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Putting Warsaw On Track – State of Play Before the Polish Elections

By Jan Śpiewak , Marek Nowak

The local elections in Poland that will take place this autumn may be important not only for sustainable local development, but can also play a role in the process of creating a viable, progressive political pole. Marek Nowak talks to Jan Śpiewak – joint mayoral candidate of urban movements, the Greens and left-wing Together party (Razem) – on the ways the capital of Poland needs to change and how this change can inspire a similar shift on a national level.

Marek Nowak: Representatives of the current opposition like to point out that the forthcoming local elections will be the most important since the political transformation of Poland after 1989. Do you agree with this opinion? What are the stakes of these elections for the country?

Jan Śpiewak: This is undoubtedly a very important time for Poland – and for the left it is a ‘make or break’ period. The upcoming local elections will be the first in the electoral cycle. In spring next year there will be elections to the European Parliament, and in autumn 2019 a parliamentary vote. If the Left isn’t visible this autumn, a chance to create something viable before the national vote will be close to zero. I firmly believe that the campaign in Warsaw will forge a new model of cooperation between urban movements, the Greens and the new Left represented by Razem. Such a model will not only result in electoral success right now, but will also create a blueprint that can be used in further elections.

Let us talk more about the alliance you were referring to. How did it come to fruition and why did parts of urban movements decide to go on their own?

It is a pity and I still believe our coalition will expand to include them. Sadly, some parts of urban movements are strongly anti-party – for them, even if some parties like the Greens or Razem are far more democratic than the ‘old kids on the block’, it does not matter, because the sole fact of them being parties is something bad and means that they cannot enter any alliances with them. I consider this attitude misguided. Parties are a part of democracy and you cannot just shut the door on any cooperation. I myself come from urban movements and am not in any party – just Chair of an association. At first I also had my doubts. Long, policy-oriented talks with political partners convinced us all that to fight for the city council or the mayoral contest in Warsaw, we need to join forces. It is a coalition that was born both from the heart and from the head. Similar values are important for us – we stand on the side of the weakest, have similar economic views and a common political goal: to be an alternative to the right-wing establishment that for many years was pulling the strings of social and political life in Poland. 

Is this a purely electoral alliance or the start of some new political force?

The organisations that are taking part in the coalition – Inicjatywa Polska (made up of politicians connected to the United Left electoral alliance from 2015), the Green Party, and Razem – will, together with my NGO, create a joint faction in the city council. This is not a project limited to the elections. I hope such a faction will come into life and that it will be able to effectively fight for the interests of the people of Warsaw.

Let’s talk about the right-wing establishment you want to be an alternative to. The Polish political scene is highly polarised – since 2005 it has been an arena of conflict between Law and Justice (PiS) and the Civic Platform (PO). What are your thoughts on this conflict from the perspective of a new generation of politicians in Poland?

I am very tired of this conflict and I think so are more and more people in Warsaw and all over Poland. This is a fight between two right-wing and very conservative parties, thinking about the state in terms of visions from the nineties. Much has changed since, but neither of the parties seem to notice these changes and tackle the issues that are important in Poland here and now: sustainable development, the environment or changes in the economic sphere that would shift the country from relying on cheap labour to a hub of knowledge and innovation. Law and Justice got into power criticising the neoliberal model pursued by their predecessors, but in reality they follow the same path. The current government enacted a law making Poland a de facto one big, special economic zone with tax breaks for big business. Universities in smaller towns are being sidelined and the environment is relentlessly exploited. These are not symptoms of a modern way of thinking about the state. Let us add to this picture incredible amounts of nepotism and corruption. Thousands of incompetent (but loyal) people have been promoted in public administration, gigantic bonuses paid for no particular reason… This clearly shows that the ruling party does not think in terms of the common good, but treats the state as their private property. This may be the reason why PiS doesn’t have much of a problem with violating rule of law.

Representatives of PO argue that, due to violations of the rule of law, the Polish opposition should present a joint list in the elections.

I think that two electoral blocs should emerge – a liberal and a centre-left one. If PO is still the strongest part of the Polish opposition, then PiS has a long rule ahead of it. PO is currently not a viable alternative, as it did not carry out any intellectual work on the sources of its voter loss in 2015. In effect, it is unable to mobilise its former voters or to convince new ones – it just clings to what it already has. 

PiS prepared a new electoral law for the European elections that would in effect promote a two-party system…

That is their goal – they know that PO would be the best opposition for them. In their opinion, there should be just the ruling PiS and a licensed opposition – the Civic Platform and its smaller allies. I think the only way to stop this from happening is to go to the people with new ideas that will mobilise them to vote – and this should happen even during the nearest elections as with a changed electoral law it may be much more difficult. I believe that the alliance we have built in Warsaw will offer just that.

What will be your three most important policy priorities?

The first one would be to return the city to its inhabitants. This should be done on two levels. There is not much public space in Warsaw and I think this needs to change. We should create a Warsaw Central Park in the heart of the city – an open, inclusive space that would be the first step and a symbol of this policy. Another important thing would be to give people living in Warsaw more say over how the city is being run. We call it ‘the right to the city’, which requires honesty and transparency in terms of how the city is being run, allowing for more social control. Involving citizens in decision making by presenting them varied forms of civic participation is another pillar of this plan.

