Poland is in the middle of an existential struggle over the shape of its democracy

Holding up the constitution.
Holding up the constitution.
Image: AP Photo/Alik Keplicz
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Over the past week, the Polish parliament controlled by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party passed legislations dismantling the current primary education system, finalizing its overhaul of the country’s constitutional court, and de facto limiting the freedom of assembly. A chaotic night on Friday has both sides of the political conflict accusing each other of a coup d’etat. Since then, opposition lawmakers have been occupying the parliament’s main hall. Meanwhile, on the streets of the country’s cities, people have been protesting tirelessly nearly every day. The desperation is palpable: some protesters have been blocking politicians’ cars with their own bodies, while others are camping out in front of the parliament in the middle of Poland’s frigid December. We’re only days away from Christmas, when Poles usually turn to the hearth. This year, for many of them, far more stressful than last-minute gift-shopping and making heaps of holiday pierogi is a political crisis for the history books. What is going on in Poland, which was supposed to be the former Soviet bloc’s beacon of democracy and a poster child of European Union integration?

Opposition lawmakers sing the national anthem and chant as they occupy the podium to protest in the lower house of parliament in Warsaw, Poland, on Friday, 16 Dec. 2016. They protested in a large group around the podium against the ruling party pans to limit reporters' access to lawmakers. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Lawmakers protesting in parliament.
Image: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

On Friday night (Dec. 16) the political tension brewing since PiS was elected to power in the fall of 2015 came to a head in the Sejm, one of the two chambers of Poland’s parliament. After the party announced a plan to restrict journalists’ access to politicians in the parliament’s buildings, opposition lawmaker Michał Szczerba, took his turn on the speaker’s podium bearing a sign that said “Free Media.” The speaker of the Sejm, Marek Kuchciński of PiS, decided to exclude him from the legislative debate. This elicited an outcry from other opposition MPs who blocked the speaker’s podium chanting “Free Media” and “No censorship.”

Amid the chaos, PiS, the ruling party, decided to leave the main parliament auditorium and relocate to a different room. When they convened, after a quick session of Christmas caroling the speaker announced the parliament was in session. Then, with very few opposition members in the room—some in fact being blocked from entering by security—with no media presence, no TV cameras, no electronic voting infrastructure, members of the ruling party voted to pass the country’s budget for 2017 and reject any amendments.

The opposition, journalists, and political experts question the vote’s legitimacy, pointing out many irregularities, including a failure to effectively inform other lawmakers that it was happening, and a lack of transparency as to who voted and how many MPs were exactly in the room (link in Polish).

Below, Opposition lawmakers trying to get in to the voting session:

Outside the parliament

Over the past year, political demonstrations have become a nearly weekly activity for many residents of Warsaw and other cities. They’ve been protesting everything from the PiS plan to de facto transform the country’s constitutional court into a political body easily controlled by the parliament, to proposals to restrict the country’s already harsh abortion law, to various efforts to ease environmental protections (link in Polish).

Here’s the protest agenda for last weekend in Warsaw: On Friday, demonstrators came out to support the “Free Media” protest by lawmakers in the parliament, in what turned out to be a tense night that included physical confrontations with police; On Saturday, they were calling on president Andrzej Duda to veto a bill that would restrict freedom of assembly; On Sunday, they were bidding farewell to the outgoing head of the Constitutional Tribunal, viewed as a rare defender of the rule of law in Poland still in office. Many of these protests gather thousands of people—the anti-abortion “black protest” in Warsaw in early October reached 30,000 participants, according to city authorities. On Tuesday morning (Dec. 20) , police started building up barricades around the parliament on orders from the building’s security. Earlier, officers forcibly removed the protesters that were staying outside the building overnight, in a makeshift encampment.

I spoke with some of the demonstrators in front of the parliament on Saturday. One of them was Agnieszka Wolfram-Zakrzewska, who was involved with the anti-Communist underground movement in the 1970s and 80s. On Saturday, she was one of a group holding huge cardboard letters that spelled out “Free Media.” “This is a fight to save the rule of law,” she said. “All the country’s democratic institutions are being eliminated…Citizens today don’t have an institution that they can turn to,” she added, underlining that the ruling party is “trampling on the constitution.”

Witold Nawrot came to the protest with his daughter. “We are afraid of the return of the regime from before 1989,” he said, referring to the four-decade rule of communists in Poland. Moments earlier, people gathered at the demonstration were singing solemn protest songs from that very era. Last week marked the 35th anniversary of the introduction of martial law by Poland’s communist authorities, in an effort to quash growing dissent.

I ran the references to communist repression by Wolfram-Zakrzewska who was an early member of the underground movement during that time. “I don’t like these comparisons to the communist era, but these two periods have one thing in common: then we had one-party rule, and now we have one-party rule. No one reckoned with the opposition then, no one reckons with it now.”  She referred to the controversial education reform that will swiftly eliminate middle schools, bringing back the primary education system that functioned in Poland for decades before an overhaul in 1999:  “I don’t know why they are doing this. I personally think they hate everything that happened over the past 25 years in Poland, and now they want to destroy everything. If they could they would tear up the asphalt from highways created during the previous government.”

