who deny political legitimisation. Sections “Unfinished Societal Transformation Hypothesis” and “Neoliberal Economy Hypothesis” discuss the two hypotheses and seek to discover to what extent a legitimisation divide in Poland is parallel to differences in civic skills and individual experiences with the neoliberal economy. The fifth section reports the results of the estimated logistic regression, which confronts the role of weak individual ‘civicness’ and personal negative experiences with the neoliberal economy as factors explaining the propensity to delegitimising attitudes among Poles. The last section discusses the findings and concludes the paper.

Delegitimisation of the Political System: Public Discourse Manifestations

Since the fall of communism in 1989, the political landscape in Poland has undergone profound changes. Until 2016, only one parliamentary party active in 1989—the Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (PSL)—continued to exist. A multiparty system has evolved into a two-party system with Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS)) and Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska (PO)). After two terms of Civic Platform and PSL government, the parliamentary election of autumn 2015 gave the majority of seats to the conservative Law and Justice, resulting in the absence of any social democratic party in Polish parliament. These changes have been accompanied by high levels of instability in the preferences of Polish electorate, including a high level of interblock volatility (Cześnik 2014; Markowski 2007; Owen and Tucker 2010).

In this chapter, we claim that the meaning of the political rearrangement of 2015, which encompassed both the beginning of majority rule by Law and Justice and the president election won by Andrzej Duda—Law and Justice’s candidate, is a part of a more in-depth change in Poland. It is worth noticing that earlier, during the 2005–2007 period, Law and Justice’s government (i.e. ruled by Jarosław Kaczyński) was ruling with the conservative president (Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother). Our argument is that the political change of 2015 had been fuelled by a far-reaching lack of legitimisation in the functioning of the Polish political system. At the macrolevel, this has meant a proliferation of political claims that Civic Platform has neither a political nor moral mandate to govern and that the performance of the political system does not serve the good of ‘average citizens’. This stance has been thoroughly presented as a criticism of ‘Donald Tusk’s system’ in the official Law and Justice’s political programme of 2014 (Program Prawa i Sprawiedliwości 2014). At the individual level, a phenomenon could be observed which we label here as a legitimisation divide: a split of Polish society not into Law and Justice supporters and opponents but into those convinced the political system might be not effective but is legitimate, and those claiming its performance is fundamentally unjust and that it needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

As specified in the subsequent part of this chapter, we regard political legitimisation as a multidimensional concept which reflects people’s beliefs about whether their political institutions are appropriate for their society (Lipset 1959; Beetham 1991; Garlicki 2014). Our focus is on the meso-level of these beliefs, that is, on the evaluation of the political system’s performance. Although the object of our research is individuals’ assessments of the how the political system in Poland operates, we contextualise our exploratory analysis by shedding light on the discursive context of what we term the ‘legitimisation divide’. As noted, we assume that specific narratives present in Polish politics before the autumn of 2015, and more broadly the Weltanschauung (worldview) politics of the biggest parties, mirrored the growing legitimisation divide in Poland and further contributed to the political polarisation of society.

Four arguments, present in public discourse before the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2015, formed the narrative that Poland’s political system was illegitimate. The first claimed that Civic Platform (which had ruled Poland for eight years) served its own particularistic goals and was deliberately harmful to the country. This was based on a leak of party officials’ secret recordings to the public media (so-called Waitergate). In the summer of 2014, a leading Polish journal published typescripts of private conversations between leading Civic Platform politicians. There were quotations of officials saying that, for example, ‘Only a fool would work for six thousands złoty’, which is 150% of the average salary in Poland, or that the ‘Polish country is just a (explicit words) and a pile of stones’. This provoked public outrage but not the dismissal of any representatives (Miller 2015; Arak and Żakowiecki 2016). The leak included long hours of recordings and conversations of dozens of people involved in politics as well as businessmen and journalists. Eating octopus and drinking expensive wine became a symbol of a vain, immoral and corrupted political elite. Law and Justice referred to these recordings in the parliamentary election to a high extent (e.g. the party’s website banner included a posh restaurant picture with a list of scandals attributed to Civic Platform placed on a virtual menu). Experts commenting on events are unanimous that they brought about a political legitimisation crisis and contributed to the failure of Civic Platform in the parliamentary election of 2015 (see Wybory 2015).

According to second, more general and longer-lasting argument, the political change of 1989 did not represent the cessation of communism in Poland but instead served as a smokescreen for transforming the political capital of former regime elites into financial capital. It has been claimed that a ‘shadow network’ or ‘square card table’ of players govern Poland. Such an ‘iron square’ consists of some politicians, some businessman, some criminals and some secret service officers (Żukowski quoted in: Raport o stanie Rzeczpospolitej 2011). This narrative included the claim that Lech Wałęsa was a secret service informer and Donald Tusk secretly served German interests, whereas President Bronisław Komorowski was in fact a Russian ally. A radical version of the argument includes the conviction that former Polish President Lech Kaczyński and 86 other officials were assassinated in 2010 during a plane crash in Smoleńsk, Russia. The idea that a shadow network rules the country was intertwined with the assumption that Poland lacked sovereignty, being politically and economically dependent on both the EU and Russia.

