As 2016 draws to a close the political crisis in Poland has taken a new turn for the worse. In line with international trends, Polish society is now divided into two competing and conflicting groups. The functioning of the democratic system has ground to a halt as an open conflict between the government and the opposition has spread from the parliament and onto the streets. The parliamentary chamber is currently being occupied by opposition MPs, with the area of the parliament under the control and surveillance of a large number of police. The government has said that during this period of protest, members of the armed forces may patrol the streets of the capital alongside the police. The trade union confederation, Solidarność (once the mass movement of the opposition during Communism), has said that if this situation continues it will consider sending its members onto the streets against the opposition to bring order. The leader of PiS (and de facto head of state) Jarosław Kaczyński, has said that the MPs inside parliament are breaking the law, whilst the opposition parties are claiming that the government is acting against the constitution and moving the country in a more authoritarian direction. The situation is serious and unpredictable and events can change very quickly both inside and outside of parliament. At the time of writing the opposition MPs have declared that they will continue their occupation throughout the Christmas period
This latest crisis started on Friday 16 December, during a debate on the budget in parliament. An opposition MP began his speech by holding up a sign in protest at a bill that proposes to restrict the access of the media in parliament. The Speaker of the House then refused this MP the right to speak in the debate, which in turn resulted in MPs from the opposition parties (Citizens’ Platform (PO) and Modern) occupying the podium in the parliament. The government then took the decision to adjourn to a side room to vote on the budget bill through a show of hands. The opposition accused the government of breaking the constitution, as there was no way of being sure who attended this debate or what the vote actually was. With the opposition MPs still occupying the parliamentary chamber, protestors began to gather outside the parliamentary building. Eventually these protesters were cleared forcibly by the police. Demonstrations continued in Warsaw throughout the weekend (both outside the Presidential Palace and parliamentary building), with the police erecting a metal cordon in front of the parliament and moving protestors in the middle of the night away from the entrance to the parliament.
The government has since climbed down from its proposals to restrict media access to parliament. However, opposition parties are arguing that the vote on the budget should be re-held as the previous one was unconstitutional. At present a stand-off continues, but the government has not wasted time to cement its position during this period of crisis. It has finalised the taking over of the Constitutional Court, thus removing one of the potential obstacles to the government. This means that PiS now has total political power (the government, Presidency and Constitutional Tribunal), the first time that any political party has achieved such a position in over a quarter of a century. Over the past year, it has brought the state media further under its control and introduced a law that places some restrictions on the right to demonstrate and assemble. The democratic accountability of the government is further complicated, due to the fact that Kaczyński holds no formal governmental position (apart from being an MP), although he is the decisive voice of the Polish government and state.
The demonstrations on the streets of Warsaw during the past few days have been angry and determined, but their size has been relatively small (numbering a few thousands of people – contrary to some exaggerated claims in the international media). These were much smaller than the demonstrations organised by the opposition movement, (Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD)) a year ago, and the women’s protests organised in the autumn against the proposed anti-abortion bill, which spread around the country beyond the major cities. Furthermore, the political leadership of the opposition movement now seems to have moved away from KOD and its self-appointed leader Mateusz Kijowski, with the leaders of PO and Modern heading the demonstrations and providing them with their political direction. This plays into the hands of the government, with Kaczyński attempting to consolidate the opposition by offering the ‘compromise’ of creating the position of an ‘official opposition’ that would hold a special role within the state. Although opposition parties have not as yet taken up this offer, the leaders of the opposition movement have been calling in recent days for a unified movement against the government. Whilst the temptation of unity is luring, under its current leadership the opposition would be further reduced to a minority of society and become incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the government.
The leaders of the opposition movement are largely made up of people who had been connected to the previous government and/or former centre-right governments in Poland. Many had belonged to the Solidarność movement during Communism, and then became part of the new liberal establishment that governed Poland. These people have come to regard themselves as the natural holders of power, the enlightened men and women who had helped to transform Poland into a modern European economy and democracy, integrated into the institutions of the West. Their outlook was restricted to their own social milieu, which increasingly viewed Poland from a position of privilege. They did not see the long-lasting effects of the communities destroyed by the shock-therapy reforms; they were not reliant on the crumbling health system; nor did they understand the resentment of those living at the bottom of a social system with the highest income disparities in the EU. They were not part of families that were torn apart by the need to find work in other countries nor the more than 1/5 of the employed that are working on zero hour contracts.
The arrogance of their time in power came to the fore towards the end of the PO government. Secretly recorded in the VIP room of a high class restaurant, Ministers and bankers made deals and revealed in lewd language that what they said in public had nothing to do with their actual opinions (http://tinyurl.com/zgzsq9k) During the Presidential campaign, the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski could barely drag himself from his residence to talk to the voters, thus handing the political initiative to his competitor Andrzej Duda who then claimed an unlikely victory after having previously trailed far behind in the polls. The poster-boy of liberalism and leader of Modern, Ryszard Petru, had spent decades working for financial institutions and advising on the introduction of a compulsory private pension scheme that nearly bankrupted the state and has left millions facing a retirement in poverty.
