On 4 June 2023, an impressive march took place in the center of Warsaw. Hundreds of thousands of people, even half a miion, according to the organisers, marched to express their disagreement with Law and Justice, the ruling party, policies. They came to warn that Polish democracy is in danger and to decalre that they were ready to defend or restore it. Was the event impressive? Indeed. Will it bring the new quality to Polish politics? Not really.
The entire transcription of Małgorzata’s video comment is available below.
The date chosen for the march is not an accident. On 4th June 1989, Polish citizens had the chance to vote in so-called contract elections or partially free elections, in the format agreed between the opposition and the ruling Communist Party. As decided upon the historic Roundtable negotiations, Polish citizens were to choose members of the bicameral parliament, with the Senate being entirely free and Sejm, or the lower chamber, divided between the ruling party and the opposition in proportion 65 to 35%. The result of the election was an overwhelming victory of the opposition, which took all the freely available places in the Parliament. In addition, some of the most prominent party members, including the then Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski, were not elected to the parliament at all. A great victory for the opposition and the real beginning of Polish liberal democracy. For the organizers of yesterday’s march (we record this comment on 5 June) this is an anniversary when authoritarianism was destroyed and the era of freedom started in Poland. Therefore, this is a perfect symbol day when a new stage of fighting for Polish democracy, this time against the right wing authoritarians, might start.
The only problem with this symbol is that, as one survey showed before the march, more than 50% of Polish people do not really recognize it. They either don’t remember the date of this partially free elections or don’t think that their lives changed for the better at that point.
The march looked basically like all the big opposition events we witnessed during last years, even if it was bigger in numbers. There was Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Platform, the biggest opposition party, speaking from the stage. All the key opposition parties declared support for the event, even though it was Tusk and the Civic platform that stood as the main organizers (and thus the main political beneficiaries). In Tusk’s spech, there were no elements we had not heard. He spoke about real Poland being here on the march. He spoke that he saw a lot of people ready to fight for democracy. And he also said that the era of freedom was coming again. I believe that people who were in the square at that time genuinely believed he was saying the truth. And I believe that this was an authentic expression of their political views. However, the other half of Poland, those people who do not believe Tusk and those who vote for Law and Justice, simply stayed home… and believed with an equal resoluteness what their political leaders said. And the government’s rhetorical response was harsh. They called the march the event where liars assembled. They said that the only Tusk’s aim was to regain power and to make Polish people poor again.
So while one side of the Polish political conflict is self-identifying as democracy fighters, the other side believes, with the same easiness, that Law and Justice is the only party that actually worked for the good of Polish people and that the liberal opposition must be stopped at any cost.
The march did not prove that the opposition is getting new new sympathizers or new voters. It only proved that both sides of the Polish conflict have a big reservoir of very mobilized and very, very convicted sympathizers who are ready to participate in the events aimed at the other side of the conflict. There is no will for dialogue. I will say in a moment why I think the dialogue is even not possible at this stage. There is also no willingness to search for some third ways or some other political forces that could synthesize the best elements of each option.
As a Polish society, we are basically divided into two groups. First one believes that the period of liberal democracy was generally good, even though there could have been some misconceptions or some mistakes committed in the process. The other side believes that basically in 1989, the post-Communist elites shared the wealth that Poland had with a part of the opposition, while most of the common people were left with nothing. This second option tends to be fanatically connected to Law and Justice, and there are good reasons to believe that this party is the one they can trust. The liberal democrats who spoke during Tusk’s march are not associated in the minds of a big part of the society with freedom, with personal achievements, or with big possibilities that opened up in front of Polish people after 1989. They are associated with low wages under Tusk rule and prejudices against the poor people he presented in his period when in power. For Law and Justice voters, liberalism and democracy do not mean personal freedom: they associate them with times when Polish factories were privatized, Polish industry was dismantled and people living in the country were losing their jobs in the liquidated state-owned farms.
In short, those whose lives under liberal democracy were quite good are today standing with Tusk. Those who didn’t really profit from the period are more eager to trust Law and Justice. And borders between the camps are not easily crossed.
During the last couple of years, some politicians in Poland tried to emerge as a third force. We had Robert Biedron with his attempt to build a center-left, technocratic American-style party. There was Paweł Kukiz, a former rock singer who tried to organize a protest movement and who failed miserably in the end. During the last presidential election, there was a Catholic politician Szymon Hołownia who promised that despite his religious convictions, he would be able to dialogue with everybody. In the end, it turned out that all the third forces were absorbed by each of the camps.
The real political struggle still takes place between the ‘right-wing with a social face’ as they pretend to be, as they want to be seen, and the liberals who claim to be pro-freedom, pro-Europe, pro-personal development.
I’m fairly convinced that many people in Poland do not really feel fully belonging to either of the camps. However, what has happened in the last months of Law and Justice rule, makes more and more people make their choice and join one of the tribes for good and the bad. For instance, the creation of a Parliamentary Commission that is to examine Russian influence in Poland, made a lot of people believe that democracy in Poland is really in danger. The pseudo-reform in the courts was something very abstract to most people. But the proposal to set a commission who would be able to eliminate politicians from political life under some vague definition of Russian influence was something that really made some believe that if we don’t stop Law and Justice now, we might end up in a Putin styled country very soon.
The Polish electoral campaign is in full swing on the Law and Justice side. The beginning sign was to announce that the children’s benefits offered by the government will be much bigger if the party gets re-elected. They also claim to continue their social policies and to protect citizens from inflation, which so far does not go that good. But the opposition is not very credible at this point.
What do we know after both is that every site has its faithful supporters, sympathizers, fans. Tell them whatever you want and that they are absolutely unwilling to enter into dialogue with another site. And given all the undemocratic proposals and the winner-takes-it-all attitude of Law and Justice, perhaps this dialogue is even no longer possible.