The third argument focused on the low possibility of citizens influencing politics. A new party, stemming from the Kukiz social movement (and then the Kukiz ‘15 political party), underlined the need to change the electoral system from proportional into majoritarian in order to increase the people’s influence on politics and ‘renew political elites’ in the country. In a similar vein, it was argued that recent social reforms introduced by Civic Platform deprived the parents from deciding about their children’s education and, as such, needed to be reverted. In a broader sense, the meaning of these claims was a critique of too weak input legitimacy—it was argued that the political system did not allow for the translation of citizens’ needs and choices into political decisions.

Lastly, it was argued that on the contrary to macroeconomic indicators that suggested Poland was almost immune to the economic crisis of 2008 (see Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2016), the majority of ‘average citizens’ were in fact gradually falling into poverty. In the context of Europe’s refugee issue, a rhetoric was present in public discourse that the country could not accept refugees since there was an urgent need to take care of ‘hungry Polish children’ first. The figure of ‘hungry Polish children’ draws public attention in particular to a few cases of families deprived of parental rights, allegedly due to poverty. A political slogan of a ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana), under which Law and Justice led its 2015 electoral campaign, referred in particular to promises to undo unjust social inequalities, that is, by additional taxes on chain markets and banks in order to finance generous family benefits (see Program Prawa i Sprawiedliwości 2014).

The four claims presented may be regarded as an aspect of a Weltanschaung politics in Poland, fuelling a legitimisation divide. Simultaneously to the rhetoric concerning Poland’s ‘illegitimate’ political system, discursive practices of group identity and antagonisation were also present. These ranged from officially used labelling into ‘solidaristic Poland’ and ‘liberal Poland’ to ‘mohair berets’ versus ‘lemmings’, the former being a group of average, relatively poor citizens, often practicing Catholics, whereas the latter being relatively well-off citizens, focused on their routine work. Oversimplistic as these labels might be, they seem to connote some aspects of a political cleavage present in Poland when our study was conducted. The idea that the Polish political system and its functioning lack legitimacy translates into set of beliefs at the individual level. However, we claim that such beliefs are held by a part of Polish society, which allows us to speak both of political polarisation and a legitimisation divide in Poland.

Researching the Legitimisation Divide

Our insight into political legitimisation in Poland is based on the outcomes of an individual survey conducted within the LIVEWHAT project. The survey was conducted on a representative sample of adult Poles three months before the 2015 parliamentary election. As noted, we look for manifestations of support for political institutions and the political regime’s performance. Contrary to approaches which assume that legitimisation needs to be anchored in the external, objective, moral or rational features of a political system (Beetham 1991), our understanding of legitimisation is ‘sociological’. Following Weber, we regard legitimisation as people’s subjective belief in the rightfulness of institutions and their actions. We acknowledge that legitimacy and legitimisation are multidimensional concepts, whose various aspects may be pointed to as, for example, support for a regime’s principles or main values, support for how the political system works and support for specific institutions, including governing elites (Norris 1999; Mider 2014a; Garlicki 2014). Other classifications point to substantive and procedural legitimisation (Wesołowski 1988). Our approach to legitimisation is based on the notion developed by Lipset (1959) with a focus on people’s perceptions of a political system’s performance. At the operational level, we try to measure the strength of citizens’ assumptions that the Polish political system serves individual and social needs and that the main political institutions are reliable. This distinguishes our definiendum from the satisfaction of, for example, public social services or the way in which the government deals with societal problems—and it allows us to speak of the legitimisation of regime performance. We also use the categories of input legitimisation and output legitimisation to distinguish between the perceptions of the responsiveness of the system and its policy-related effects. Thus, we focus on following four aspects (dimensions) of citizens’ evaluation of a political system:
  1. 1)

    Input legitimisation, which we understand as the consent of citizens and results from including their preferences in the decision-making processes; a perception political system is based on a democratic participation and representation (Scharpf 1999). We operationalise this dimension with two survey questions on external political efficacy: (a) To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: ‘Public officials don’t care much what people like me think’ and (b) To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: ‘People like me don’t have any say about what government does’.

  2. 2)

    The level of trust of national parliament and government, which we operationalised with a question: On a score of 0–10, how much, if at all, do you personally trust each of the following institutions where 0 means ‘do not trust an institution at all’, and 10 means ‘completely trust this institution’? (a) National parliament and (b) national government. Such an operationalisation uses standard measures of specific support (Norris 1999; Mider 2014b) of certain political institutions.

  3. 3)

    Satisfaction with democracy in Poland, measured by the question: On the whole, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the way democracy works in your country? 0—meaning extremely dissatisfied and 10—meaning extremely satisfied. This question has already been used as a typical indicator of support for regime performance (Norris 1999; Gjefsen 2012; Mider 2014b).

  4. 4)

    Output legitimisation which we understand as citizens’ approval of how government deals with major societal problems. We measured this dimension by the use of three questions: How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the way in which your country’s government is dealing with the following(a) poverty, (b) unemployment, (c) precarious employment on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means ‘extremely dissatisfied’ and 10 means ‘extremely satisfied’? Similar operationalisation has been used to assess political legitimisation in international comparative studies (Domański 2004).


