First, the good news. Tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets in Warsaw on May 7. Their slogan: We are and will remain in Europe. The huge crowds were protesting against the policies of the Law and Justice party, which swept to power with a parliamentary majority in October 2015.
The protesters hate the fact that Law and Justice wants to promote a nationalist and patriotic agenda through appointing judges, changing the way the constitutional court works and choosing directors of state-run radio and television who will do the party’s bidding. And much more besides. The protesters were challenging Poland’s future direction.
Pro-government supporters held a smaller counterdemonstration. Their slogan: Poland, have courage. They told Law and Justice not to give in to “cliques” around the center-right Civic Platform party, which they said hadn’t come to terms with losing the 2015 election after governing Poland for nine years.
Despite the big differences in size, the two demonstrations showed that civil society is alive and well in Poland. This is important not only for Poland but also in the wider context of Europe and Eastern Europe.
Civil society activists in Ukraine have been crucial in trying to curb the insidious influence of the oligarchs who have embedded themselves deep in the state institutions.
In Romania, civil society movements fed up with corruption helped elect Klaus Iohannis as president in 2014. The corruption continues, but the courts, belatedly, are beginning to mete out sentences to those abusing public office. The shift shows that civil society can change the political culture.
In the case of Poland, the latest anti-government demonstrations consisted of not only the parliamentary opposition but also a wide range of independent movements that do not want the state to encroach on their daily lives.
It was women, after all, who forced Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło to back down on her plans to make the country’s tight abortion laws even more restrictive. She was bombarded with criticism and sarcasm via social media.
But now for the bad news about Poland. What is taking place in the EU’s fifth-largest member state is the politics of revenge.
Law and Justice, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, has justified its battery of political and personnel changes by saying that the party is only undoing what its predecessor, Civil Platform, did during its stint in power from 2007 to 2015. Yet before that, Law and Justice had tried to steer the country in a conservative, Euroskeptic direction during its previous term in office, between 2005 and 2007—a direction that Civic Platform reversed.
This polarizing politics of revenge has its roots in the Solidarity movement, which in 1989 succeeded in bringing Poland’s Communist regime to its knees. Then, both sides agreed to hold roundtable talks to pave the way for a peaceful transition to democracy. The very essence of those roundtable talks exposed the deep ideological splits in Solidarity.
One wing was dominated by liberal, secular intellectuals. They believed in inclusive politics during the transition period. Their shock-therapy economic policies were aimed at modernizing Poland as quickly as possible to end the influence of the old Communist nomenklatura.
The other wing, led by conservatives and anti-Communists, wanted a clean break with the past in a way that would amount to the politics of exclusion. These two wings have since continued to compete for Poland’s future—and for Poland’s past—regardless of the fact that the Communists are a relic and Solidarity as a movement no longer exists.
Fundamentally, more than a quarter of a century since the demise of the Communist regime, the differences are now over the direction and reach of the EU, particularly when it comes to values. For Law and Justice, the EU’s values—such as gender equality and a secularism that plays down Europe’s Christian traditions—are intrusive and damaging for Europe’s and particularly Poland’s identity.
The onslaught of globalization is another issue. It has left Law and Justice supporters, especially conservative, rural communities, without anchors—save for the Catholic Church. These parts of society were generally ignored by Civic Platform. Law and Justice now wants to rectify this.
But there is something else that perpetuates this kind of politics of revenge. It is the absence of an independent civil service culture. Professional and competent officials from the foreign and other ministries in Warsaw are being replaced or demoted. (The same thing happened in Hungary.) This robs ministries of continuity, of an institutional memory and of loyalty. It robs them of ambition and independence.
Maybe it’s time for civil society—especially Modern, or Nowoczesna, a new and fast-growing political party led by Ryszard Petru—to begin campaigning for something that has eluded Polish politics since 1989: a well-paid, independent civil service free from the politics of revenge.
This is something that civil society activists are in a position to do. They are the younger generation—free, hopefully, of Solidarity’s bitter, polarizing ideological disputes.
Judy Dempsey is a nonresident senior associate at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.