How Poland Can Be an Example Again
AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
How Poland Can Be an Example Again
AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
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In a scene reminiscent of the Arab Spring, hundreds of Poles marched silently through Warsaw’s chilly October air to honor the sacrifice of Piotr Szczesny, who much like Mohamed Bouazizi in the events that led to revolution in Tunisia, set himself on fire to protest his government’s increasingly authoritarian bent. The demonstrations continued last month when protesters took to the streets once again to show their defiance against new legislation that according to the European Union will undermine the judiciary and weaken the rule of law.

When Poland’s Law and Justice Party, or PiS, took power in 2015, it moved quickly to undermine democratic institutions under the guise of “taking the country back” from international influence. In fact, what they’ve been doing is reshaping the country in their own nationalist image.

Since the fall of the Berlin wall, we have seen three waves of democracy movements. The first swept through Eastern Bloc countries such as East Germany, the Visegrad countries, and the Baltics in the late 80s and early 90s. In the early years of this century a new wave, commonly known as the Color Revolutions, sprung up in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Most recently, the Arab Spring spread across the authoritarian countries of the Middle East.

Today, however, we are seeing that same process move in reverse, and once again Poland sits at the epicenter of the movement. The painstaking work undertaken over the past quarter century to create a civil society with solid democratic institutions is now under siege from a populist movement that operates under the thin guise of what it calls traditional values. It is, in effect, a new transition -- and a worrying one at that.

It is our hope that Poland can become a model once again and point the way to defeating authoritarianism and protecting civil society. In fact, activists in the country have already made some important strides in that direction. To date, these efforts still fall short and must be expanded and strengthened in order to create sustainable change. 

More specifically, we can point to four positive steps the opposition movement in Poland has taken:

1. Mobilization of Civil Society Outside the Political Process: Almost as soon as PiS assumed power, civil activists began to organize efforts to protect democratic institutions. The first, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, was organized to protest the new regime’s attempt to stack the Constitutional Court. Since then, others such as Citizens of the Polish Republic as well as various women’s and environmental groups have joined the fray.

These groups’ power stems from their lack of affiliation with any political party, which adds to their legitimacy in the current climate of mistrust. Another important element is their focus on specific issues in which the PiS government has taken unpopular stands. Finally, these groups are based on values -- not personalities -- that the majority of Poles support.

2. Expanding the Battlefield

The second strategy that’s proven effective is the leveraging of institutions outside the reach of the PiS government. These include international bodies such as the European Union, as well as non-governmental organizations and business groups inside of Poland. For example, EU criticism of judicial legislation helped lead to President Andrzej Duda’s veto of two controversial new laws, while UNESCO urged an end to illegal logging activity in Bialowieza forest, a World Heritage site.

This, of course, is not a completely new strategy. Earlier movements such as Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress also worked hard to sway international opinion. Still, because Poland relies on many international institutions for its prosperity and security, these forces can be brought to bear far more quickly and with greater effect.

3. Defending Democratic Institutions

Another effective strategy of Poland’s opposition activists has been to focus their efforts on defending democratic institutions, which go to the heart of Poland’s identity as a modern nation. Positioning the “Law and Justice” party as undermining the legal infrastructure of the country has gained traction even with those who agree with many PiS policies.

Also, it should be noted, the role of democratic institutions is not to protect the majority, but the minority. So by choosing those institutions as a battleground Poland’s activists help to maintain and strengthen their freedom to protest.

4. Combining Protest With Action

Finally, while the public mobilization of street protests has been impressive, Poland’s activists have also made sure to pair those protests with concrete actions. For example, when the government proposed a new abortion law that would subject women who terminate their pregnancies to a five-year prison sentence, women took to the streets to protest, but they also initiated a one-day work strike

Clearly some progress has been made, but crucial elements are still missing. The first is unity. While the individual activist groups have been effective in their own way, there has been little effort to join forces in collective action. 

Second, while the opposition forces in Poland have been somewhat successful in defending democratic institutions, they have mostly been on defense, reacting to government actions they see as unjust. To create sustainable change, they must go on offense.

Last and most important is to develop an affirmative vision for the future. In Poland, a devout Catholic country, PiS’s message of traditional values has resonance. What is the opposition’s vision of tomorrow? They have made clear what they are against, but what positive reforms can they propose?

In the past, membership in the European Union and NATO proved to be a powerful raison d'être for pro-democracy elements of Polish society. However, with the legitimacy of those institutions somewhat diminished by events in Hungary, Great Britain, and the United States, a new vision must be forged that captures the imagination of the Polish people.

This is not a uniquely Polish problem. In a number of Western countries today, democratic institutions are vulnerable to rising authoritarian sentiment amid political divisiveness and social disunity. Yet once again, Poland has the opportunity to pave the way.