Not many of you had probably heard of the recent „March for Freedom“ organized in Warsaw by the opposition parties. Most media focused on the second round of the presidential elections in France. Quite rightly – they were much more important than the even in Poland. However, it makes sense to give it a closer look – it is yet another great example how things in Poland just don’t work.
First – some background. Poland became an important topic for the international media almost two years ago. In the last months of 2015, after the presidential and parliamentary elections, the catholic-fundamentalist party Law and Justice (PiS, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość in Polish) emerged as a big winner. Right after appointing Beata Szydło for PM her new cabinet was introduced and the ‘good change’, as the new establishment calls its actions, has began. Law and Justice presented itself as a radical conservative party with strong ties to the Catholic church and its bureaucracy in Poland. However, what lifted them to power were only some elements of their overall radical right-wing identity. They perfectly responded to the anti-immigration hysteria that had been earlier stired up mainly by media linked to PiS. Their national chauvinism was nicely packaged into „defense of nation“ and even „defense of women“ while at the same time a major assault on abortion rights had been going on which last year eventually provoked the most massive and spontaneous protest against the policies of the government not only all around Poland but also within the Polish minorities abroad.
Apart from injecting religious fundamentalist ideas into the society, law and the public sphere in general, Law and Justice has undertaken many steps to guarantee its power which are highly questionable from a legal point of view. Not least, the obstruction of the work of the Polish constitutional court and its later factual dismantling and replacing with a facade. Later the state own media were turned into a grotesque propaganda tube, now the judiciary is under major attack.
In between the political battles around the Constitutional Tribunal, the ‘good change’ managed to:
- cut the funding to the Commissioner For Human Rights office, by 7 million zlotys (nearly 1,8 million USD);
- advocate the removal from the rankings of academic journals ‘some lesbian and gay studies’;
- encourage single mothers ‘to stabilize their family situation and have more children’ in order to become eligible 500plus benefits;
- allocate 27 million PLN (over 5 million USD) to Lux Veritatis, a foundation co-founded and chaired by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a man behind the notoriously antisemitic, nationalist and fundamentalist Catholic radio station (Radio Maryja) and TV channel (Telewizja Trwam) stations, both of which frequently host members of PiS;
- call for further restrictions in the current abortion law, for as Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a PiS MP, opined: ‘The vast majority of MPs expressed a clear position that it [the abortion law] should be limited’; with a newly proposed civic bill this might soon become a reality;
- announce that the morning after pill will no longer be available prescription-free;
At the same time however, important social measures have been introduced. First, Law and Justice’s flagship pro-demographic, procreative program 500plus took off exactly one year ago, that entitles parents to receive 500 PLN (c.a. 150 USD) per month, per every child with the exception of the first. While the program has been largely criticized by many liberal and even some left centers for its conservatism and „selectionalism“ it produced great social effects. According to a leading Polish social researcher of poverty and exclusion Ryszard Szarfenberg, after the first ten months from the introduction of 500plus the extreme poverty index among kids under 18 fell by stunning 94 per cent.
This elements combined allowed Law and Justice to maintain its large support in the society. Until a week ago they were the leading political force in all major polls. Now the conservative Civic Platform (the party of Donald Tusk, PO, Platforma Obywatelska in Polish) is ahead of PiS with a small margin. This is most likely thanks to the regrouping of the opposition and the enforcement of the largely unpopular due to complete amateurship and lack of proper preparation, public education reform. Still, the support for Law and Justice remains very high. This is popularly, but absolutely falsely, attributed to the „deeply rooted conservatism of the Poles“. Certainly, many Poles declare conservative views, but less and less act or live according to them. Most people that took part in the elections in 2015 sought a change and PiS was in fact the only electable party that promised to deliver one. A bit like Donald Trump – he presented himself as an alternative, a change – a terrifying one, nonetheless a change.
The opposition understood this, but it drew weird conclusions from. The Civic Platform was removed from power after nearly a decade. The voters were so fed up with their brutal right-wing pro-business policies and various criminal affairs that they were prepared to vote even for PiS. Yet, PO and its allies in the media and in the EU decided to base their strategy on defending the popularly hated status quo and hysterically shouting around about lack of democracy and rule of law. The recent „March for Freedom“ was yet another outburst of that strategy and a closer look at it will reveal how the intellectual and political weakness of the opposition is in fact Law and Justices’s main leverage.
The very name of the manifestation was obviously bizzare. Who in their right mind will neglect the existence of freedom in Poland at the same time calling on people to take part in a large-scale demonstration prepared and announced months ahead without the slightest interference from the state? The so called Democracy Defense Committee (KOD, in Polish: Komitet Obrony Demokracji) was formed within weeks after the election in 2015 and the state made no attempts to obstruct its activities. It suffered a few major setbacks because of its leader Mateusz Kijowski who – as facts slowly flew to the surface – turned out not only to be a regular thieve steeling money from his own organization (around 10-15,000 PLN monthly, c.a. 3-4,000 USD), but also owns his child and its mother nearly 100,000 PLN (over 25,000 USD) overdue child support. There certainly are problems with the rule of law in Poland under Kaczyński and Szydło but the tone of the critics is hysterical and the merits of there criticism are very poor.
Now the Civic Platform that was hiding underneath the banner of KOD decided to take the lead and organized its own „March for Freedom“. It was widely advertised as and open forum for all citizens who felt repressed by the new authorities and who would like to firmly stand for the their rights. One such group are the LGBT community. But guess what? Their representatives who wanted to join the „March for Freedom“ were not only prevented from becoming a part of the demonstration but were brutally chased away as spliters and wreckers.
This is exactly how it all works or rather doesn’t work. The idea of the leaders of the opposition is to maintain – at all costs – the status quo and throw things back to the good old days when nobody in politics took ideas of social emancipation or social policies seriously. They want the conservative in culture and liberal in economics consensuses back. Law and Justice destroyed them with their fervent criticism of the post-1989 transition. The opposition, until today, cannot find the courage to admit anything about the transition going wrong and worships it against all popular sentiments. Another words, the opposition offers exactly nothing new and exactly everything that people rejected during the 2015 election. Now the Civic Platform and the opposition in general hopes only for one thing – the Law and Justice to make a few other crazy moves towards establishing a Catholic semi-caliphate in Poland and that it will soon drawn in internal wars for power. This is likely to happen considering the obsession in PiS to secure power at every level. And yes, then the tired electorate that rejected Donald Tusk and his party will have to – spitting blood and frustration – vote for them again. This will certainly open the door to official politics for the leaders of various extremists right sects who are on the rise as the left in Poland is almost non-existent. Only the Polish equivalent of Le Pen or Wilders will be far worse than them – he will be a weird conglomerate of Catholic fundamentalist morals, fascist aesthetics and libertarian economics.