• Jakub Stepaniuk

What recently happened in Poland (so far)?

By Jakub Stepaniuk

I personally feel ashamed to write another commentary piece regarding my dear homeland of Poland, especially in the light of events that conquer the first pages of global media outlets. To me, analysing Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice’s policies resemble a game of cat and mouse. Public opinion tends to designate a critical line of political decency, whose transgression seems just impossible. We are prone to say then that the government has ultimately reached the end, one cannot get further than subjugating the Constitutional Court to the ruling party, juxtaposing the LGBT community with Bolshevik ideology, and cutting trees in one of the oldest forests in Europe. These apparently impassable walls will remain as long as someone from the party ranks would decide to thrust or cross them again, so does the President by approving the enthronisation of Jesus for Polish king, or our National Museum by erecting a monument of a Pope wading in a puddle of blood, struggling to hurl a huge rock in the centre of Warsaw. This might seem like a ludicrous and grotesque slumber, a great source for viral memes and golden Youtube covers. Nevertheless, we, the citizens of these bittersweet lands, stop having fun when we realise that the absurd might infringe on our human and constitutional rights.

When does the apparent infinity of governmental hypocrisy meet its end? Is this end called by a complete ban on abortions, even in cases when a foetus lacks a brain and can jeopardise the life of women during deliveries? What lessons can be drawn so far from the on-going crisis?

Poster with one the current protests’ key slogans: “Fuck off”. The author, Jarek Kubicki, remade original Solidarnosc (Solidarity) posters from the eighties.

History seems to repeat itself…

The current context is much different. I was under the impression that Law and Justice had already attempted to bang on this wall in 2016, but it turned out to be too thick to break. Facing a massive resistance from the Black Protests, Mr Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling coalition, frantically decided to “freeze” the proposal in parliamentary commissions, fearing of wasting the freshly gained mandate to ideological warfare. Why would the government enter the same precarious battle today? Some experts admit Law and Justice is pretty confident (more than in 2016) about its reliability when it comes to ensuring immense social support. Everyone would then doom the 500+ programme to an utter economic failure. Instead, a list of potential social benefits only developed with subsequent electoral skirmishes in 2018, 2019 and 2020, which roasted opposition’s conviction of an “impossibility to function”. I am not sure how long the tautening of state budget can last, so far at least the tactics prove successful not to daunt moderates, but a crucial part of electorate, due to rising radicalisation. The others assume everything happened behind Kaczyński’s back, as cleavages between “moderates” centred upon Mateusz Morawiecki and “radicals” from the environment of Zbigniew Ziobro ominously accrue. It is not the first time that Ziobro would rouse internal disputes and increase polarisation aimed not only at eliminating Morawiecki’s moderates but allegedly even against the brain and heart of the ruling machine – Mr Kaczyński. Nevertheless, Kaczyński issued a statement after the outbreak of protests that was interpreted as an open call for a violent confrontation to “defend our churches” against “nihilists” from the “far left”, often compared to the speech made by the communist general Wojciech Jaruzelski on the day implementing martial law in 1981. Mr Kaczyński seems not to have lost his tough fists appeasing more radical ranks.

The Constitutional Court is nothing but a political puppet…

Or rather a “legislative prostitute”, as Ewa Siedlecka neatly put it. The Supreme Court of Poland, the institution responsible for supervising the legal order and controlling abuses of power has been gradually deprived of its position, smeared for alleged communist lineage, and its members finally replaced with incompetent but loyal dignitaries of the ruling party. Its potential is concealed in the powerful authority to give judgements, which in the subsequent time of being published by the government become an integral part of the legal system. Law and Justice willingly reaches out for this possibility, treating it as a “legislative highway” that enables immediate adoption of new laws without the need of going through the sluggish parliamentary track. Said track, especially when it comes to controversial issues, is additionally hampered by the opposition’s victory in the elections for the upper house (the Senate) in autumn 2019. Since verdicts of the Court are more predictable than the worst romantic comedies, a conservative wing of the ruling coalition, together with loony nationalists from Konfederacja, gave up on redundant parliamentary disputes and asked the Court directly for a de facto complete criminalisation of abortion. The expectable ruling incited thousands to express their rage, enough to prevent the government from publishing it in the official gazette. We should be technically satisfied since halting the verdict was the first postulate of the Women’s Strike, but at the same time, the act of “non-publication” is the violation of law which serves as an another argument to show that Law and Justice can do whatever it wants with the Court on a whim.

These protests are different…

When we compare them with any demonstration taking place before October 2020. First of all, I am pretty sure many of this article’s international readers are aware of the famous affluence of coarse vocabulary the Polish thesaurus possesses. In contrast to the quite neutral and widely widespread English “fuck”, Polish curses are rather limited to private sphere being closely affiliated with radical emotions and aggression while their inappropriate use might risk potential ostracism or penalty notice up to 330 € (1500 PLN). Their massive emergence in mouths and on banners of protesters only emphasises the scale of indignation. Combined with creative references to popular culture and daily life, they have become one of the major symbols of the on-going resistance.

