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Beyond Opposition – How to Break Conservative Rule in Poland

By Aleksandra Koleczek

Protest after protest can fill Poland’s streets but the ruling Law and Justice Party’s popularity and grip on power seems undiminished. The political opposition – both in parliament and out – has little success iterating an alternative vision that separates them from the unpopular neoliberal reforms of PiS’s predecessors. It is crucial to understand why and for the Left to develop a fresh strategy.

Summer 2017 was hardly a time for holidays for Polish politicians and civil society.  In July the Minister of Justice announced more legal acts to reform Poland’s judicial system. These changes could result in even bigger political influence on courts, causing protests amongst lawyers, judges, and ordinary people. Thousands of people took candles and went to demonstrations called ‘chains of light’ to defend Polish courts. Next to the parliament, the non-parliamentary opposition organised a ‘tent town’ and permanent protests. Crowds also protested at the Presidential Palace, as the president can veto bills after they are approved by the parliament. It seems that the president listened, and he stopped two out of three proposed legal changes. This autumn, however, he plans to come up with presidential proposal to reform the courts and Poles cannot be sure of the outcome. Surprisingly, what seemed to a crisis within the ruling party, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), only makes them stronger and does not discourage their supporters.

Since the elections in 2015 PiS (‘Prawo i Sprawiedliwość’, meaning ‘Law and Justice’) has been a party that has major influence on Polish reality. As their name suggests, they claim to represent the values of law and justice, yet their actions appear to contradict this. They started by dismantling the Constitutional Tribunal, which ruled whether a new law was constitutional or not. Then the Minister of Justice gained direct control over the prosecutor’s office. There is hardly any area of life that is not being reformed by this conservative party. Just to mention the most affected areas: education, environmental protection (with the precious Bialowieza forest being logged), energy policy, internal and external security systems, international policy. The changes are introduced rapidly, without proper consultation, with no regard to the Constitution or the mass protests they elicit. Polish society is divided. If the elections were today, PiS would win again with 42% of voters’ support. Recent months have shown that the attempt to gain greater control over the courts and judges in Poland, which was the cause of widespread protests, made the conservatives’ lead even stronger. Their support rose by 4% after the wave of protests in July. It is crucial to understand why and prepare an adequate strategy in order to effectively oppose the conservative government.

A success story

In 2015 a large part of Polish society wanted change. Most of the voters saw their chance in supporting the biggest opposition party at that time – PiS. However, only 50.92% of Polish citizens voted at all. Those who did felt they were neglected by previous government, which introduced neoliberal policies. The highest support for PiS came from South-Eastern Poland, which is also the poorest and most religious region. Finally somebody was promising them dignity, national pride; in other words, “getting back what should be theirs”. Poland was supposed to “rise from its knees”, also as more independent from the European Union. The conservative government is testing the patience of the EU by not complying with decisions regarding accepting refugees or increasing the share of renewables in the overall energy mix. The economic situation in Poland is in fact getting better. In July 2017, unemployment was down to 4.8%, which is the lowest in recent history. Can it be called a success of the ruling party? Hardly. Their predecessors paved the path. Moreover Poland still receives huge sums of money from the EU, mostly as a part of Cohesion Policy. So far no EU funds have been limited nor fines given to Poland as a sanction, even though this possibility was mentioned after the reforms dismantling the rule of law. With their rising support, we might face another electoral success for PiS in 2019. Taking in consideration the comprehensive reforms, which deal also with the content of the school curriculum and public media, they could manage to shape a new, conservative generation of Poles during their rule.

The illusion of social justice

The ruling party did address the needs of the poorest to some extent. Every family (rich or poor) with at least two children can get 500 PLN (around 120 EUR) a month for each child. There is no regulation when it comes to spending it. According to the government, the effect is decreasing extreme poverty by 48%. However, it excludes some families such as parents raising one child or same sex couples, who cannot register their relationship in any way or be a family raising children in a legal sense. Other policies introduced by the conservatives also prove that their approach is rather more exclusive than inclusive. One example is lowering the retirement age (effective from the 1st October 2017) For men the retirement age will now be 65, and for women 60. Practically speaking, it means that women, who are also encouraged by the system to take unpaid time off to raise children, will have less time to raise money for their retirement and many will live in poverty.

At the same time, the conservatives are to a large extent ignoring one of the major factors which magnifies social injustice, which is the labour law. Poland’s economic success is also based on winning the lowest labour costs competition. The cost of an hour of work in Poland is three times lower than an average hour of work in other EU countries. Currently, a large number of people, especially young, work based on a short-term contract with no health insurance or pension contributions. Smaller employers, as well as big corporations, are abusing the system and working people; aided by the fact that the existing law is not reinforced. What PiS is proposing adding public insurance costs to every type of work contract. Without support for small, local companies, who already struggle to compete with corporations, and without proper enforcement, it might lead to even more people working without any contract or forcibly self-employed. This burning flaw can hardly be ignored, but maybe it is not completely unintentional. People who are constantly worried about wages and work stability are less likely to have time and energy for protests or civil disobedience. Moreover, a lack of opportunities on the labour market combined by lack of equal rights for women and LGBTQIA community is a decisive factor for many young people leaving Poland.