And now PiS has filled this void, by introducing the first significant downward redistribution of wealth in over a quarter of a century. The government’s decision to provide 500 złoty (113 euro) a month for every second and above child has effectively wiped out a large part of child poverty in one stroke. Poverty in Poland most harshly affects children, with over 30% of those living in absolute poverty being under 18 years of age and families with more than two children being particularly at risk. One can argue about the merits of this social transfer (it excludes those with only one child, the funds would be better spent investing in public services, etc.) but the present government has done more to alleviate poverty than any of the liberal or left governments that have been in power over the past couple of decades. And it doesn’t stop there. The government has also raised the minimum wage and reduced the pension age, thus claiming to live up to its promise of representing the people and not the corrupt elite.
Is it little wonder then that a mass nationwide movement for democracy throughout the country has not developed? Can we really expect people to risk these social transfers in order to defend a Constitutional Tribunal or allow journalists to interview politicians in parliament? Do these failed representatives of liberal economics really believe that they can raise the symbols of Solidarność after they had previously left behind the very people who had built this movement in the first place?
In recent months the liberal centre has become increasingly radicalised, as it sees its former privileged position slipping away. It has urged its supporters onto the streets and taken on the government head on, in an attempt to remove it from power. Such a strategy is unlikely to be successful. Firstly, as outlined above, the opposition has not been able to win the support of the majority of the population, with PiS still retaining its standing in the polls as the country’s most popular party. The government is finding it easy to use its public media to paint the opposition as frustrated members of the old elite who cannot accept the democratic will of the population. Also, if these street protests and actions were to lead to confrontation with the authorities, then they would almost certainly end in defeat. Not only does the government control the police and the army, but in the past year territorial guards have been setup that may be used in the future during a period of unrest Furthermore, the far-right have become increasingly active and organised and are often connected to groups of football hooligans. Add to this the threat made by the leader of the Solidarność trade union, and the opposition should understand what a weak position it is in. Any talk of organising a Maidan in Poland should be rejected as being completely irresponsible and something that would end in further defeat and possible repression.
The left therefore has a particularly important role to play, as the divide between the liberal and conservative right grows. Some parts of the left have effectively boycotted the opposition demonstrations and organised their own activities, whilst others have critically participated in them. The left has been divided and unable to offer a coherent strategy on the how to oppose the PiS government. However, there are signs of the left beginning to work together, with a coalition of left organisations and parties recently organising a successful demonstration outside the Presidential Palace, urging him not to sign a bill on the education reform. The proposed education reform could be hugely disruptive to children’s education, threaten the jobs of teachers and move the curriculum in a more conservative direction. The teachers trade union (ZNP) has also organised a number of demonstrations against this education reform and has declared that it will call a nationwide strike in the new year.
To cite Gramsci, the opposition has to move from a war of manoeuvre to one of position. This means setting out to win the support of different social layers and creating a majority position against the conservative-nationalist government. Firstly, the left has to oppose all attempts by the government to erode democratic and civil rights. This may mean sometimes demonstrating alongside the liberal opposition, but it should do so as a united left with its own slogans, banners, etc. Secondly, the left has to offer a political alternative to PiS that promises to maintain and improve the social transfers offered by government, whilst simultaneously proposing a programme of increased public economic and social investment to raise economic growth and employment and offer real solutions to the crisis in public services such as health, education and pensions. The PiS government is pursuing a policy of national capitalism, as it seeks to strengthen domestic capital. It’s social transfers provide it with a temporary base of support, however with the European economies slowing and investment declining it is going to be hard to maintain sufficient economic growth to secure increased public spending. At some point, it will renegade on its social promises and seek to raise the rate of exploitation to benefit domestic companies. It is then that the true nature of the PiS government will become clear and when the left needs to be ready to win the support of those dissatisfied with the economic policies of the government. The government has already began to show how it is essentially a pro-business party, by rejecting a progressive reform of the Polish taxation system. Finally, the left has to lead those that are opposed to the conservative and nationalist policies of the government. The liberal opposition has proven itself completely inadequate in this area, as shown for example when KOD demonstrated under the symbols of the pre-war far-right leader Roman Dmowski on National Independence Day and openly criticised the anti-fascist movement. Moreover, many in PO and Modern hold conservative policies on many matters (such as reproductive and sexual rights), which provides space for the left to fill. The abortion protests earlier this year indicate the breadth of opposition to many of the most extreme policies of the conservative camp and at how these most harshly affect some of the most disadvantaged sections of society. Opposition to the education reform is potentially another issue that may unite diverse social groups under the leadership of a trade union and the left.
In order for the left to take advantage of such situations then it has to forge a political direction and organisational framework that can bring together its disparate elements. It is around three years until the next elections, so any talk of electoral pacts or coalitions can be put on hold for a while. The dangerous shift to the right in Poland and the drift towards authoritarianism and nationalism should be incentive enough for the left to unite in action against the present government.