“Jarek (Jarosław Kaczyński), the only pussy you can manage is Andrzej (Andrzej Duda).” Source: Wyborcza

“I hope you will step on Lego, you dick!

Even Hawaiian Pizza is better than Law and Justice.”

Source: Portal Miasta Gdańska

“Fuck Law and Justice”, A song that became an unofficial anthem of the protests.

It’s not only the slogans and banners that make these protests different. Unprecedented means of resistance including spraying facades with the signs of lightning (another symbol of the demonstrations), blocking traffic with bikes and electric scooters while playing loud techno music, and even explicit acts of drinking beer (illegal to do in public). The perverse nature of the demonstrations is additionally turned up by their alleged illegality in accordance with the governmental ban on organisations of any gatherings including more than five people. What is interesting though is the ban being simultaneously unlawful as it is unconstitutional to limit the freedom of assembly without implementing a state of emergency. Therefore, any accusation, in this case, could be acquitted by the court, unless the judging formation would remain unaffected by the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court, established by the government in 2017 to exert pressure on political judgements. Law and Justice presumably noticed the detrimental impact of further escalation of the dispute which can explain the passive behaviour of police forces who react sporadically and only in cases of physical violence. All of these are a complete contradiction of the protests organised before by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) on behalf of judicial independence. Its leaders who remember well the era of anti-communist Solidarity boasted themselves in 2017 with the image of the most “cultural” demonstrations in Europe, whose members even cared not to tread on lawns. The final remark is generational change. While KOD did not manage to convince the youth to join manifestations regarding obscure issues of the Constitutional or Supreme Court often affiliated with the interests of neoliberal successful class of transformation from the early nineties, current protests are vastly dominated by high school and university students.

Law and Justice is losing its support due to…

Szymon Hołownia, a candidate during the recent presidential elections, known for being a presenter on the TV show Poland’s Got Talent. According to the polls from Kantar, IBRiS, even pro-governmental CBOS, the ruling coalition lost around 10% of its support which fell from around 35-40% to 25-30%, marking its worst performance since 2014. The biggest oppositional and centrist party, PO (Citizen’s Platform), gained slightly to reach 22-24% while the most engaged in the protests, Left (Lewica), remains at a stable 6-8%. Up to 15% of the vote would be potentially casted for Hołownia’s unstructured movement whose activity is currently limited to social media. His “clean hands” of not being entangled in any previous political affairs, ability to make soothing but accurate and eye-catching public statements, fluid views representing a “tomato soup” supposed to fit everyone’s ideological taste and affinity with the Catholic Church turn out as the “choice of lesser evil” that can replace radicalising Law and Justice in the eyes of its moderate supporters. I would assume that the majority of demonstrators would demand a reversal of existing “abortion’s compromise” for the sake of its further liberalisation. I would be curious to see an actual confrontation of Hołownia’s ambiguous stance on the compromise, reproductive rights, and position of the Catholic Church with organisers of the demonstrations.

Criminalisation of abortion is openly backed only by…

The clergy, nationalists, and football hooligans (however even this group experiences some internal cleavages on whether to defend or fight the government). If I were in Kaczyński’s shoes, instead of one hundred thousand people who marched through the streets of Warsaw on last Friday I would rather worry about places like Węgrów, Kraśnik or Przeworsk where several hundreds of people went out in the streets, sometimes for the first time in their lives. It is needless to say that Eastern Poland remains a Law and Justice stronghold, the government could gain up to 90% of support in some counties. The healthcare system’s utter unpreparedness to deal with spiking COVID-19 cases combined with ideological antagonism against the majority of society can jeopardise governmental legitimacy, whose coalition might not survive until the next elections in 2023. Will the complete criminalisation of abortion be the critical end of the spectrum? How far can Law and Justice get? Mr Kaczyński has to realise his failure to moulding Poland’s youth, which will have gained the right to vote by 2023. Overfed with nationalist, violent and patriarchal discourses since the recent reforms of education, they have shown to be the most anti-governmental of all generations. I fail to foresee a bright future for the time being, especially in the context of the upcoming COVID-related economic crisis that might finally overstrain state resources, as well as regarding the possible loss of a best friend in the White House ending key international support.

Writer’s Note:

According to Wyborcza, Kaczyński ordered the head of the Polish police to dismantle all demonstrations with the use of physical force but this was allegedly declined, which can explain the extraordinarily calm attitude towards protesters and explicit acts of vandalism. A new agreement has been reached with the government as police declared to “stop negotiating, start acting”, which evinced in decisive actions undertaken during Monday’s protests in Warsaw or Tuesday’s random arrest of a famous activist, known as Polish Grandma, during her morning walk.