The complexity of political legitimisation not only refers to various aspects of what is legitimised but also the nuances of peoples’ support, which tends to be partial and unstable. Mider (2014c) proposes to distinguish individuals’ attitudes by the degree of legitimisation they reflect: full legitimisation; partial legitimisation, which might correspond with political apathy or detachment; ‘critical legitimisation’, being specific to the Polish context; political alienation, which he interprets as a partial delegitimisation; and full legitimisation. This classification helps us to explore the nature of the legitimisation divide in Poland; we aim to distinguish those citizens who fully or partially legitimise the performance of the political system from those who delegitimise it. Setting this goal, we take into account the findings of recent research on political legitimisation in post-communist countries, and on Poland specifically, which prove a relatively low level of legitimisation in the countries in the region and a particularly low level of legitimisation of the political system and its performance in Poland (Domański 2004). We assume that the cleavage between Polish citizens who legitimise and those who do not legitimise the political system in 2015 does not result from a high level of political conflict in this specific moment but is a relatively persistent phenomenon in Polish society. However, low legitimisation level at the time of our study allows us to hypothesise a legitimisation crisis.

In order to explore the political legitimisation divide in Poland and further explore its roots, we identify those individuals who comprehensively deny any legitimisation to the political system, that is, who ‘score low’ in at least three of the four identified dimensions above. Scoring low in the first aspect—input legitimisation—meant that the respondent had ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed strongly’ with at least one of the sentences mentioned above (see point 1). Scoring low in the second aspect—level of trust to national parliament or government—meant that the respondent indicated that he/she, for example, agrees that public officials don’t care much about what people like me think or he/she doesn’t trust the parliament or the government or both.1 Scoring low in the other two aspects—satisfaction with democracy and output legitimisation—meant that the respondent had chosen one of the five lowest values on the satisfaction scale from 0 to 10, where 0 was ‘completely dissatisfied’ and 10 ‘completely satisfied’. Such a distinction might be regarded as arbitrary, but it helps us to distinguish between the categories of full legitimisation and partial legitimisation on the one hand and full delegitimisation together with partial delegitimisation on the other hand. The great majority of respondents, that is, 63.6%, scored highly in at least three of the aspects identified above, providing support for the hypothesis that there is a widespread legitimisation crisis in Poland at the individual level. The low level of political legitimisation in our study is consistent with earlier findings, for example, the comparative research conducted by Domański, who observed in Poland the lowest level of political legitimisation among the researched 21 European countries (Domański 2004; Mider 2014a).

Broad scholarship on the individual features contributing to the legitimising of a political system proves the relevance of socioeconomic position (see Mider 2014b; Domański 2004, 2010). To what extent do we see systemic differences in education, gender or age among those denying legitimisation and legitimising the Polish political system? Table 4.1 shows the characteristics of both subgroups.
Table 4.1

Comparison of social characteristics of the respondents (a) fully or partially legitimising and (b) fully or partially delegitimising the functioning of a political system in Poland


Fully or partially legitimising political system (N = 736)

Fully or partially delegitimising political system (N = 1288)










Per cent

Per cent


















Which of the following best describes the area in which you live?

A big city



Suburbs or outskirts of big city



Town or small city



Country village or a farm



Which of the following classes you feel you belong to?

Upper class



Upper middle class



Middle class



Lower middle class



Working class



Lower class



Other class/don’t know




From 0 (not at all religious) to 3



From 4 to 7



From 8 to 10 (extremely religious)



Don’t know



As shown in Table 4.1, Polish citizens who partially or fully delegitimise the functioning of the political system are statistically older than those who tend to legitimise it. This is consistent with a previous study of Mider (2014b), which showed that relatively younger generations tend to be more supportive of the political system performance in Poland. Although no significant differences may be observed in regard to the gender composition of the two subgroups, similarly to the aforementioned study, we observe a slight overrepresentation of men accepting the political system in Poland (ibid.). On the contrary to previous studies showing a slight overrepresentation of respondents living in the city who contribute to a diffuse legitimisation (ibid.), in our study, those citizens who accept how the political system works tend to live in rural areas.

The education level of individuals in both compared subsamples mirrors a pattern which has been proven in the studies on political legitimisation (Domański 2004). Political competences acquired with formal education positively correlate with higher support for the political system. Similarly, in our study the subgroup of citizens accepting how the political system operates is composed of those from relatively higher social strata (it consists of 43% of respondents seeing themselves as upper class, upper middle class or middle class comparing to 29.7% of respondents from these classes in the subpopulation denying political legitimisation of the system). As noted, these are the citizens who are seen in the scholarly literature as generally benefiting from the political system. Thus, a positive correlation between SES and being supportive of the political system performance may be observed.

A citizen who denies the legitimisation of the Polish political system’s performance is usually an inhabitant of the city in her late forties, seeing herself as a member of the working and—paradoxically as it may seem—relatively less religious than those citizens who accept the political system. The observed pattern of supporting the political system is consistent with general regularities found both in the Polish and the aforementioned international comparative studies. In terms of the social composition of the citizens who do not accept the performance of the political system, Polish society resembles other European societies.

Unfinished Societal Transformation Hypothesis

The socioeconomic characteristics of that subpopulation which does not legitimise the Polish political system’s performance do not explain the negative evaluation of the political system nor allow us to understand why, after 25 years of allegedly exemplary social transformation, ‘Polish success’ has begun to be widely questioned by Polish citizens. A hypothesis broadly suggested by political scientists and sociologists, both in Poland and abroad, pointed to the weak civic traditions in Poland. Following Giza et al. (2000), we call this argumentation the unfinished transformation hypothesis. According to this reasoning, both in the economy and the main political institutions in Poland, the transformation which took place after 1989 has been completed. However, the third dimension—that is, civil society—has remained relatively underdeveloped.

In a more general manner, a broad stream of literature on the post-communist legacy points to the stability of patterns of political attitudes and behaviours which crystallised in Poland before 1989 (Cześnik 2007). Two well-rooted categories of Polish sociology contribute to such an understanding. These are the concept of a ‘sociological void’, coined by Polish sociologist Stefan Nowak (1979), which denotes a lack of meso-level society organisation structures between the state and the family in communist Poland, as well as the term homo sovieticus. The latter is borrowed by Tischner (1992) from Zinowiew to depict a labile person, self-interested, opportunistic, escaping responsibility for others and likely to build their own economic position on private connections. It is emphasised that the historical patterns of political attitudes gained a new meaning after the political change. Thus, for example, Sztompka (2000) underlines that the clash between pre-transition models of social and political behaviour and the new political and economic reality led in Poland to a collective trauma, resulting in ritualistic strategies in the political sphere. A parallel interpretation is offered by Grabowska (2004), who proposes the idea of post-communist cleavage. Political preferences, behaviours, collective and individual identities and political institutions are polarised in Poland in regard to attitudes about the meaning of communism.

Although the hypothesis that there is an unfinished societal transformation—or more generally, that the legacy of communism has negatively affected political legitimisation—has been criticised (e.g. Domański (2004) shows how it does not explain vast differences in legitimisation among the counties from post-soviet bloc) and applies to the macrolevel, we regard it as an argument related to individuals’ political socialisation. According to the mentioned body of literature, it may be hypothesised that a significant share of Polish society may be characterised by a low level of ‘civicness’, low levels of social capital understood in a manner proposed by Putnam (Żukowski and Theiss 2009) and shallow and ritualistic political engagement. This is accompanied by a low level of civic education, poor political knowledge and lack of understanding of public matters, which make Polish citizens easy to manipulate, antagonise and be prone to populist narratives (Cześnik et al. 2016). Thus, finding a strong correlation between low levels of social capital, low political engagement2 and delegitimisation of political system performance in our study would be supportive of this hypothesis.

Although the reasoning which underpins the hypothesis concerning the role of communist heritage and unfinished transformation is well-rooted in the scholarly literature, it requires caution. On the one hand, a persistence of attitudes towards the public sphere derived from communism needs to be taken into account when exploring legitimisation in Poland. On the other hand, the notion of an ‘all-explaining’ thesis of communist heritage and low ‘civicness’ in Poland has faced far-reaching criticism recently. Low levels of social capital in Poland have been questioned (Rychard 2010), methodological Occidentalism in research on political activism in Poland has been emphasised (Jacobsson and Korolczuk 2017), and the evidence on low-key and informal civic activities proliferating in Poland and contributing to a vibrant civil society has been presented (ibid.). Simultaneously, scholars have argued that concepts such as homo sovieticus tend to be rather a cliché than part of good academic explanation (Tyszka 2009; Pawlak 2015).

In order to investigate the explanatory potential of the ‘unfinished transformation’ argument for the legitimisation divide in Poland, we have selected five measures of political attitudes and behaviours which may indicate different aspects of individual social capital understood in a manner proposed by Putnam. They include attitudes and formal as well as informal civic and political engagement. We try to find whether Poles who perceive the functioning of the political system as legitimate differ significantly and systematically in respect to different aspects of individual ‘civicness’ from those Polish citizens who deny its legitimisation. In the first step, we compare two subgroups of Polish society according to such attitudes as support for democracy in general, generalised trust level and interest in politics as measured by frequency of political discussion. Secondly, we compare the two subpopulations according to civic and political engagement, measured by membership of various civil society organisations and experiences of taking part in various formal and informal political actions.

Differences in attitude towards democracy are significant between both subgroups, although small. Surprisingly, Polish citizens who delegitimise the political system’s performance are in general more supportive of democracy. Over 4% points more respondents from the subgroup delegitimising political system’s performance state they either agree or agree strongly with the sentence: Democracy may have problems but it’s better than any other form of government than those respondents who legitimise the Polish political system (see Table 4.2). Thus, these are not respondents with an anti-democratic orientation who critically evaluate the Polish political system, rather, are those who include themselves relatively often in a group of citizens who approve of democracy in general.
Table 4.2

How strongly do you agree or disagree with the statement: ‘Democracy may have problems but it’s better than any other form of government’

Two subgroups of respondents


Per cent

Fully or partially legitimising political system

Disagree strongly








Agree strongly


Total (N = 736)


Fully or partially delegitimising political system

Disagree strongly








Agree strongly


Total (N = 1288)


In order to operationalise the individual level of generalised trust, we used a standard question: Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people? Please state your answer on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means ‘You can’t be too careful’ and 10 means that ‘Most people can be trusted’. It turns out that the average level of generalised social trust is significantly lower among the citizens delegitimising the functioning of Polish political system (3.11) than among the rest of citizens (4.5; p < 0.001). Among those refusing legitimisation, only 18.1% believe that most people (rather) can be trusted (values over 5), while among the rest of the citizens this per cent amounts to 30.7%. This finding is consistent with previous studies on legitimisation in Poland (Domański 2004).

The frequency of discussing political problems with family and friends has been chosen as an indicator of interest in politics. The indicator is based on the answers to the question: When you get together with friends and/or family, how frequently would you say that you discuss political matters on a scale where 0 means ‘Never’ and 10 means ‘Frequently’? The mean value for each group has been calculated and no statistically significant difference between both subgroups has been found (4.96 vs 5.05).

