Backtracking Democracy: Not What Poles Voted For

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Careful readers of could have already gained an in-depth understanding of what has been recently happening in Poland. Among others, my fellow colleague Katarzyna Lubnauer offered a thorough analysis of the assault on the Constitutional Court. Sadly, but not surprisingly, I have to report that the anti-democratic actions of the ruling Law and Justice party did not stop there.

Shortly after Christmas the parliamentary majority voted a number of bills with potentially far-going implications for the Polish democracy. The agenda featured a dedicated law to exchange the management of public media, a law practically destroying the concept of civil service and allowing exchange of its entire management as well as new arrangements for invigilation of citizens by the police. On top of the highly political actions, the governing party enforced a law backtracking the educational reform, including a postponement of the compulsory schooling age – from six to seven years. The reforms were again voted very late at night and – more importantly – without any public consultations.

It is not my purpose here to analyse the details of the laws – it is crucial for our country, but perhaps not of interest for the international readership. But I wish to convey two messages. First, the political direction that Poland has been recently headed towards is clearly not what Polish people voted for. Secondly, the international reaction truly matters greatly.

In October 2015, Polish people voted for a political change. After eight years of the centre-right government led by the Civic Platform, Law and Justice got 36% of votes and a majority of seats in the Parliament. Yet, what Polish people voted for was a promise of more social spending, lower retirement age and less extravagant life-style of politicians. Except for the latter, as liberals, we do not agree with the set direction, but we sincerely respect the choice of the society. Yet, what happened right after the elections – an anti-democratic rally on all possible fronts – in no way did reflect what Law and Justice presented to the public during the campaign. And Polish people have already reacted.

According to the recent polls, support for Law and Justice has dropped by at least 10 percentage points, while .Nowoczesna (.Modern) – which has been standing firmly against their actions – became the second political power. Polish cities also witnessed an unprecedented scale of mass manifestations in support of a purely political message.

The sequence of events in Poland might sound familiar to many of you. Hungary experienced quite a similar scenario. Clearly, Poland is not an isolated case. Political radicalisation and anti-democratic backtracking might be contagious. The economic crisis was a very painful way of making Europe aware that economic misbehaviour spreads very quickly and magnifies its impacts. Currently, we are experiencing a similar process at a political level. Therefore, international attention and reaction really matters – not only at the official level of international organisations. The first step is simply getting informed about what is happening (this time in Poland) and spreading the information among political leaders and the civil society. The second step is exchanging experiences within the international liberal family with a view to support an effective domestic reaction. In a sensitive political context modest actions can perhaps prove most powerful.

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz