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Poland’s ruling party continues its march towards authoritarianism

Nationalist protests will be more welcome than anti-government protests from now on. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

In Poland, we have become accustomed to the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), constantly shifting the borders of what is acceptable in a democratic regime.

Seizing control of the Constitutional Court and the planned total ban on abortions provoked international outrage and resulted in the establishment of two protest initiatives: the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) and the Black Protest.

While the former managed to get tens of thousands discontented people into the streets but without achieving any actual concessions, the nationwide mobilisation of women against the proposed abortion law forced the government to slow down. And the total ban on abortions was put on hold.

This was probably the single biggest success of civic protesters in Poland. However, if the Poles take to the streets every time the government takes a controversial step towards limiting civil rights, they’ll have to start camping there.

Pro-abortion protests were a rare success in Poland. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

In the last several weeks alone, no fewer than three disconcerting events have shown the government’s intention to clamp down on the plurality of opinion.

Attacks on NGOs

It is not easy to be a non-governmental, non-profit organisation in Eastern Europe.

In the Czech Republic, NGOs are constantly being attacked or even called “unnecessary”. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government terrorises NGOs with nonsensical financial audits and refers to them as “foreign agents”.

Poland’s Law and Justice Party is now following suit. Similarly to former Czech president Václav Klaus, Law and Justice Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński regards civil society as superfluous, a third sector that constantly interferes between the government and the people. He is in a position to make NGO work a lot more difficult.

Jarosław Kaczyński is making Poland less liberal every day. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

State-run television and the right-wing media have embarked on a systematic smear campaign against civil society groups, accusing them of sapping grant funds from the state and taking money from other countries to undermine the government.

Organisations such as the Stefan Batory Foundation, which provides funding for many civic and social activities in Poland, and the left-wing publishing house Krytyka Polityczna, have been accused of being “agents” of billionaire philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations.

NGOs that oppose the government really have no choice here. If they are funded by the state, it is only to disseminate “leftist propaganda” using taxpayers’ money. If they are funded from outside the country, they are guilty of pursuing outside interests.

Never mind that right-wing NGOs take outside funds as well, or that all the accused organisations publish information about their funding sources on their web pages. Transparency does more harm than good in this case. Post-truth has come to Poland.

Now the government is working on establishing a National Centre for the Development of Civil Society, which will supervise the distribution of finance towards non-profits. If the traditional role of civil society organisations in a liberal democracy is that of a watchdog barking at undemocratic measures, PiS has just decided to deploy a bigger, meaner mutt of its own.

It is not difficult to guess what kinds of organisations the new centre will support: preferential treatment will be given to “traditional” families, Catholic values and patriotic causes.

While the government cannot ban outside financing, it can kill off plenty of organisations by cutting off their state funding.

Freedom of assembly? Not for everyone

An amendment to the law on freedom of assembly that passed in the Polish parliament promises to threaten civic activity even further.

Its goal is to limit public assembly – unless the event is being organised by the state or the Catholic Church, which will have preference in booking space for gatherings. Until now, the right to hold a public protest was held by the first group that registered its intentions using appropriate channels.

The Catholic Church gets precedence in the new Poland. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

The amendment looks like a legal tool to prevent conflicts between demonstrators by impeding two different events from taking place at the same time. But in reality it means that government-approved events simply take precedence over everyone else. Law and Justice’s endeavours to get opposition groups off the streets are further reinforced by a clause that refers to “cyclical gatherings” taking place on state holidays, which will trump one-time demonstrations.

In practice, this means that the regular march of nationalists on Polish Independence Day will be permitted, but an anti-nationalist counter-demonstration could be dismissed simply because it would be “competition”.

Concerns were voiced by the Polish Ombudsman, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and the European Commissioner for Human Rights. The liberal civic organisation, Obywatele RP, is calling for a demonstration on December 10th and the Committee for the Defence of Democracy wants to take to the streets on the 13th.

It may not do much good. The popularity of this civil movement seemed to have declined as the turnout was less than expected by several tens of thousands at their last protest on November 11.

Politically motivated trials

The most worrying event, however, was what can only be called a politically motivated trial. On November 29th, the ex-senator, ex-member of European Parliament and left-wing politician Józef Pinior was arrested on suspicion of corruption, along with several of his colleagues.

Józef Pinior has been under political attack. Senat Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, CC BY-SA

Pinior, having been a prisoner of the Communist regime and a member of Solidarity, the pre-1989 opposition movement, is persona non grata for the government. The ruling party tries to base its legitimacy on both anti-communism and attacks on the former Solidarity elites. And Kaczyński is trying to seize the legend of Solidarity for himself, overwriting the history of who really played a key part in the anti-communist opposition movement.

But Pinior is not an obstacle just because of his past; he is also the most vocal critic of secret CIA detention centres in Poland, and that is something the pro-American PiS does not want to hear about. What’s more, Pinior could pose a real threat to PiS in 2018 due to the distinct possibility of his success in the Wrocław local elections.

The court in Poznan acquitted Pinior after a hearing attended by other legends of Solidarity – Karol Modzelewski, Henryk Wujec, and Danuta Kuroń – in his support. These former dissidents voiced warnings in the media: history is dangerously close to repeating itself, they said, when they once again find themselves in court to defend a friend detained for political reasons.

For now, the Pinior case seems to be an isolated incident. But it could become a precedent for discrediting political opponents under the guise of fighting corruption.

Despite all this, PiS’ poll ratings have yet to change substantially. And the European Union has other worries than the quality of Polish democracy. Meanwhile, the fragmented Polish opposition, is failing to offer a better alternative than going back to the liberal status quo that resulted in PiS’s victory in the first place.

In this context, it is safe to assume that the Polish government will keep getting away with more and more anti-democratic measures.

This piece is co-published with Political Critique.

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