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Warsaw Protests: Defiance or a Smokescreen?

Updated: Mar 4

This year, on the 4th June, half a million Poles marched in Warsaw.

The demonstrations – organised by Former Prime Minister and opposition leader Donald Tusk – marked 34 years since the ‘rebirth’ of Polish democracy in 1989, when a partially democratic election saw the denouncement of communism and the destabilisation of soviet grip in the Eastern Bloc.

Thus, symbolically, Tusk, alongside his political heir, Rafal Trzaskowski (Mayor of Warsaw) sought to establish himself as the force against the Law & Justice (PiS) Government, which has been accused of cracking down on political opposition. This has included the apparent use of the Israeli-made spyware “Pegasus” as well as the establishment of a state media outlet through the major tv station TVP. Most contentiously, there has been the drafting of a lustration bill to investigate Russian influence in Polish politics, which has been accused of specifically targeting Donald Tusk, in an effort to exclude him from politics.

In light of this, Tusk declared to the crowds that “no one will silence us here today”, that the first step to shaking off the “yoke of oppression is to have the courage to be free”. Therefore, the left-wing spin on the march is that the Polish citizens, under the watchful eye of Mr Tusk, are making a stand against PiS – parallel to the events of 1989.

On the other hand, the right-wing, pro-PiS narrative is that the left-wing, led by Tusk and by former President Lech Walesa – also in attendance at the march – have set off a smokescreen in an attempt to try and evade investigations of Russian influence; even more severely, there have been accusations of collaboration with the communist secret police “SB” which emerged in the early 1990s.

Polish historian Antoni Dudek assessed that the electorate and, consequently, the widespread political discourse was split between two radical minorities – “anti-lustration and pro-lustration”. His analysis is clearly relevant today and has defined the polarised political climate in Poland for the past 30 years.

In fact, the symbolism of the 4th of June, from a Pro-PiS lens, is not of the triumph of democracy but, rather, white noise and thick smoke to distract from lustration. On the morning of the 4th of June 1992, then-Minister of the Interior, Antoni Macierewicz, produced a list of 64 deputies, senators and members of the Government – all which were accused of collaborating with the SB. The cauldron spilt over when then-President Lech Walesa’s name appeared on the list. In the evening, whilst Prime Minister Jan Olszewski was calling for lustration in the form of legislation, the opposition formed a united front to topple Olszewski’s fractured and unstable coalition, with direct support from the President. Thus, in the eyes of many, Olszewski’s Government was toppled to deafen those who heard cries for investigation.

In light of this, as incumbent Polish President Andrzej Duda calls for a new lustration bill to investigate Russian influence, stressing that the investigation would span the period 2007-2022, covering Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO) Government (2007-2015) and Law & Justice (PiS) (2015-2022), one wing of the electorate, with the events of 1992, embedded in their memory, cry: “what do they have to hide?”.

It is evident that the Polish political climate has been boiling and spitting for thirty years and has begun to now spill over into the new decade. Further, there is no surprise that the huge demonstrations and the lustration bill have both emerged in the run-up to the defining general election this November.

Alongside the apparent crackdown on democracy, PO are running a ‘contrast’ campaign, citing rising prices, corruption and incompetence as traits of the current Government. Alternatively, PiS are focusing on the generosity of welfare expenditure which have benefitted pensions and children. Notably, as before the 2019 election, the PiS Government has launched the “800+” child support programme and is comparing their record on welfare support packages to the record of PO in 2015.

According to Politico, PiS have maintained a steady ~5% lead over the opposition. If PO are to win, they will require significant gains as well as a readiness to establish a broad left-wing coalition.

As both sides are engaged and continue to engage in personal attacks, the rhetoric will only become uglier. To put a lid on the toxic political climate in the country, a fresh new mandate for a Government is desperately needed. The next election will be a statement about Poland’s future, which will be consequential for developments on the European continent.

Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

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A very interesting and informative read👍👍

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