June 16, 2023
Poles have had enough! Opposition leader Donald Tusk galvanises Poland’s fight for its democracy
Warsaw, June 4, 2023. Demonstrators with banners during march
The liberal-democratic Civic Coalition (KO), with the former president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, at the helm, has a chance to take power in Poland. Its electoral campaign was launched with an anti-government rally against the opposition
In the autumn of this year, Poland will hold a parliamentary election of huge importance.
Tomasz Grodzki, the marshal of the upper chamber of the parliament in Warsaw, went on to describe the upcoming electoral round as “the most important since the beginning of [Poland’s] democracy, that is, since 1989.”
Were the democratic opposition to lose this election, the incumbent right-wing populists from the Law and Justice (PiS) party would remain in power for another four-year term. However, since 2015, PiS – much like Viktor Orban in Hungary – uses political power to remove checks and balances and subjugate the country’s institutions to support its politics.
The latest Liberal Democracy Index ranked Poland at 78th among democratic countries in the world – over just the last three years, Poland has dropped fourteen positions!
This drop can be attributed to multiple violations of the constitution, mainly aimed at thwarting the independence of the judiciary, which has resulted in a deep crisis in Warsaw’s position in the European Union. The nation’s standing in democracy rankings is further damaged by widespread nepotism and corruption allegations.
The 2023 World Press Freedom Index placed Poland in the 57th position, the fifth-worst among European Union member states. Controlled by the government, public broadcasters resort to crude propaganda and misinformation to promote PiS. As misinformation has become the hallmark of the public media, the government targets independent outlets, using public companies to assume control over the local press and attempting to shutdown Discovery-owned TVN units.
Were this trend to continue with PiS given four more years to erode civilised standards, Poles would say goodbye to their democracy.
This is the political background of the demonstrations we see today.
June 4, 2023, on the 34th anniversary of the first free election in Poland’s post-war history, half a million people attended the anti-government demonstration. Not only the date but also the place where demonstrators met – the Square at the Crossroads in central Warsaw – was symbolic because Poland stands at a crossroads indeed.
The large turnout at the march was not expected by anyone, including opposition leaders. The event overloaded Poland’s capital public transportation system, with thousands travelling by coaches from all over the country.
Despite heightened emotion and the atmosphere of defiance, the demonstration was entirely peaceful. Waving Polish and European flags, marchers expressed belief in the victory and a lot of humour, sometimes grim. This display of motivation painted a worrying picture for the Law and Justice officials, who were unable to depict the event as insignificant or hostile.
There is another important thing that happened in Warsaw on that Sunday. So far, the opposition voters were mainly associated with big cities, typical representatives of the well-to-do middle class. In 2015 and 2016, when PiS launched its attack on the Constitutional Tribunal, the institution was defended mostly by this group, which the government waved off as those who benefited from the post-1989 transformation.
Now, the ruling party’s problems run much deeper than a group of voters mobilised to defend the procedures of liberal democracy.
Visible are the consequences of dire economic conditions, further aggravated by frequent corruption accusations that PiS officials use their positions for private purposes and embezzle state funds. The streets of Warsaw were largely filled with disillusioned citizens from small towns, which have so far been predominantly associated with the ruling party’s electorate. When the names of Poland’s regions were called out, one could hear cheers from the crowd, indicating that people from all over Poland were present at the march. Mobilisation of peripheral regions in support of the opposition could be a political game changer during this campaign.
Finally, for the last eight years, Law and Justice waged an intensive campaign against reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community and largely sided with the catholic church immersed in child sex abuse scandals. The community are still waiting for the recognition of same-sex relationships and those waiting for serious inquiry into the crimes of the clergyman.
During the same time, Civic Coalition leaders underwent a strong transformation in which they can now attract women infuriated by a string of deaths in Poland’s maternity wards.
It was visible during the march, where people felt safe despite obvious differences in opinion, appearance, religion, age and the reasons for which they attended the demonstration. A very positive element was that many young people, who have so far shunned politics, came to the march.
The last reason for which the march attracted such a big turnout was a blunder on the part of the government – a week before the planned demonstration, the parliament voted and President Andrzej Duda signed into law a bill setting up an apparently unconstitutional parliamentary commission whose official goal was to look into the Russian influence in Poland.
However, its true political purpose was clear, as the members of the commission would be politicians elected by the parliamentary majority who would be able to prevent the opposition leaders from assuming public offices. Dubbed “Lex Tusk”, the commission was largely perceived as a political tribunal aimed at preserving the power of the ruling party.
It would be hard to find a more glaring example of a violation of democracy.
In a recent poll conducted by IBRiS only two days after the march, 33.5% declared that they would vote for the Law and Justice party (a loss of one percentage point compared to two weeks earlier) while KO has the support of 28.3% of Poles (an increase of 3.7).
These results, translated into mandates, would mean that PiS would not command a single-party majority. The only prospective coalition party for PiS, the nationalistic Confederation, came in third, with less than 12%, while two parties which might support KO in taking over power from PiS – the Third Way and the Left – had around 10% share each.
This shows that the election will be fiercely contested, and we won’t know the result until polling stations close and all votes are counted.
I had an opportunity to participate in this demonstration. It was an amazing feeling. I went there because, as a Pole, I felt an obligation to do so. I was born after Poland’s accession to the European Union, and I can’t imagine the country I live in leaving the EU. The ideas of democracy and freedom are very important to me and should be fought for.
Whether the march will translate into election results remains to be seen. Will there be a mobilisation to move in crowds for the upcoming elections? For now, the Law and Justice Party is on the deep defensive, but the autumn campaign will surely be extremely violent.