(The Guardian) From air quality to sex education and corruption, citizens across the country are taking on the authorities – and winning. By Christian Davies in Warsaw and Lubartów
“Something is happening, something has changed,”
“Civil society is not about enlightened absolutism imposed from the top,” Adamowicz said at the time. “It takes place through the activism of different entrepreneurs and people of different professions and ideas, as well as through public disputes and conflicts. That is how civil society is created.”
“In the 1990s and 2000s, the local mayor was like a kind of wizard, a kind of local god,” says Białas. “Just because he was elected, he had great wisdom, like a light from the sky, and he had no need to consult anyone because he knew better than the rest of society.“But nowadays we know that the citizens have expertise, that they often know much better than their leaders. Instead of being local prophets, politicians are learning that they need to build links with society – not to ‘manage’ the people, but to serve them.”
They soon came to realise, however, that protesting against individual decisions was insufficient. The authorities were making poor decisions because they were not consulting local residents, but they did not consult them because they appeared to be under no obligation or pressure to do so; even when the sisters were able to convince the council to hold a public consultation, they struggled to convince their neighbours to attend. Unless this lack of engagement could be addressed, this vicious circle – poor decisions, leading to anger and disillusionment, leading to lack of engagement in the decision-making process, leading to more poor decisions – would never be broken.
“We realised that it isn’t just the fault of the authorities,” says Wąs. “If society doesn’t demand it, if they don’t participate in the consultation process, if they are not present when the decision is made, then the authorities will see no point in asking us in the first place.”
The sisters started to shift their focus. Setting up a small local foundation, their activities range from submitting freedom of information requests, to a successful campaign for council sessions to be filmed and broadcast online, to pushing councillors to publish more information about their views and decisions. Ahead of October’s local elections, they set up a stall in the town centre where residents could peruse the election materials of all the different candidates, including from past elections, so as to be able to hold them to their promises. They also run civic engagement workshops and have an initiative monitoring and publicising whether councillors turn up to their scheduled consultation surgeries.
“Many people don’t know they have the right to demand information, and those that do know are often afraid to do so because the authorities often perceive it as an attack,”
“It can be unforgiving work, because we still don’t have a culture of discussion. We will keep on drumming away because people need to know, people need to participate. But are we popular? No.”
“When you don’t know your rights, you would rather wait for orders from someone else, and assume that you can’t do something,” says Katarzyna Batko-Tołuć, director of Watchdog Polska, a Warsaw-based NGO. “People in Poland are free, but they don’t know they are free, they still don’t realise that they have the power to shape their own future. In my experience, once people start to know their rights, they start to be very self-confident.”
“The city was able to grow economically, but it seemed like there was always a closed circle of people on the border of business and politics who dominated the council,” says Mikolaj Skrzypiec, who moved back to Mielec in 2010 after 10 years living in London. “We could see that what was happening wasn’t right and that the government was doing nothing, so we started to take photos and gathered samples for analysis by a scientist in Kraków in such a way that the evidence would be admissible in court. One of the carcinogenic substances in one of the samples we found was a million times – I mean literally, a million times – higher than the legally accepted level.”
“It was spontaneous, grassroots, organised over social media by people with no experience of campaigning. I was absolutely head over heels, really happy and proud at the number of people you could see there,” says Skrzypiec. “There were manual workers, middle-class people, leftwing people, rightwing people, football fans, families – even employees of the factory we were protesting against. I will never forget it.”
In the capital, democracy activists are taking on very different threats. In southern Warsaw, Jan Lawrynowicz and Piotr Przytula set up a local activist group that uncovered digital skulduggery in which a spray of fake online accounts were used to cheerlead for local officials.
“We saw at the micro-level of local politics the kinds of mechanisms that are going on at the geopolitical level around the world,” says Lawrynowicz. “It is really scary how easy it is to manipulate people using these tricks.”
“So much of local government still works in the same way as it did in the communist era – it is a Soviet style of social relations, where officials use their patronage to keep power, where only the obedient are rewarded,” says Lawrynowicz. “The only difference is the fact that we have elections – but when the elections are over, no one listens to the citizens.”
“A lot of people end up disappointed because despite their best intentions, other people can be suspicious of their activities and accuse them of being in it for themselves,” says Batko-Tołuć. “Someone who thinks differently, who asks questions, who has a different opinion, can feel isolated and unpopular. There is a lot of fear of upsetting the people in charge.”
Some argue, however, that Law and Justice’s rightwing authoritarianism has only served to electrify the grassroots democracy movement, shaking Poland’s liberals and many others from their EU-induced complacency. In time, they say, the movement’s small victories have the potential not only to transform Polish democracy for the better, but also to inspire their counterparts in western Europe to take the fight to the populists in their own countries.
“The irony is that with Law and Justice in power, people are starting to wake up to the importance of rights and functioning institutions, they understand how much is left to be done,” says Batko-Tołuć. “After we joined the EU, a lot of our problems started to be solved, and so we started to become complacent and passive. Now that people see that democracy is at risk, they realise how precious it is and what needs to be done to protect it I am actually very positive about what is going on in Poland.”“Overall, it is a positive story,” says Lawrynowicz. “We don’t win every battle, but we are making progress. People are becoming more aware, people are starting to fight. Eventually we will change this country.”“Maybe there is something in the Polish soul telling us to fight when we see bad things going on, even if we are in a losing position,” says Przytula. “We don’t want to raise the white flag, we won’t accept that we don’t have influence over the process.”