POLAND: A democratic spring – the fightback starts here

(The Guardian) From air quality to sex education and corruption, citizens across the country are taking on the authorities – and winning. By  in Warsaw and Lubartów

Back when Anna Gryta and Elżbieta Wąs started a local campaign to preserve a town square in south-east Poland, they had no idea it would turn them into potent symbols of democratic revival. But almost 10 years since their success in Lubartów, the sisters have become figureheads for thousands of Poles determined to secure the clean, democratic governance promised to them in the wake of the collapse of communism 30 years ago.
It’s a surprising revelation. Poland has become a byword for nationalist populism in recent years as the ruling Law and Justice party defies European democratic norms with its assault on the media and the courts. But away from the limelight, there is a flourishing grassroots movement against the flaws in the country’s democratic culture on which the populists feed. Tight groups of civic activists are notching up success after success across the country on a vast range of different issues – from sex education to air quality and the rule of law, from cycle lanes and public spaces to transparency and participation in local decision-making processes.
“Something is happening, something has changed,”
says Patryk Białas, an environmental campaigner recently elected to the city council in the south-western city of Katowice.
In the eastern region of Podlasie, local activists recently ran a disciplined, sophisticated and ultimately successful campaign against illegal state-sanctioned logging in the Białowieża forest. In Silesia, Poland’s industrial south-west, residents forced the closure of a toxic coking plant last year. In Poznań, in the north-west, citizens are campaigning to publicise allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. In Warsaw, a group of parents are running a campaign to put pressure on local authorities to combat the city’s terrible air quality.
In Gdańsk, Pawel Adamowicz presided over numerous civic innovations before his brutal murder earlier this month. In 2016, Gdańsk established Poland’s first “civic panel” in order to develop policies on flood prevention in the city, with 63 residents drawn at random from the local electoral register to “raise the level of civic engagement in the areas most challenging to the city”. Gdańsk also runs an “open data programme”, publishing daily data on its expenses.

“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.”

The rise of these movements is threatening to reshape the country’s politics. In urban areas, there has been a growth of so-called city movements, networks of campaigners challenging traditional political parties on questions of governance, corruption, planning and the environment. Some local authorities have responded to this growth in demand for accountability by introducing innovative new consultation mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, where groups of volunteers and randomly selected citizens participate in the city’s decision-making process, and participatory budgets, where citizens apply for financing for projects that they have drawn up themselves. In smaller towns across the country, long-entrenched local political leaders have found themselves under pressure or thrown out of office altogether by new candidates with no party-political affiliations.
“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.”
Observers note the significance of these grassroots actions not just in the liberal opposition bastions of Poland’s larger cities, but in places like Lubartów, a small town of just over 20,000 people in the conservative heartland of the ruling Law and Justice party. Having killed off the council’s proposal to sell the town square to private developers in 2010, the following year Wąs and Gryta organised a town-wide opinion poll that forced the authorities to abandon a plan to build a waste-processing plant in a residential area near the centre of town.

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.

Gryta and Wąs’s relentlessness has won them awards and admirers – all at a cost. Labelled as busybodies and troublemakers by their opponents, they have endured a form of social ostracism from those whose jobs depend on local authorities.
“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,”
says Wąs. A cancer survivor with a physical disability that makes driving difficult, for years she has commuted to work in a different town so as not to have to rely on the authorities she has been challenging.
“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.”
Activists argue that they are addressing fundamental flaws in Poland’s democratic transition that has facilitated the rise of populist authoritarianism. Decades after the institution of free and fair elections, the relationship between citizens and the authorities in many parts of Poland remains tarnished by a culture of secrecy and mutual suspicion, with important decisions at local level often made with little, if any, public consultation. Many fear crossing powerful local officials, who oversee vast investments of European development funds and enjoy extensive networks of patronage.

“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.”

These flaws in Poland’s democratic governance were overlooked by many as the economy boomed, creating jobs and a sharp rise in living standards. But as material conditions have improved, and as more and more Poles return from long spells living and working in western Europe, so expectations of public institutions to deliver on the promise of western European standards of living have grown.
This shift in expectations was illustrated by last year’s massive environmental protests in Mielec, a town of 60,000 in the south-east ringed by factories that have been accused of polluting air and waterways with toxic discharge.
“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.”
Public anger boiled over in March last year and 15,000 people – a quarter of the city – took to the streets, the biggest environmental protest in Poland since the disaster Chernobyl.
“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.”

Activists said that while they are focused on a wide range of different issues and operate in very different parts of the country, each with their own set of challenges, some challenges are common to all of them. The first is the difficulty in bridging the gap between citizens and officialdom – especially at the local level – in a society that remains in the shadow of communist authoritarianism even decades after the fall of communism itself.
“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.”
The second is the personal cost endured by many activists. Almost all of them said that their work has led them to come under pressure either from local authorities, employers, or their neighbours – sometimes even all three.
“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.”
The third is that although they see themselves as compensating for the existing weaknesses in Poland’s democratic culture and state institutions, some activists note that they will not be able to realise their aims at the national and local levels if the populists in government get there first. Their campaigns rely on independent courts to defend their rights, prosecute corruption, and enforce freedom of information requests – none of which will be possible if the judiciary is fully subjugated to Poland’s ruling party.

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.”