Looking at individuals’ experiences with civil society organisations, we have found significant differences between both subgroups. This information was derived from the question: Please look carefully at the following list of organisations. For each of them, please say which, if any, you belong to and which, if any, you are currently doing unpaid work for? Twelve categories included political party, labour or trade union, human rights organisation, civil rights organisation, anti-racist organisation and so on. The average number of memberships in the listed types of organisation among the citizens denying legitimisation was significantly lower (0.76) than the average number of memberships among the rest of the citizens (1.61; p < 0.001). Among the delegitimising citizens, only 14% are members of at least two types of organisation, while among the rest of the citizens this per cent amounts to 21.6%. Table 4.3 clearly shows that citizens denying legitimisation are less engaged in all forms of civic organisation. It is worth noticing that neither the hypothesis of positive correlation between political participation in conventional forms and political legitimisation level, present in scholarly literature (Mider 2014a), nor the hypothesis of negative correlation between political protest and legitimisation finds support in our study. On the one hand, these are respondents who tend to delegitimise the political system and exchange political opinions more often; on the other hand, joining a strike or demonstration is reported more often by those who positively evaluate the political system.
Table 4.3

Percentage of members (active and passive) in organisations among people perceiving political system as legitimate and those denying legitimisation

Type/theme of an organisation/movement

Fully or partially legitimising political system (N = 736)

Fully or partially delegitimising political system (N = 1288)

Political party



Labour/trade union



Development/human rights



Civil rights/civil liberties



Environment anti-nuclear or animal rights






Lesbian/gay/transgender rights (LGBT)






Occupy/anti-austerity or anti-cuts



Anti-capitalist, global justice or anti-globalisation



Anti-racist or migrant rights



Social solidarity networks



Participation in different political actions has slightly different patterns in both compared groups. Table 4.4 presents the share of respondents in both groups who reported having participated in a particular form of political action in the past 12 months (before the date of the survey). These included 16 various forms of political participation, such as contacting or visiting a politician, donating money to a political organisation, displaying a political or campaign logo, signing a petition, boycotting certain products, attending a meeting and so on. Although the share of politically inactive citizens is higher among the group of respondents who legitimise the political system (26.4% vs 32.8%), the average number of forms of political participation used within past 12 months does not differ significantly between both groups (it amounts to 3.6 in the group of those legitimising the system compared to 3.3 among the other group).
Table 4.4

Percentage of people reporting participation in the previous year in each political action among people perceiving political system as legitimate and those denying legitimisation

Form of political participation

Fully or partially legitimising political system (N = 736)

Fully or partially delegitimising political system (N = 1288)

Contacting or visiting politician/government official



Donated money to a political organisation/party/action group



Displayed a political or campaign logo/sticker



Signed a petition/public letter/campaign appeal



Boycotted products for political/ethical/environmental reason



Attending a meeting of a political party/organisation/group



Attended demonstration, march or rally



Joined a strike



Joined an occupation, sit-in or blockade



Damaged things like breaking windows, removing road signs



Discussed or shared opinion on politics on social network



Joined, started or followed a political group on Facebook



Visited the website of political party or a politician



Searched for information about politics online



We find mixed evidence on the relation between ‘civicness’ and the legitimisation of the performance of the political system in Poland. Support for democracy in general turns out to be higher among the respondents who delegitimise the functioning of the Polish political system. We observed no significant differences in regard to interest in politics measured by informal discussions on political issues between both subgroups. Similarly, only small differences are present between both subgroups in regard to various forms of political participation. However, two classic measures of social capital—that is, the level of generalised trust and membership in civil society organisations—differentiate to a high extent the group of citizens fully or partially legitimising the performance of the political system from those who fully or partially delegitimise it. The hypothesis of a legitimisation divide anchored in diverse political socialisation finds partial support at this level of our analysis.

Neoliberal Economy Hypothesis

The ‘unfinished transformation’ hypothesis has been accompanied in the scholarly literature—and more recently, in media discourse—by emphasis on the neoliberal economy’s role in triggering the Polish legitimisation crisis. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the relation between neoliberalism and political legitimisation in a comprehensive manner. However, three mechanisms have been suggested relatively often in regard to the recent situation in Poland. The first assumes a mechanism of neoliberal institutions ‘crowding out’ the social sphere and the decisive role of contradictory (welfare-oriented and merit-oriented) values in Polish society. Since the early 1990s, the liberalisation of the labour market or pensions system has led to a welfare state model named by Księżopolski (2004) as ‘a paternalistic-market hybrid’. The latter part of the model has been gradually developing during recent years. The social consequences of this process are emphasised by Ost, who notes that in case of Poland too much reliance on the market, and a dismissive approach to social concerns, unions, work and contracts, pushes people to look for alternatives [], too much economic liberalism threatens political liberalism (Ost 2016). In regard to values conflict, Dawson and Hanley (2016) (see also: Domański 2010; Karpiński 2010) suggest the dominant social values in Poland have always been relatively pro-statist, claiming a high level of social protection. Thus, neoliberal political rules must in some social groups inevitably lead to dissonances and even an outrage.

