Can Europe Make It?

Poland’s civil society awakening – when stones turn political

While liberal forces in Poland lost the fight for electoral democracy in July, the battle within Polish civil society for counter-democracy is still in full swing.

Camille Dobler
8 September 2020
Le Raton graffiti.
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Author's image. All rights reserved.

Le Raton artwork at the corner of Mostowa and Podgorska streets in Kazimierz in Krakow, July 2020. It has now been erased.

Following the last round of the Polish Presidential elections mid-July, a new artwork by Krakow street-artist Le Raton was spotted in the former Jewish neighbourhood of Kazimierz facing the Vistula river and the local lovers-bridge. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Rule and Justice Party, stands still while a pierced heart-shaped balloon floats away from him.

Of course, different interpretations exist and range from most creative to most serious. Word has it that after one too many drinks, Le Raton wanted to pay tribute to the late Krakow hot-air balloon, which earlier that month exploded during a hailstorm (without thankfully causing any casualties). A more likely reading draws a parallel between the red (Polish?) heart flying away from Poland’s strongman and the bitterly tight victory of his presidential candidate Andrej Duda over his liberal opponent and Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.

This is not the first time the walls of Kazimierz have invite passers-by to think about politics. They have always been supporting more than houses: those walls carry more traces of Poland’s history than any other walls in the country, and possibly in Europe. One again today, Kazimierz’ walls have become the sounding boards of an on-going ideological battle.

Street-art has flourished in recent years as a new – and effective – form of political expression in Poland. In addition to a fire-eater dragon statue, golden spheres and portraits of Karol Wojtyla

– Pope John Paul II dispersed all over the city, Krakow can also pride itself with a vibrant street-art culture. Today, in-between the many touristic murals, more and more graffiti address Cracovians directly on ‘hot’ societal and political issues. These get erased promptly by municipal services only to blossom a few weeks later, if not days, a few metres away. On the local scene, Le Raton is maybe amongst the most politicised of artists, with his explicit artistic filiation to Banksy.

Krakow is one of Poland’s largest cosmopolitan cities, and the results of the latest presidential elections have again illustrated the old divide between conservative rural areas and liberal larger cities in Poland (as elsewhere in Europe). We might, therefore, conclude that some graffiti opposing the neo-traditional politics of PiS in a city where most inhabitants voted for the liberal candidate is nothing extraordinary. We would, in part, be right to so conclude.

Street-art has flourished in recent years as a new – and effective – form of political expression in Poland.

Yet, there are more and more of them where there used to be only scanty visible expressions of opposition a few years ago. This suggest a new-ordinary, not only for the local street-art scene but for the broader Polish civil society. Long dormant, civil society is awakening in Poland. Over the last couple of years, and even more so since the 2020 presidential campaigns, the broader urban public space has become a political battlefield.

Ups and downs of civil society in Poland

Much has been written on the Polish illiberal turn over the last five years. More is to come as discussions on the rule of law intensify in Brussels. In academe and news articles alike, the focus often tends to be on Polish institutions, parties and political elite discourses – populist, xenophobic and homophobic.

Less has been said about Polish civil society and the impressive wave of protests against illiberal trends since 2015. Across Polish borders, the revitalisation of Polish civil society, with a revival of grassroots social movements and the development of new forms of civic engagement, has been all too often overlooked.

This novel development has its roots in some of the consequences of the 1989 transition in Central Europe, where civil society was seen as a third strategic pillar for building and consolidating a fast-paced democracy, between political institutions and the economic sphere.

The pre-1989 era of ‘illegal civil society’ and an explosion of citizen mobilisation that brought communism to a state of collapse was followed in Poland by a post-1989 era of an influential institutionalised civil society. The Solidarnosc trade union and the Catholic Church famously played an essential role in the early years of Poland’s democratisation.[i]

However, with democratic consolidation and fast-paced economic liberalisation, the civic engagement and politicisation of civil society rapidly shrank as disillusionment with liberal reforms spread.

Academic research on social movements in post-1989 Poland has explained the decline in civic activism in terms of the retreat to the private sphere, the depoliticisation of civic engagement, the professionalisation of NGOs and/or the experience of living under the communist regime. Until recently, many sketched the portrait of a depoliticised, demobilised and passive Polish civil society, an empty shell of untrustworthy NGOs without social grassroots activism.[ii]

Every passing year adds to a growing kaleidoscope of civic engagement.

Stand up, march and paint that wall

Since PiS came into power in 2015, this pattern of civic apathy has dissipated, and every passing year adds to a growing kaleidoscope of civic engagement. In reaction to PiS attacks against the independence of the judiciary, notably the reforms of the Constitutional Tribunal and later on of the Polish Supreme Court, grassroot movements worked at the creation and consolidation of the citizen-owned civic organisation KOD - Komitet Obrony Demokracji (Committee of defence for democracy). The name stands in direct reference to KOR - Komitet Obrony Robotników (Committee of Defence of Workers), a civilian movement founded in the late 1970s in opposition to the communist regime. In Poland and abroad, their rallying call “Konstytucja” did not go unnoticed and still garnishes windows and balconies.

