Poland, Polarised

Richard Abernethy

Summary: A vigorous mass movement has arisen to oppose the encroaching authoritarianism of Poland’s rightwing government. – Editors

Twice in less than a year, mass protests in Poland have fended off attempts to enact reactionary new laws.

In July 2017, responding to demonstrations sweeping the country, President Andrzej Duda vetoed a bill, already passed by the Sejm [Parliament] and the Senate, that would have brought the judicial system under the control of the government. This bill would have required all the judges of the Supreme Court to step down, allowing the justice minister to decide whom to reappoint, and would have given the government control of the membership of the National Judiciary Council, which appoints Supreme Court judges.

During autumn 2016, the Sejm debated a bill that proposed to outlaw abortion in all cases and make women subject to imprisonment for terminating a pregnancy. This bill was drafted by Ordo Juris, a very conservative lawyers’ association, which also opposes same-sex marriage and civil partnerships. Everywhere protests sprang up – not only in the larger cities, Warsaw and Krakow, known for their more progressive attitudes, but in many smaller towns – culminating in “Black Monday” 3 October, when thousands of women dressed in black took to the streets. As one participant described it: “Warsaw was swarming with women in black. It was amazing to feel the energy and the anger, the emotional intensity was incredible.” The bill was rejected.

To be sure, this victory was limited in scope. President Duda, a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has said that he will put forward his own proposals for “reform” of the judiciary. Poland’s existing abortion law is severely restrictive, permitting abortion only in cases of rape or incest, severe foetal deformity, or where the woman’s life is at risk.

Still, the most powerful government in Poland’s recent history (since the fall of state capitalism calling itself socialism in 1989) confronts the most massive protest movement.

Upon winning the general election of October 2015, PiS became the first party since 1989 to have an absolute majority in the Sejm. Though Beata Szydlo became prime minister, it is generally understood that the real power behind the throne is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, party chairman and former prime minister.

PiS presents its own values as “tradition, historical awareness, love of country, faith in God and normal family life between a man and a woman”. Those who do not fit into this vision are to be ostracized. In 2015, Kaczynski branded his opponents “the worst sort of Poles”, accusing them of following “a horrid tradition of national treason”. One government minister sounded off against “a new mixing of cultures and races, a world made up of bicyclists and vegetarians, who…fight all forms of religion”. Some protesters mockingly wore t-shirts with the words “The Worst Sort of Poles”.

The electoral success of the PiS was due, at least in part, to its social welfare policies, including a child subsidy of 500 zlotys (140 US dollars, 105 pounds sterling) per month.

The Catholic Church in Poland continues to exercise great influence over legislation and everyday life, to a much greater extent than in other traditionally Catholic countries in Europe. For Poland, as for Ireland, adherence to the Catholic faith was closely associated with national consciousness through long periods of foreign domination. In Ireland, church influence has declined markedly over the last quarter century or so; in Poland it is still going strong.

However, the PiS is selective about what aspects of Catholic teaching it incorporates into its nationalist-conservative-authoritarian ideology. In 2015, Pope Francis appealed to each Catholic diocese in Europe to accept a refugee family, and the Vatican City (population 800) has taken in 20 Syrian refugees. Poland under the PiS has refused to admit any. The PiS is virulently anti-immigration, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim.

The encroaching authoritarianism of the PiS, and its refusal to accept any refugees for resettlement, have strained Poland’s relations with the European Union (EU), which Poland joined in 2004. However, Poland has a strong economic interest in remaining in the EU. It receives almost five times as much in EU funds as it makes in contributions, supporting infrastructure and transport, agriculture and rural development, health, and research. Moreover EU membership allows Polish workers to live and work in Western Europe. For its part, the EU has strong geopolitical reasons not to lose another member after Brexit. “Plexit” seems unlikely at present.

Since 2015, there has been no left representation at all in the Sejm, as no party of the left passed the threshold of 5 percent of the vote. The official opposition, Civic Platform, is a centre-right party. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which governed between 2001 and 2005, is discredited due to its embrace of neoliberalism and tainted by corruption scandals.

Unfortunately, one of those who lost her seat in the Sejm in 2015 was Anna Grodzka, who in 2011 became the first transgender member of a European national legislature. She declared “We are a new left that appeals to atheists, gays, transsexuals and those excluded by capitalism”.

The mass protests, which are not led by any particular party or organisation, show that there is potential for a new left in Poland. To succeed, it must indeed speak up for “those excluded by capitalism”, but it must also include those who are within the system and exploited by it – the workers.


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