Poland: Half a million protesters take to the streets of Warsaw

By Paul Smith, Alternatywa Socjalistyczna — ISA in Poland

Half a million protesters took to the streets on 4 June against the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government in what is claimed to be the biggest demonstration in Poland since the collapse of Stalinism in 1989. The march was called by Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform (PO) party in response to government plans to introduce a kangaroo court that would eliminate opposition candidates from taking office and was also supported by other opposition parties. PO also hoped to use the march to boost its standing in opinion polls. Yet most people were there mainly to express their anger and opposition against PiS rather than enthusiastically support PO.

Jarosław Kaczyński’s right-wing populist PiS government was first elected 8 years ago as a reaction against the vicious neoliberal attacks of the previous PO government, which included raising the retirement age and eroding workers’ rights through changes to the Labour Code. During its time in power, PiS has built up support among a large part of the working class thanks to its reversal of PO’s pension reform and thanks to the introduction of a new child benefit and other social transfers that have helped alleviate poverty among a large part of Polish society.

But at the same time, the PiS government has presided over attacks on abortion and reproductive rights and extended the Catholic Church’s influence in the education system and the state as a whole. These attacks sparked a huge movement in defence of abortion rights and against the Catholic Church hierarchy in recent years, radicalising a significant section of Polish youth. PiS has also whipped up hatred of the LGBT+ community and immigrants in order to divide society and distract a part of the electorate from the real problems in society. Corruption and cronyism, an ever-present feature of Polish politics, have reached new heights during PiS’s rule, as party members, their families and friends have taken up lucrative posts in state institutions and state-owned companies. The party has turned the state-owned media into a crude political propaganda weapon which makes the BBC look like a paradigm of journalistic objectivity. It has also used its control of the large state-owned oil company, Orlen, to buy up the largest national network of regional newspapers.

Dissatisfaction is also growing due to soaring inflation, which reached almost 20% in early 2023, undermining most of the social benefits introduced by PiS and causing a fall in real wages. However, so far this has not translated into a movement on the industrial plane, and the few strikes that have taken place have been small, localised and isolated. At the same time, due to PO’s neoliberal past, working class voters are reluctant to support PO, and opinion polls show that this autumn’s parliamentary elections will be a close race, with neither PiS nor PO likely to gain enough votes to form a government. In such a scenario, there is a real danger that PiS will form a coalition government with the far-right Konfederacja.

Growing authoritarianism

Like Victor Orban’s government in Hungary, the PiS government has eroded parliamentary democracy and the justice system, putting the Polish government on a collision course with the EU. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, relations with the EU have improved as the Polish government proved itself to be an important part of the Western alliance thanks to its military support for Ukraine. However, both the US and the EU recently criticised a new law passed by the Polish parliament which creates an unaccountable government-picked commission with wide-ranging powers to ban people from public office on suspicion of “Russian influences”. The intention of the new law, nicknamed “Lex Tusk”, is to use this kangaroo court to eliminate Donald Tusk from the elections, but also to tarnish PO and other opposition parties and manipulate public opinion ahead of this autumn’s parliamentary elections.

In the upcoming elections the stakes are high for both parties, so with political tensions rising and the dissatisfaction and anger growing in society, PO decided to call a national demonstration against the government. Although they were not allowed speakers, the march was also supported by other opposition parties, including Lewica (“The Left”, which includes the new left formation Razem).

Confused mood

The mood was confused, with many Polish and EU flags waving in the crowd. The EU is viewed positively by a majority of Polish society and seen as a defender of democracy and civil rights, including women’s and LGBT+ rights. On the other hand, people waved Polish flags, not as an expression of far-right nationalism, but to show that the opposition is not anti-Polish (something that PiS often claims).

The symbolism of the date of the demonstration also added to the confusion — 4 June, the “Day of Freedom and Democracy”, is the anniversary of the first partially-free elections in Poland in 1989 in which the anti-communist opposition first won a victory, opening the door to capitalist restoration.

However, while PO hoped to use this march as a huge election rally, the half a million people present were mainly interested in protesting against the government rather than to cheer the liberals and listen to their speeches. This is illustrated by an incident during the speech of Lech Wałęsa, the legendary leader of Solidarity, who is seen as a symbol of the anti-communist opposition. The crowd interrupted Wałęsa’s speech, with people shouting “let’s go!”. Taken aback, Wałęsa was forced to end his speech as the protesters started marching off.

PO is no solution

While the number of people on the demonstration is impressive, Donald Tusk and PO are not a viable alternative to PiS and cannot provide effective leadership to an anti-PiS movement. Despite its “respectable” and “pro-European” image, when in power PO also opposed LGBT+ rights and on several occasions MPs from PO attempted to further restrict abortion and reproductive rights. While PO pays lip service to the abortion movement, the party does not support liberalisation of the law. PO also showed authoritarian tendencies and played with anti-immigration feelings. As a result of the previous PO government, there was a huge increase in precarious workers. PO raised the retirement age and attacked trade union rights with its amendments to the Labour Code. For these reasons, PO is unable to win over working-class voters or convince the radicalised youth of the abortion rights and LGBT+ movements.

To remove PiS from power, a mass movement is needed that will unite with the trade unions. As a start, a one-day general strike of all Polish workers is needed to mobilise the real power in society. That requires a set of demands that will respond to the cost of living crisis, guaranteeing pay rises at least at the level of inflation. The demands should also address the problems in the education and health systems, including the chronic low pay of teachers and health workers. The movement should offer a solution to the housing problem based on a massive expansion of social housing instead of supporting the private sector as all governments since 1989 have done. It should also include in its programme full legalisation of abortion on demand, free of charge, as well as free contraception and fertility treatment, sexual education in schools taught by trained professionals instead of religion lessons by religious fundamentalists, the removal of the church from the schools, the separation of the church from the state, and also a guarantee of LGBT+ rights.

To implement such a radical and far-reaching programme it would be necessary to nationalise the remaining private banks to prevent a flight of capital out of the country. However, such nationalisation cannot resemble the nationalisation of banks under PiS, which simply allowed unaccountable and incompetent party members to get lucrative jobs. Instead, the control and management of all nationalised industries should be exercised by democratically elected and accountable committees representing working people and conducted in the interest of society as a whole. Only such measures will be successful in solving the burning problems in Polish society.

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