Secondly, it has been argued that the sociopolitical order in Poland has simply led in recent years to the material deprivation of citizens (Shields 2015, see also: White et al. 2013). As Orenstein suggests, although Poland’s economy has enjoyed massive growth in recent years and convergence with the West, many Poles feel that they have been left out (Orenstein 2015). Other political commentators claim that despite its growing wealth, the Polish government has failed to meet basic needs of its citizens, according to a 2014 index (Noack 2015). Social indicators are contradictory in this regard, showing that neither poverty level nor inequality level have risen during the eight years of Civic Platform rule. What has worsened, though, and has been exceptional among the EU countries, is the level of precarious employment, in particular among the youth (Pilc 2015). As Ost emphasises, under the tenure of Civic Platform, Poland became Europe’s leader in having part-time, so-called “junk” contracts for workers, while the government was so wary of trade unions that the Tripartite Commission [] ground to a complete halt (Ost 2016). Such interpretations are confirmed by Civic Platform officials, for example, in an interview of its leading politician and minister of social affairs, who revealed that the government after conducting analysis on youth situation was terrified about its foreseen political consequences, but nevertheless there was no political will to combat this situation (Boni 2016).

Thirdly, researchers claim it is not necessarily unmet basic needs or poverty itself but rather a combination of feeling relative deprivation and a lack of social security that has been an experience of a significant share of Polish citizens during very recent years. On the one hand, the income of these citizens has not risen for a long time, and their situation has often been worse than their parents (which is a more general, meaningful trend, as shown recently in a McKinsey study 2016). On the other hand, these are those who feel insecure and excluded by post-communist neoliberal capitalism, as Ost describes them and those who may support Law and Justice for its economic promises to combat the insecurity and inequality of Poland’s peripheral capitalism (Ost 2016). This mechanism may in particular negatively affect the legitimisation of the political system’s performance, as experiencing neoliberalism encompasses here possible feelings of the ‘state’s broken promises’ and social injustice.

In this part of the chapter, our goal is to investigate to what extent the legitimisation divide is parallel to the divide in experiences of the neoliberal economy. Are those ‘successful’ at the Polish neoliberal market less prone to deny the legitimisation of the political system’s performance? We explore this issue with the use of indicators on: reduced consumption, having difficulties keeping one’s job, relative economic deprivation and the feeling of being discriminated against because of socioeconomic status.

The experience of being forced to reduce consumption level has been operationalised with the use of a question: In the past five years, have you or anyone else in your household had to take reduce or postpone medical treatment/visiting the doctor/buying medicines for financial/ economic reasons? As shown in Table 4.5, there is a vast discrepancy in this regard between both compared groups of respondents. Almost every second Pole in the group that denies legitimisation to the political system’s performance says he/or she couldn’t afford medicines or medical treatment in the previous five years. Among those legitimising the political system, 31% of respondents report such an experience.
Table 4.5

Reducing or postponing buying medicines/visiting the doctor

Two subgroups


Per cent

Fully or partially legitimising political system





Total (N = 736)


Fully or partially delegitimising political system





Total (N = 1288)


Significant differences between both groups refer to their situation in the labour market, as well. Firstly, in the group of respondents who deny legitimisation to the system’s performance, the share of the employed is slightly lower (57.9%) than in the other group (62.5%). Secondly, among those working, the majority of respondents who deny legitimisation admit that they do not feel confident in their ability to keep their job (65%). In the other group, this share amounts to 44.4% (see Table 4.6).
Table 4.6

How confident, if at all, are you in your ability to keep your job in the next 12 months?

Two subgroups


Per cent

Fully or partially legitimising political system

Not at all confident


Not very confident


Fairly confident


Very confident


Total (N = 460)


Fully or partially delegitimising political system

Not at all confident


Not very confident


Fairly confident


Very confident


Total (N = 746)


Relative economic deprivation was operationalised by two indicators, based on respondents’ subjective comparison of his/her present living conditions: (1) with his/her own living conditions one year before the survey and (2) with the living conditions of his/her parents when they were at his/her age. Both variables are based on responses given using a 0–10 scale, where 0-meant ‘much worse’ and 10 ‘much better’. Although in the first dimension, the differences between both groups are relatively small, the respondents denying legitimisation to the political system tend to experience worsening living conditions more frequently than those legitimising the system; the average score is 4.25 in the former group and 5.35 in the latter (p < 0.001).

Respondents classified in our analysis as fully or partially delegitimising political system more often report living in worse conditions than their parents than the other group. Almost every fourth respondent (24.8%) questioning the legitimacy of the political system in Poland finds his/her living conditions drastically worse than his/her parents (choosing values from 0 to 2). In the other group, this share is only 8.7%. Furthermore, it must be noted that the median score in this group is equal to six points, which means that a feeling of social advancement prevails in this subpopulation. The average score for Poles denying legitimisation is significantly lower than for the rest of population (2.62 vs 3.11; p < 001).

There is also a chasm between the two compared groups’ subjective feelings of exclusion. Among respondents who legitimise the Polish system, 19.9% feel they belong to a group that is discriminated against in Poland (they answered positively to the question: Do you feel that you belong to a group that is discriminated against in this country?), while among these who deny legitimisation to the political system, this share amounts to 33.2%. As shown in Table 4.7, as much as 21% points from those who feel discriminated against in the latter group do feel discriminated against due to socioeconomic status (the mentioned question was followed by: If so, on what basis? (Please tick all that apply): colour/race, nationality, religion, language, ethnic group, age, gender, sexuality, disability, socioeconomic status, political views, others). Among the ‘discriminated’ respondents in the group of those perceiving political system as legitimate, only 8.3% points feel discriminated due to such/this status.
Table 4.7

Do you feel that you belong to a group that is discriminated against in this country? Do you feel discriminated against due to your socioeconomic status?

Two subgroups


Per cent

Fully or partially legitimising political system

Do not feel discriminated


Do feel discriminated due to socioeconomic status


Do feel discriminated due to other reasons


Total (N = 736)


Fully or partially delegitimising political system

Do not feel discriminated


Do feel discriminated due to socioeconomic status


Do feel discriminated due to other reasons


Total (N = 1288)


As shown in this part of the chapter, there is evidence that individual experiences with the neoliberal economy differentiate to a large extent those respondents who legitimise the political system’s performance and those who delegitimise it. This refers to experiences of not being able to meet basic needs, for example, medical treatment, to the feeling of insecurity at the labour market, a feeling of social degradation if compared to parents and—above all—to subjective feelings of being excluded or even discriminated against in the society. These findings support our hypothesis that difficult experiences resulting from the neoliberal economy parallel a legitimisation divide. The respondents who delegitimise the functioning of the political system relatively often feel excluded and report difficulties in the realisation of social needs. It is highly probable that public discourse narratives presented in the previous part of this chapter are a way of reasoning which corresponds closely with the experiences of those Poles who deny political legitimisation to the system. In particular, the contradiction between the narrative of Poland economically developing and being immune to financial crisis and the experiences of downward social mobility and insecurity may lead to withdrawal from supporting the political order by a significant share of Polish society.

Low Levels of Bridging Social Capital, the Experience of the Neoliberal Economy or Both? What Makes Poles Delegitimise the Performance of the Political System

In order to measure the impact of the variables which differ significantly in both researched subpopulations on the legitimisation of political system performance, we estimated a logistic regression model (see Table 4.8). The binary indicator of (de)legitimisation of the political system’s performance has been set as a dependent variable. The explanatory variables included membership in civic organisations and social trust, as well as various aspects of the experience with liberal economy: social mobility (living conditions compared to those of one’s parents at his/her age, i.e. during the communist period), short-term experience of change in living conditions, present experience of healthcare needs deprivation and an individual’s position in the labour market and subjective feelings of being discriminated against, particularly due to socioeconomic status. We did not include sociodemographic variables discussed in the second part of this chapter in the final version of the model as these prove not to have significant independent effect when explanatory variables are tested.
Table 4.8

Logistic regression results for legitimisation denial

Explanatory variables

Odds ratios

Bridging social capital:


Social capital membership in organisations (ref. in two or more organisations)


In one organisation


In no organisation


Social trust (ref. trust; 1-no trust)


Neoliberal economy:

Living conditions compared to parents (ref. the same or higher; 1, lower)


Change in living conditions in the previous 12 months (ref. the same or higher; 1, lower)


Not meeting basic need of medical treatment (ref. no; 1, yes)


Situation at the labour market (ref. stable job)


Subjective feeling of unsecure job


Lack of job (unemployment or inactivity)


Feeling of being discriminated (ref. not feeling discriminated)


Feeling discriminated due to socioeconomic status


Feeling discriminated due to other reasons




Notes: α = 0.05, α = 0.01, ***α = 0.001

The results of the estimations are presented in Table 4.8. Low levels of bridging social capital measured in an approach proposed by Putnam retain significant impact on the propensity to delegitimise the performance of the political system when the impact of experiences with neoliberal economy is controlled for. Estimations show that no membership or only one membership in broadly understood civil society organisations (including political parties and labour unions) increases the propensity to delegitimise the political system over two times. Similarly, those who do not trust or rather do not trust others (choosing values below 5 on 10 points scale) have almost twice as high a propensity to delegitimise the political system’s performance than the other group (of the respondents who scored at least 6 on the trust scale). These findings support our hypothesis that political socialisation understood in a Tocqueville’s school of thought positively contributes to the legitimisation of the political system’s performance. Strong involvement in civic networks, practical knowledge about the meaning of cooperation with other citizens in social organisations, engagement in pursuing collective or common goals and a trusting approach results in a propensity to generally accept the manner in which political system operates.

Various indicators of individual experiences with the neoliberal economy proved to have significant effect on legitimisation, too. The respondents who judge their situation as worse than that of their parents when they were the respondents’ age have by over 60% higher chances to deny legitimisation. The same occurred for those who experienced deterioration of their living conditions during the past year. Similarly, the experience of not meeting the basic needs of medical treatment increases the propensity to delegitimise the political system’s performance on average by approximately 40%. What is particularly striking is the effect of the reported feeling of being discriminated against due to socioeconomic status, which increases the probability of a delegitimising attitude by more than 2.5 times. Only an individual’s week position at the labour market—neither having unemployment/inactivity status nor insecure employment—did not significantly increase the propensity of delegitimisation (comparing to employed persons, who perceive their situation in their jobs as stable).

To sum up, we have found that both arguments—the first based on the assumption that low social capital and the associative level contribute to delegitimisation and the second underlining the role of individual experiences of hardship caused by the neoliberal economy, that is, relative deprivation and feelings of discrimination due to socioeconomic status—are supported by our study.

