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Amid debate over government, Poland's civil society roars to life

shift in thought

Polish society has been riven between supporters of the populist conservative government and more liberal, pro-Europe urbanites. But the political split is spurring once reticent Poles to take to the street with new vigor.

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Police officers stand in front of pro-government activists who are shouting slogans at a passing anti-government march, in central Warsaw Tuesday night, on the 35th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by Poland's former communist regime. The pro-government activists are holding portraits of some of the victims of the 1981 crackdown.

Alik Keplicz/AP

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Two warring street protests in Warsaw Tuesday, marking the 35th anniversary of the imposition of martial law by communist authorities to squelch the Solidarity movement, point to growing strife in Polish society today.

But they also point to an awakening of civil society.

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Like other post-communist states, Poles have some of the lowest rates of participation in protests across Europe. In 2014, 2.5 percent of Poles said they participated in a legal public demonstration in the past 12 months, according to European Social Survey data. Compare that to Europe’s feistiest nation, France, where 13.5 percent reported the same.

But that is starting to change.

The massive protests against the ruling Law & Justice Party (PiS) in the past year – specifically their moves to neuter the Constitutional Tribunal, the country's highest court; make it harder to have an abortion; and even make it harder to protest – come from an opposition worried about the state of Polish democracy. Supporters of their ultraconservative government have simultaneously protested back.

It’s a sign of division and a certain amount of dysfunction. But the fact that the protests are gathering steam has, perhaps unwittingly, led to a sense of political empowerment in Poland that has been largely dormant since its transition to democracy.

According to a February poll by the CBOS Institute, more people feel they can influence the political situation in the country than at any time since 1992, when only 7 percent felt that way. That grew to 33 percent in 2014, and 41 percent in 2016. Participation is up across the board – from signing petitions to blogging about politics to attending political gatherings.

“Both sides in Poland are protesting because they mobilize each other,” says Henryk Domanski, a sociologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw who has analyzed the European Social Survey data. “A protesting nation makes a healthier one and more democratic one.”

Dueling marches

Today, both protests chose the same date to mark Dec. 13, 1981, when troops and tanks took over the streets of Poland, rounding up activists from the Solidarity trade union and social movement, including founder Lech Walesa – and leaving several dozen dead. But both had very different aims from the events of 1981.

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PiS supporters met at Three Crosses Square in Warsaw to remember the victims of the martial law and celebrate the Solidarity movement that ultimately prevailed, but the gathering turned political. Marek Boruc, a farmer in his 60s from Leśnogóra village, was part of that movement. "I came here to commemorate people who were killed in demonstrations," he says. "Those who demonstrate with KOD have nothing to do with Solidarity."

KOD, or the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), which has emerged as the leader of street protests against PiS, gathered outside the former headquarters of the Communist Party Central Committee.

They say they chose today to protest because PiS has demolished the country as the communist party did earlier, says Radomir Szumełda of KOD. "Our only arms are to show our solidarity and to gather on the streets, we've got no other choice when the parliamentary opposition is so weak.” 

One supporter, Elżbieta Przezdziecka-Mroz, a retired teacher in her 70s, says she is on the defensive. “I am afraid of what PiS is doing, with the media, the constitutional court, and education,” she says. “History is making a full circle. We have to protest. Solidarity protested and it worked out. It has to work out now, too.” 

Polish awakening

The government dismisses accusations of a democratic deficit under PiS. Rafal Bochenek, the government spokesperson, says the growing protests are proof of the contrary. “We should be glad, because these demonstrations are a sign of a well-functioning democracy,” he says. “People demonstrate in all countries in Europe, not only in Poland."

Still, the state has generally looked warily upon protests. In fact, today’s marches by KOD were instigated in part to protest a bill the government introduced, then modified, to make it harder to demonstrate against the government and churches. 

Maciej Kowalewski, the author of a recent Polish book on protests, says that after Solidarity, governments – on all sides of the political spectrum – have feared the power of the street. “Not because they are feared for their political power but because of their symbolic and moral power,” he says.

Solidarity is known around the world as a social movement that toppled communism. But Mr. Domanski says that the protest itself, with its very specific goals, didn’t end up changing society. Instead he says that about 40 percent of Poles today lived through communism – and learned not to trust those they don’t know or to say publicly what they think. Many of them passed that down to their children. 

But he says the uptick in protesting in Poland should continue to grow, after two-plus decades of democracy that have taught people that “nothing is free.” And generally Poland is richer, which matters, because poorer people tend to protest less, he says. 

Mr. Kowalewski says that protesters tend to feed off each other. “Protesters, when they attend for the first time, can see literally how many people there are with the same views, and they gain a sense of their own power.”

Deeper problems

It is unclear what political impact this will have. Mikołaj Rakusa-Suszczewski, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw, says that while protests are good for democracy, when he looks at the landscape in Poland he sees demonstrations as the symptom of a deeper problem.

“The government has initiated very fundamental changes in virtually all areas of social and political life,” he says. “This has sparked the [public] opposition.” 

And no one knows where else the government plans to go. PiS has recently been criticized for attempting to control NGO funding to curtail the power of civil society. But the government says it is trying to give NGOs more equal access to public funds. Wojciech Kaczmarczyk, an official in the PiS government, says that previously, "those who were helping sexual minorities, for example, got more grants then those who were helping families."

For now, the opposition is claiming certain victories. Amid protests against tightening access to abortion, the government scrapped its plans. It also dropped controversial elements of the public assembly bill, which KOD says was due to pressure ahead of today’s planned marches.

KOD says their movement is part of  “civil society awakening,” says Mr. Szumełda. "[The intelligentsia] have finally understood that sitting in a chair and doing nothing might lead to a tragedy, that there is a danger that we will return to what we had for 45 years in Poland."