“Let’s talk:” A Polish minority party leader hopes to guide her country back towards Europe

epa06095768 Spokesperson Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz from opposition Nowoczesna party sepaks during a night debate on a Supreme Court bill, in the Sejm building in Warsaw, Poland,…
epa06095768 Spokesperson Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz from opposition Nowoczesna party sepaks during a night debate on a Supreme Court bill, in the Sejm building in Warsaw, Poland,…
Image: EPA/Bartomiej Zborowski
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Warsaw, Poland

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz was six years old when communism collapsed in Poland in 1989, following peaceful mass protests. “I still remember the sense of expectation back then, the euphoria of peaceful change,” she says, recalling how she watched Poland’s first free elections on television with her parents. By the time Poland joined the European Union in 2004, she was turning 21, studying law in Warsaw and actively engaged in promoting Poland’s Westward course as a young party activist. It was a turning point in Polish history, she says; “Poles had to decide whether to get on the European express or the Trans-Siberian Railway.”

Poland now faces that choice between West and East again, says Gasiuk-Pihowicz, when we meet at a café near Poland’s parliament. She is wearing a neat navy-blue suit, having come straight from a television interview. Now 34 years old, she is a leading figure in the pro-democratic opposition to the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS in Polish); one of the prominent women lawmakers of the economically and socially liberal Nowoczesna (literally: Modern) party. After starting out as the party’s spokesperson when it was founded two years ago, she has since risen to become deputy leader of its parliamentary caucus.

Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has been undermining checks and balances, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, its divisive leader. Its overhaul of the Constitutional Tribunal shortly after winning the elections led to a protracted standoff with the European Commission in Brussels over rule of law, which remains unresolved. Most recently, PiS set out to overhaul the Supreme Court, which rules on the validity of elections, among other things. A new law pushed through parliament last week terminates its judges’ tenure. The move has been condemned by the EU, the US State Department, and others. In towns across Poland, tens of thousands of people have protested, calling for “free courts.”

As the political temperature has risen, Gasiuk-Pihowicz has emerged one of the staunchest defenders of judicial independence, drawing on her experience as a lawyer. During a late-night parliamentary debate on the Supreme Court law, she stood up to Kaczyński, who then accused the opposition of “murdering” his brother, former president Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash in Russia in 2010. Gasiuk-Pihowicz’s resolve has boosted her recognizability. While we wait for our drinks, strangers come up to her to thank her for her efforts.

“Peaceful mass protests are the only way forward,” she says over an orange juice. The “absolute arithmetic” of parliament, where PiS has a majority, has enabled the governing party to push through legislation, she says. But out on the streets, that arithmetic no longer applies. PiS buckled under social pressure before, she explains, citing how PiS dropped a controversial law tightening restrictions on abortion last autumn, following mass protests.

She was right: on July 24, the day after our conversation, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda unexpectedly announced that he will veto the law on the Supreme Court.

Even so, it is too early for the opposition to relax. “PiS is turning off all the fuses; all the safeguards on people’s rights,” says Gasiuk-Pihowicz, likening the ruling party to “thieves who steal democracy” while people are on vacation. Fortunately, more Poles are taking a stand, including people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. “The continued protests show that a growing number of people see that PiS has crossed a red line,” she says. “Young people see that it is a party that curtails rights and freedoms.”

More broadly, Gasiuk-Pihowicz worries about the “patriarchal vision” enacted by PiS, a socially conservative party with strong ties to the Catholic church. Although it has helped families struggling with poverty, the monthly child subsidy introduced by PiS can be bad for women, as it gives them less of an incentive to work, she says. Early data suggests that 150,000 mothers have quit their jobs since the subsidy was introduced. PiS’s lowering of the retirement age will take a disproportionate toll on women, too, she adds. “PiS diagnoses problems, but does not provide the right solutions,” she says. Instead of a child subsidy, Nowoczesna proposes tax breaks for working parents—fathers and mothers.

The recent protests have been a boon to Poland’s opposition, which is divided between two main parties; Nowoczesna and the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, which governed from 2007 to 2015. Support for Nowoczesna crumbled earlier this year, following reports that its leader Ryszard Petru had an affair during protests over New Year. A poll last week put support for it at 10%, behind PiS and PO, which had 32% and 23% respectively. Gasiuk-Pihowicz feels that this is no time for the opposition to quibble over minor differences. “All party badges or labels have lost importance now; one is either a democrat or an anti-democrat,” she says.

With the president’s veto, PiS’s overhaul of the Supreme Court appears to have been halted, at least for now. The next elections are due in 2019. If the opposition wins, it will have to clear up the havoc to Poland’s institutions caused by PiS. “All future changes will have to be built on social consensus, rather than political strife, as is currently the case,” says Gasiuk-Pihowicz. “It will undoubtedly be a big challenge.” It is not too early to think about healing the rift in Polish society between the PiS government supporters and its opponents, she adds. “Even now, during this heated time, I say: let’s talk.”