The legitimisation divide in Poland is parallel to some extent to a ‘civicness divide’ and—above all—to differences in experiences with the neoliberal economy. It may be hypothesised that those people who negatively evaluate the functioning of the political system are to some extent victims of economic transformation in Poland. Resentment may be caused both by comparing their own situation to parents who were better off under communism and the lack of chance of finding a stable job, which was relatively easy for generations born in the early 1970s and entering labour market at the beginning of economic transformation. However, since age turned out to have no significant effect on delegitimisation, it seems that both experiences of hardship caused by neoliberal economy and feelings of being discriminated against are not limited to certain generations; critical self-evaluation of a person’s own social standing seems to be at least partly influenced by public political narratives.

Discussion and Conclusion

Both hypotheses on the role of ‘civicness’ and the neoliberal economy influencing the legitimisation of the political system’s performance in Poland have found partial support in our study. The number of memberships in civil society organisations turns out to be the strongest inhibitor of political delegitimisation. A similar mechanism may be observed in regard to generalised trust level: the more an individual is prone to trust others, the less she or he is critical of the political system’s functioning. On the contrary, the more various forms of political participation used by a respondent in the previous year, the less she or he tends to support the political system. It must be noticed though, in regard to the unfinished transformation hypothesis, that the share of Poles who are members of at least two social organisations (including parties and labour unions) is only 16.7%. Although it is significantly lower than in other European countries, as emphasised in the argument presented about ‘communist heritage’, we share the criticism applied to this explanation. It might be true that those people who have less civic skills and weaker political socialisation are more prone to the described narratives which suggest that Polish political system is fundamentally unjust. However, the level of multiple membership in social organisations is too low to justify legitimisation and too stable to explain the delegitimisation crisis in Poland.

Experiences of the neoliberal economy turn out to have a significant impact on the legitimisation of the political system’s performance. Objective measures, such as being unemployed or inactive at the labour market, the necessity of postponing medical treatment, subjective measures of having an insecure job, relative measures of downward social mobility (in relation to the past and in relation to parents’ social position), as well as self-evaluation of being discriminated against due to socioeconomic status, negatively affect the legitimisation of the political system. The impact of the last variable is particularly high. Feelings of discrimination due to sociopolitical status are reported by a surprisingly high share of Polish society: 8.3% of those who legitimise and 21% of those delegitimising the performance of the political system. We interpret this variable as a disappointment or even frustration caused both by an assessment that one unjustly receives less than she or he deserves and her or his access to crucial social instructions is limited or denied. This assessment is made both in relation to other citizens and to external norms of social equity.

It needs to be noticed that such assessments do not emerge in a sociopolitical vacuum. We find them closely related to the political narratives described in the first part of this chapter. Although we can propose only a sketchy mechanism of ‘political economy of social frustration’ in Poland in the context of European economic crisis, in our view, the following process took place. As Ost describes, the proliferation of the neoliberal economy has led to instability, insecurity and deprivation of a significant share of Polish households. Not necessarily sole low income, but bad working conditions and missing social security caused hardship to many, in particular younger Poles. Such experiences were in clear contradiction with the dominating political narratives of Civic Platform, claiming the country is a ‘green island’ in the EU, free of economic crisis and with an ever-developing economy. It is meaningful that so-called anti-crisis packages introduced in Poland implemented further employment flexibilisation measures, giving support to employers, to some extent at the expense of employees (see Duszczyk 2014). Both dismissing social concerns by former governing party (Civic Platform) and some populist narratives developed by their political opponents (Kukiz’15 and Law and Justice) fuelled the perception of being denied access to profits from their own work.

Thus, reflecting on the leading topic of this collective volume, our analysis sheds light on two implicit roles of economic crisis in triggering a legitimisation divide in Poland. Firstly, a share of Polish society was obliged to carry the burdens of a vibrant Polish economy in the times of crisis. On the one hand, neoliberal measures have contributed to the Polish economy being relatively resistant to economic shocks; on the other hand, some (further) flexibility at the labour market and instability threat was transferred to citizens. Secondly, both the (arguably) arrogant political narratives of Civic Platform, which dismissed social problems, and the discursive strategies of Law and Justice which mobilised constituencies by emphasis on social threat and injustice, enhanced a negative assessment of their own situation. It needs to be noticed that, as the bulk of literature on political legitimisation in Poland shows, legitimisation has been traditionally very low in Poland, and some authors argue Polish governments are structurally not able to retain high levels of support (Pańków 2010; Rychard 2010; Domański 2004), whereas Polish citizens judge politics in very critically and the associative levels and trust levels are low. Against this backdrop, these are experiences of economic instability and feelings of discrimination, alleviated by political narratives, which contributed to the legitimisation divide in Poland. Both neoliberal rules in the economy and the overlooking of social problems when emphasising the country’s economic success are hidden economic crisis-related mechanisms which undermine political legitimisation.


  1. 1.

    Not trusting means providing one of the five lowest: On a score of 0–10, how much, if at all, do you personally trust each of the following institutions where 0 means ‘Do not trust an institution at all’, and 10 means ‘Completely trust this institution’?

  2. 2.

    It needs to be noticed that in various studies on political legitimization, political participation is regarded to be its effect. Other stream of literature emphasises political socialisation and practices of political engagement as a cause of legitimization. Finally, there is an evidence of mutual relation between those features. This refers to generalised trust level, as well, for example, Domański claims that high correlation level between trust and political legitimization is based on mutual influence (Domański 2004: 90).


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maria Theiss
    • 1
  • Anna Kurowska
    • 1
  1. 1.Instytut Polityki SpołecznejUniversity of WarsawWarsawPoland

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