The man behind it all

Wolfram-Zakrzewska, along with most similar-minded Poles, blames one person for the paralysis: Jarosław Kaczyński, who is the

Kaczynski with Beata Szydlo, the prime minister.
Kaczynski with Beata Szydlo, the prime minister.
Image: Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski/via Reuters

head of PiS, but other than being a member of parliament, holds no formal office. Despite this, he wields enormous power in the country. “I have no idea how this will end: we are in the hands of people who are acting irrationally, and leading this group is a man who has absolutely no constitutional responsibility, he’s just a member of parliament,” she said. “He is not responsible before anyone and anything, and everyone listens to him: the prime minister, the president, lawmakers.” According to an August poll by Newsweek, 60% of Poles think Kaczyński is behind president Duda’s decisions (link in Polish).

Popular support

Polish society, like in many liberal democracies in the West is extremely polarized. Although supported by observers abroad, political watchdogs, NGOs and a wide swath of mainstream media, those lamenting the crumbling of democratic institutions are largely liberal, leftist or centrist, politically engaged city dwellers who are relatively wealthy. PiS, who won both the presidential election and the parliamentary election in 2015 is still backed by about more than 30% of Poles, more than any other party in the country, with various recent polls showing only a slight decline in support following the election (link in Polish).

Pro-government activists attend a demonstration to mark the 35th anniversary of the marshal law in Warsaw, Poland, December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel - RTX2UVEZ
A man holds up a statuette of Jarosław Kaczyński’s twin brother Lech, who died in a plane crash in 2010.
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

A group of government supporters turned out to a counter-protest in front of the presidential palace on Sunday. They chanted “Jarosław, Jarosław,” so the name of their party’s leader and “God, Honor, Fatherland,” according to Polish media. (link in Polish) The PiS base is galvanized by conservative rhetoric against abortion or in vitro fertilization, and fulfilling populist promises such as lowering the retirement age, signed into law by Duda on Monday (Dec. 19) or a monthly cash subsidy for every additional child in a family, a boost for low-income Poles. But with the latest events, it appears that some dissent is bubbling. A European Parliament deputy from PiS, Kazimierz Ujazdowski, criticized on Monday his party’s actions over the weekend, as has a prominent conservative commentator (last two links in Polish). Several journalists from state-run television stations have left their jobs, reportedly because they didn’t want their work to serve political purposes (links in Polish).  

Echoes of Trump’s America

As a reporter who covered this year’s American presidential campaign, it’s been hard not to notice the parallels between PiS’s Poland and the changing political landscape of the US. 

In some ways mirroring the allure of Donald Trump, the PiS appeal is one of populism and conservatism, geared toward a disenfranchised segment of a polarized society — a group that also turns out en masse for elections. Nearly all of its ideas fill liberals with horror. The information war is fully blown: fake news spreads with lightning speed, while many Poles say that state-run media have turned into blatant government propaganda. (link in Polish) Like in the US, the far-right is gaining a more prominent voice in the political discussion: a representative of the neo-fascist group ONR was invited to a popular radio talk show to present the organization’s point of view. (link in Polish) Some of the similarities with what is going on in America are quite literal: several months ago, Polish women threatened by the prospect of further restricting their right to an abortion trolled the prime minister with messages detailing their periods — a tactic that was used against US vice-president elect Mike Pence when he was the governor of Indiana.

In many ways, the Polish government is realizing Democrats’ worst fears for America. While Poland has the worst air quality in Europe, the ruling party passes a legislation that eliminates restrictions on clearing trees on private properties, a move decried by environmental groups. The equivalent of the US Supreme Court is being reshaped to help those in power. Echoing Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, the Polish government wants to create a new office that would administer funds for non-governmental organizations, a solution that activists fear would disadvantage human rights groups critical of the ruling party, or those which do not share its conservative world view. Women’s rights might be further threatened: the abortion law is still in the works, the government is quietly rolling back regulations aimed to help mothers give birth according to modern standards, and it is reportedly talking about backing out of a European convention on preventing violence against women, because, as one minister put it, it conflicts with the party’s opinion on gender as a cultural, rather than biological concept. (links in Polish; for more parallels, check out The Washington Post’s excellent dispatch from Poland).

Some of PiS’s more radical ideas, like the extreme abortion restrictions, are just a smokescreen that they backtrack substantially after public outcry (much like some of Trump’s campaign promises). This becomes a distraction from more fundamental changes, like the constitutional court overhaul or the worsening economic conditions in the country. But barring a decision from those in power to hold a snap election, the Polish opposition and concerned citizens have three years to figure out—and find out–what the goals of their government, aside for holding onto power, actually are. Americans have four.