In a sign of the times, the leader of Polish right-wing liberal-conservative Civic Platform party, Donald Tusk – currently vying for electoral supremacy with the more conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski twins – dropped in a branch of Tesco in West London, where according to Gazeta Wyborcza
(as far as I can understand it) he stepped into a blaze of flash photography and ‘caused a sensation’. He wasn’t there to do a spot of shopping, but to open a counter selling Polish groceries and – more significantly – follows in the footsteps of pro-market politicians from other EU countries, who have beaten a path abroad to campaign for the votes of a new young, well educated economic diasporas, who have turned their backs on high unemployment or low wages to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, addressed a rally of some 2000 French expats in London during his successful presidential campaign and Romanian politicians were, apparently, out and about in numbers before the last elections in Spain, where there are tens of thousands of Romanian guestworkers
In much political science the assumption is that emigrants have exercised an ‘exit’ option, rather than giving ‘voice’ by participating in politics – the terms come from a classic article by Albert Hirschman. That too alienated or under-resourced to want to participate in domestic politics even by voting, or become too detached from domestic politic to care. But as I mused to two of SSEES PhD students with Polish-Romanian interests yesterday and a colleague today, the whole ‘exit’, ‘ voice’, ‘loyalty’ trilemma was initially developed by Hirschmann in a study of from East Germany in the early 1970s and might not transfer too neatly to today’s EU28 of internet, satellite TV and Easyjet.
It is, of course, actually pretty hard to vote as an expat even if, like a large number of recent Polish arrivals, you’re in London within relatively easy reach of the Embassy, as even a couple hours off is beyond what most rational voters would be prepared to commit to exercise a vote even in a close fought and unpredictable campaign. My more canny colleague’s suspicions that ultimately such expatriate campaigning is really way for liberal parties to signal to those a home that a young generation is being ‘wasted’ abroad, than a serious attempt to harvest expatriate votes. Tusk told journalists he wasn’t in the UK simply to call on expat Poles to return home, but to convince them that (when he was in power) things in the homeland would change and they would ‘find their London’ in Poland. Still, he would it would be interesting to know the figures… The small expat Czech vote (small by Polish, Romanian or French standards) is widely believed to have tilted last year’s Czech elections narrowly towards the right
Though waxing lyrical about the free market and the fact that the Kaczynski’s rhetoric of social Poland was actually a bastardized form of socialism (shades of Václav Klaus, for whom pretty much everything he doesn’t agree with is a bastardized form of socialism) Tusk’s a programme offering returning workers various tax breaks when they resettle in Poland seems to suggest that he regards migration from Poland as a problem to be solved, rather than a reality to be accommodated, as I think Irish politicians do (or, rather did, in 1980s before the country started booming and sucking in workers from the new EU). However, in Ireland all is not completely well in the Polish–Tesco relationship. The radical Indymedia site reports wildcat strikes by Polish temps at a Tesco distribution depot in Dublin, so perhaps the assumption that young Polish migrants are disproportionately likely to vote for Tusk is flawed, anyway.
I suspect, however, that anyone who promises change – even in free market form – can still do fairly well among disaffected, footloose younger voters, however exploited they might be in Western Europe. Still, however good his policies Tusk wants to reap electoral dividends, he should probably think of about introducing Estonian style internet voting, rather than promising to turn to Polish economy round in five years.