Duda's Economic Populism

Poland's New President and the Future of Neoliberalism

A woman votes inside a polling station during the second round of presidential elections in Torun, Poland May 24, 2015. Mikolaj Kuras / Reuters

On May 24, the 43-year-old conservative lawyer, Andrzej Duda, a fresh face on Poland’s political scene, defeated incumbent Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski by a narrow margin in the presidential run-off vote. Duda’s victory, based on a platform of economic populism, reveals a deepening disaffection with neoliberal economic reforms not just in Poland, but throughout Eastern Europe. First Russia and then Hungary embraced statist and nationalist economic policies that broke with the free market policies of the past two decades. Now Poland, one of the six largest economies in the European Union, appears ready to take this path too.

It would be highly symbolic if Poland abandoned neoliberalism, since it has been Eastern Europe’s trendsetter for neoliberal reforms. In 1990, then Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, battling the legacies of communism and facing the prospect of hyperinflation, orchestrated a nearly overnight switch from a socialist economy to a market-based one under his “Balcerowicz plan.” Prices, once controlled, were liberalized. Trade, once monopolized, was freed. Currency, once rigid, was suddenly convertible. Enterprises, once state owned, were sold or transferred to private hands.  

Duda casts his vote next to his wife Agata and their daughter Kinga in a polling station in Krakow, Poland, May 24, 2015. Mateusz Skwarczek / Agencja Gazeta via Reuters

Balcerowicz and other reformers in Eastern Europe did not expect public acceptance of neoliberal reforms to last long. They instead anticipated that the sudden and dramatic changes they initiated would create massive economic upheaval and in turn, trigger political turmoil. They fully expected an angry public to vote them out after a year or two. But understanding how important the reforms were, they pushed them through as quickly as possible. They planned to jolt a market economy to life before politics lurched back to the status quo. Yet our recent research, which will appear in a forthcoming academic article, shows that the “window of opportunity” for neoliberal reforms in Eastern Europe stayed open for decades longer than most experts had expected.

Indeed, standard measures

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