On Saturday 7 October 2006, some 20,000 people came to the centre of Warsaw. They split into three to show their support for different political agendas. The "blue" march was called by the main opposition force Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO). The "white rose" march was by and for the Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families / LPR), a staunch Catholic nationalist party, now in governing coalition with the Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS) party, whose activists and followers did not march but (thus becoming the third group) staged a pro-government rally.
Sorry, Kaczory, jutro wybory! ("Sorry, ducks" - an allusion to the surnames of the Kaczynski twin brothers who rule today's Poland - "we want elections now!"), the opposition blue marchers insistently chanted. The slogan tells you what is at stake here - the dissolution of the Sejm (Polish parliament) and an early general election.
A government manoeuvre on 12 October may have succeeeded in postponing the scheduled vote on dissolution, but this only delays the inevitable. Breaking the current political impasse is now the number-one priority on the PO's agenda.
Why so? Because it's high time - or so the anti-PiS factions would readily agree - we ended this dangerous farce of pretending that the PiS coalition is fit to run Poland. This government is a total failure. PiS came to power just a year ago, look what they've done. They managed to antagonise the youth, media, academia, teachers, professionals, causing a wave of social discontent and even fear of losing jobs or suffering discrimination as a result of public opposition to the rulers.
Adam Szostkiewicz writes for Polityka weekly news magazine in Warsaw
Also by Adam Szostkiewicz in openDemocracy:
"The Polish lifeboat"
(22 September 2005)
"The Polish autumn"
(26 October 2005)
"Poland's past and future pope"
(13 April 2006)
On the foreign front, Poland under the Kaczynski twins (Lech, the president, and Jaroslaw, the prime minister) is seen as losing its emotional balance. The conflicting signals they send to the European Union, and poor Polish-German relations, put us at risk of forfeiting the goodwill and trust of our European friends and partners.
Not so!, the PiS folk would protest, they want us out of power only because the policies of the PiS government are beginning to bear the promised fruits. The economy is doing fine, the corruption within the high echelons is being revealed, the state machinery is under reconstruction, and the resolution with which this government puts forward our national interests within Europe has cost us no real friend.
There's no reason to go the polls now other than to satisfy the sick ambitions of our political opponents and enemies. But we will survive this and continue to run this country, maybe for two or three terms, because we serve the needs of a majority, the have-nots in this society - while the opposition serves the establishment.
This mantra suvcceeded in winning the PiS party the legislative elections on 25 September 2005. The PiS is not anti-democratic but its leaders relish quarrel and fight rather than dialogue and compromise. They love to argue and hate to think twice. Even when they seem to have been caught red-handed.
When a secretly filmed tape was shown on the private TVN television station on 28 September - revealing an attempt by two PiS politicians to offer a governmment post to Renata Beger, an MP from the Samoobrona (Self-defence) party, in exchange for her and a group of her colleagues joining the PiS in its fragmenting coalition - the party's leaders denied any serious wrongdoing and launched a campaign to undermine the credibility and independence of the TV station. In light of the fact that the PiS is now a ruling party wielding the powers of the state, this is a source of major concern for the Polish media.
The past as prologue?
There are many more signals of trouble in the months to come. Hundreds of thousands of Poles are leaving or have left to go abroad in search of better-paid work. This latest migration leaves Poland in demand of the supply of labour from neighbouring Ukraine and Belarus. For political reasons - the PiS's hunting for corruption networks and wooing of the have-nots - the privatisation of the public sector has come almost to a stop, while social spending increases.
Perhaps the biggest change is in the minds and hearts of Poles, who are now again so deeply divided over the PiS - its politics, language, style, personalities, everything - as they used to be over communists. The two main rivals of today, PiS and PO, share a legacy of common struggle against communist rule in Poland under the Solidarity banner which championed human rights, democracy, social justice and sovereignty.
Yet in a very Polish historical irony, the PiS today is seen by some Poles as a copycat of Wladyslaw Gomulka and Edward Gierek, former communist leaders of Poland, hugely popular when coming to power and shamefully disgraced on their falls in 1970 and 1980 respectively. Will this pattern be repeated?
In a democracy, sectarian forces and ideas are unwelcome. Poland, in her seventeenth year of democratic experience, seems to be again at a crossroads. Perhaps this is a part of a wider framework or process. On the day of the Warsaw rallies, 80,000 people staged an anti-government protest in Budapest. The Czech government of Mirek Topolanek resigned on 11 October after the failure to produce a working majority, while the Slovaks have elected a government of populists and nationalists that may undo liberal market reforms. There's no denying populism is on the rise in post-communist nations - Ivan Krastev has argued the case forcefully in openDemocracy - but I don't think this explains everything.
A common link in all this is not really a temptation to yield to an authoritarian regime - democracy is alive and well here, filmmakers like Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam or journalists like Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow don't get killed in Warsaw or Budapest - but rather a dramatic shift in popular perception of politics and good government.
We deserve more, people seem to be saying - and we deserve it now. Surely, this is not a transition, but democracy in action. Poles or Hungarians may want exactly the same as the British or the Italians. They want the bell to toll for the charlatans and the spin-doctors in our governments.
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