Shortly after, Polish women stood up in movement protests that would soon be emulated as far away as South America. The 2016 Czarny Protests (black protests) took not only the PiS government by surprise, but also the Polish women involved who proved so resilient in opposing a bill that would have criminalised them for having an abortion. This “turned [them] all into feminists”. Grassroots mobilisations sprung up all over Poland, including in smaller cities of less than 50,000 inhabitants, which remains an unusual occurrence. Since then, the #StrajkKobiet and #Pieklokobiet have not lost an ounce of their impact in the public sphere, nor Polish women their vigilance and determination, despite the pandemic and all the social distancing.

Dobler Picture 2.jpeg
Pieklo kobiet graffiti in the Bochenska Street in Kazimierz in Krakow, July 2020 It has now been erased. | Author's image ( detail). All rights reserved.

Lately, the grassroots mobilisation of oppressed sexual minorities has been another significant development. The LGBT rights group Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (Campaign Against Homophobia) had been active for some time already, as attacks targeting the LGBTQI+ community pre-date the 2020 presidential campaign. Launched in 2016, its annual Tęczowy Piątek initiative (“Rainbow Friday”) aims at supporting the LGBTQI+ youth in the school environment. In 2019, the intense backlash to the event, bolstered by PiS anti-LGBT discourse, took the resistance out of schools, gay-rights activist circles and the LGBTQI+ community. This resistance movement has now taken to the streets and public squares, surrounding Warsaw’s iconic statues, local cafés and even venturing inside the Sejm – the Polish parliamentary chamber.

Finally, the last five years have also seen many spontaneous grassroots mobilisations on other more specific issues. European observers might remember the mobilisation of environmentalists against tree harvesting in the Białowieża Primeval Forest in 2017, picked up by Green MEPs within the European Parliament. The year 2016 was also marked by large protests by teachers and parents against education reform.

A more linear and comprehensive overview of these counter-reactions to PiS illiberal politics attests to an underlying trend in Polish civil society and public sphere. In the last five years, with the blossoming of new grassroots movements made easier by crowdfunding, online mobilisation and transnational networks of activists, these have radically transformed the landscape of civil society in Poland. These new movements build on strong collective identities shared amongst their members, and with sister organisations beyond Polish borders, while their claims are politicised and grounded in ideological and/or cultural aspirations. This means a significant change from the previous pattern of political neutrality and the withdrawal of civic engagement to the private sphere that has long characterised Polish civil society.

When counter-democracy faces illiberal politics

This multiple mobilisation of pro-liberal forces does not make attacks against the rule of law and attempts by Polish authorities to control many areas of the public sphere any less worrying. Limits on media pluralism are a severe sign of regression from the democratisation accomplished post-1989. The ‘Hungarian-style’ centralisation of NGO funding under a governmental agency (Narodowy fundacja rozwoju społeczeństwa obywatelskiego – the National Fund for the Development of Civil Society) is another attempt to control the functioning of civil society.

Illiberal reforms add to many other challenges faced by young progressive grassroots movements. Naturally, liberal forces are not alone in mobilising citizens. The politicisation of the progressive part of the Polish citizenry has also been mirrored by the radicalisation of far-right, nationalist youth and anti-LGBT groups, as well as the banalisation of pro-life, antisemitic and racist campaigns. Images of Polish ethnonationalism during the 2018 Independence March in Warsaw, attended by President Duda and some of Solidarnosc members, are still on everyone’s minds. Pride and feminist marches are increasingly disrupted by intimidation, mocking and even violence. On Krakow’s famous market square, a few steps away from the centuries-old Jagiellonian University, banners showing anti-abortion images are a common sight, while trucks spitting homophobic messages from loudspeakers drive freely across town.

Dobler Picture 3.jpg
At the entry of a popular café in the neighbourhood of Kazimierz in Krakow, August 2020. *Ludzie can be translated as ‘humans’. It stands in opposition to Duda’s declaration during a presidential campaign rally in June 2020 calling LGBT an ‘ideology’ as o | Author's image.

All together, these developments attest to the new vitality of Polish civil society and a convergence towards new forms of citizenship already experienced in western and southern democracies – a phenomenon labelled ‘counter-democracy’ by French historian Pierre Rosanvallon.

Counter-democracy is not the opposite of democracy: it is the democracy of an active civil society, organised in order to counter-balance electoral and representative democracy. Accordingly, what we witness in Poland is the mutation of citizenship: being a citizen is no longer limited to casting ballots, but also entails accountability controls between elections, vigilant monitoring of suggested bills and reforms, and continuous civil pressure on institutions and elected representatives. While liberal forces in Poland lost the fight for electoral democracy in July, the battle within Polish civil society for counter-democracy is still in full swing.

With civil society claiming the right to exercise the power of pressure and correction over electoral democracy, the streets of Krakow and the walls of Kazimierz have become the sounding boards of the battle between pro-liberal and neo-traditional movements. What Le Raton exactly meant with his latest artwork, only he knows. What is clear is that while Polish street-artists encourage their fellow citizens to take a stand in this battle, they also remind us – European citizens – that there is much more to Poland than illiberal politics and despicable political discourses. This is something we would do well to keep in mind when dealing with political developments in Poland in the next three years of the PiS leadership still to come.

[i] Buchowski, M. (2018) Czyściec. Antropologia neoliberalnego postsocjalizmu. Wydawnictwo, Poznan: Naukowe UAM

[ii] Piotrowski, G. (2020) Civil Society in Illiberal Democracy: The Case of Poland. Politologický casopis) - Czech Journal of Political Science (2), pp. 196-214

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