Another priority for us is to build more public housing – not only for the poorest, but also for the lower-middle class. Right now some of inhabitants of the city have to devote up to half of their income to pay the bank loan for their flat. We propose building 50 000 apartments in 10 years time – people living in them will pay a modest rent of 1400 Polish złoty (ca. 330 euros) per month. We want to give them a sense of security, so they will not have to pay half of their wage on a loan bought for up to 30 years.

The third priority is to improve the quality of life in the city. It involves supporting older people and developing high-quality public services, but also issues such as environmental protection, greenery, and the fight against air pollution, which is a serious problem in Warsaw.

Climate change is becoming more and more dangerous, not only for ecosystems but also for human health and the European economy. Warsaw is a part of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group – an alliance working on local solutions for this global problem. If you were Mayor of Warsaw, what would be your ideas on this issue?

Climate change adaptation is definitely one of the most important challenges to any responsible environmental policy of Warsaw. It is also one of the policy priorities of our coalition. Other ecological issues important to us include the fight against air pollution, more green spaces and fighting energy poverty. We would like to counter the negative effects of climate change by promoting ecological clauses in public procurement, promoting ecological solutions, phasing-out diesel-powered buses and replacing them with ones that are powered by gas or electricity, ensuring ecological compensation (ie. in cases involving the need to cut down trees), limiting the urban heat effect by planting greenery in squares and along the streets. As well as creating mechanisms of rainwater collection, water retention, and ensuring ground permeability. Another important challenge involves the protection of aeration corridors, green spaces, and urban forests, guaranteed by local development plans. Previous city administrations did a lot of harm to Warsaw on this matter. It is estimated that 200 000 trees have been cut down in last 10 years, which greatly exacerbates the urban heat effect and problems with managing rainfall in the case of intense rain, as well as air pollution. It was a deeply irresponsible policy which needs to be stopped.

One of the most important topics in this campaign will undoubtedly be reprivatisation. Why is this such a political issue in Warsaw?

Reprivatisation means giving back property nationalised by the communists after World War II – be it to its previous owner or their descendants. Reprivatisation is problematic not just in terms of values, such as those related to historical necessity or social justice. The reprivatisation process itself is most unbelievable. People living in such apartments had rental contracts with the city, allowing them to live there for an unlimited time. They had an agreement with the city that if they payed a low rent (lower than market prices), then they would be able to live there. Suddenly, after 50 to 60 years, someone claiming to be an heir comes along and turns everything upside down. Neither the state nor the city do anything to protect the affected people, many of whom lose not only their rights but also their dignity.

It was shocking to see the state declining to protect them from being pushed out of their homes after being sold along with the whole building like they were some sort of merchandise. This was done in violation of basic human rights. It was a very aggressive, neoliberal policy that did not guarantee any safety for the tenants and resulted in many tragedies, including deaths. I can imagine a policy that moves to housing people in private buildings, still protected by law and the state. But in this case, when a house changed hands from public to private, a safety net was entirely missing.

What are the differences between Warsaw and other European capitals?

The main difference regards the development model chosen by Warsaw, in which a complete lack of spatial planning is clearly visible. The city is developing more in line with the American rather than the European model. We have a huge problem with ‘urban sprawl’ – a situation in which the city is spilling over into the suburbs. Warsaw covers a territory that is almost five times bigger than Paris, and the whole metro area is gigantic. This is an expensive, inefficient growth model that is hazardous to social connections. In Warsaw, we can observe the creation of huge districts, which are just bedrooms of the city. There is a shortage of services – from nurseries and kindergartens to parks. In case of the outskirts of the city, transport problems are added to this list of challenges. Thanks to this model of development, there are places in which half a million cars go back and forth each day because nobody planned for public transport options going to places important for the inhabitants.

Getting from Białołęka in the north of the city to the so-called ‘Mordor’ business district in Mokotów takes at least an hour-long ride in peak time, which is irrational. The main problem is that the leading role in spatial development is taken by developers and private capital – not by citizens and urbanists. While in the West norms and customs rule, here we can see the dominance of big money, often accompanied by big corruption. We are observing this first-hand. A network of people interested in reprivatisation and developers is quite cosy with politicians. This is a problem that can be observed in all large cities in the country, where developers have an incredibly large influence on local development. Warsaw was once called the ‘Paris of the North’ – now it is more like the ‘Dubai of the North’. Skyscrapers were built without much thinking, buildings of historical and architectural importance were torn down, green spaces were changed into building sites… This means total spatial chaos!

Lech Mergler, one of the creators of the Urban Movements Congress here in Poland, presented a vision in which the answer to the current crisis of democracy may lie in creating ‘democracy of cities’. Do you – as a politician coming from urban movements – believe that the counter-offensive of progressive politics will come from the cities, or is it a mirage similar the idea of trickle-down economy?

Honestly speaking I am quite skeptical. Of course, in the era of permanent crises in which we are living, regions and cities fare better than nation states. They are the leaders of the fight against climate change, they help refugees and experiment with new forms of social organisation. It is attractive to see them as beacons of progressive politics, but I do not think that they will fulfill that dream. Cities do not exist in a socio-political bubble and it will be national politics influencing them rather than the other way around. Cities will not save the world, but they may be able to save themselves.

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Putting Warsaw On Track – State of Play Before the Polish Elections

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