Fear policy

Another issue is restricting women’s reproductive rights. The women’s protest in 2017- the so-called Czarny Protest – prevented further restrictions to the abortion law, but maybe not for long.  Another proposed legal change, aiming to limit reproductive rights in Poland, including the right to abort, will most probably be voted on by the parliament this autumn. It will be a second citizens’ legal initiative, similar to the one from last year, supported by the Roman Catholic Church and conservatives.  As a response, a pro-choice initiative ‘Ratujmy Kobiety 2017’ (‘Let’s save women 2017’) is, for a second time, gathering support for a progressive legal act allowing women to abort until the 12th week of pregnancy. By September 2017 one hundred thousand people had signed the petition. Unfortunately, based on last year’s experience, the parliament majority might simply ignore this swell of support for women’s rights and reject it without further proceeding. How is this possible? The communication strategy of the conservatives is based on fear. They present Poland as a land threatened by terrorist attacks, Muslim culture, and violence. In their narrative, feminists or left-wingers, supposedly supporting communism and unfairly associated with communist crimes, are also very dangerous. Total control over public media makes spreading this message easier. Racist, homophobic, or sexist comments from politicians create an atmosphere of approval towards those views in the society, which results in increased discrimination and violence.

Anger and disobedience

Those who are outraged by PiS’s policies take to the streets. Massive protests had already begun in 2016, after the reforms of the Constitutional Tribunal. The so-called KOD (‘Komitet Obrony Demokracji’,  or ‘The Committee for the Defence of Democracy’), a non-partisan movement, was established with the aim of protecting democracy and the rule of law. It was a spontaneous reaction of thousands of people to the reforms introduced by PiS. They organised online and offline. KOD local groups are still in large extent functional, even though a leadership conflict has weakened the national structure. Marches organised by KOD have gathered up to fifty thousand people according to the organisers. The movement was a proof that massive civil resistance against the government is still possible in Poland. The breakthrough was the attempt to ban abortion (access to which is already extremely restricted in Poland), which resulted in the ‘Black Protest’ on the 10th of October 2016. It was the biggest women’s mobilisation since 1989, when the ‘Compromise Abortion Law’ was introduced. As a result, the ban was not introduced, but the situation of women did not improve either. The energy of the protesters was already mostly burned out, but the reasons to protest were still piling up. Every 10th day of the month is commemorated by PiS and their supporters as the anniversary of the Smolensk plane crash in 2010. On board this plane was, among other politicians and high officials, Lech Kaczynski -the Polish president and twin brother of the current party leader. With that monthly ceremony in mind, a new law was introduced. It allows the registration of recurrent demonstrations and forbids registering other demonstrations at that time and place. The law triggered negative reactions from PiS’s opponents, as it was against the Constitution and clearly proved that PiS was using its parliamentary advantage to introduce laws serving their particular interests. A few groups of protesters, including feminists, radicalised KOD members, and others such as some Greens began organising so-called ‘anti-anniversaries’ aiming to block a show-off commemoration by PiS. It is considered controversial by many people, as it is an act of civil disobedience aiming for confrontation. The reaction of PiS was quite harsh. Apart from accusing the anti-demonstrators of being ‘traitors’, the police was mobilised to prevent the anti-demonstration. On July the 10th almost 2,500 policemen were guarding the area of the demonstration and the costs went up to 750,000 PLN (more or less 200,000 euros). This information was widely circulated and the effectiveness of this kind of protest was questioned. Especially as the support for PiS continues to rise regardless. Even the huge wave of protest starting on the 16th of July as a reaction to government proposals to further reform the Polish courts did not manage to weaken the strong position of the conservative party. A conflict with the president, who used his power to veto to block the reforms to the Supreme Court, did not discourage PiS voters, even though it showed that there is some opposition within the ruling party. In the face of this, the opposition has to reflect on the strategies they use in order to interrupt conservative rule in Poland.

Where is the (green) left

One of the main accusations faced by the opposition, both parliamentary and non-parliamentary, is that they are opposing the only party which has managed to change the neoliberal rule of the PO (‘Platforma Obywatelska’ or ‘Civic Platform’), which was in power from 2007 to 2015. PO leaders have been present at many demonstrations and they are trying to regain popularity. They hope to win again based on being a lesser evil than PiS. Since there is no left-wing in the parliament after parliamentary elections in 2015, the situation of the Left parties is rather difficult. Being seen on one stage with PO leaders and liberals from another parliamentary opposition party (Nowoczesna) does not help to refute the accusations mentioned above. Nonetheless, the first step, which is rethinking the strategy, has been set in motion. Being anti-PiS is not enough. The Left has to expose the nationalistic and exclusive grounds of conservative social policies. For those 49% of the Poles who decided to not vote in 2015, left-wing parties have to have a convincing vision of a just, green, and pro-European Poland. So far, PiS’s vision is much more successful, but the fact is that an alternative one is simply missing. Polish people are fed up with austerity, the privatisation of public services, and arrogance towards those who are less privileged. It is a chance for Green minded left-wingers, if we only manage to come up with a convincing proposal. Being angry is not enough. That anger has to be transformed into positive energy, which can fuel a wholesome social transformation.

Beyond Opposition – How to Break Conservative Rule in Poland