Tuesday

22nd Aug 2017

Young people show up in droves to defend Poland's courts

  • A woman shelters a young protester from the rain. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

John Lennon's Imagine filled the summer night in front of Poland's Supreme Court on Sunday (23 July), as people started to head home from another protest in defence of democracy and free courts.

Ever since the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party announced its plans to reform this institution around ten days ago, demonstrations have been piling up, drawing larger crowds, and finding their way into new towns and villages.

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  • Young people chatting in front of the Polish parliament while lawmakers vote the bill on supreme court reform. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

The number of participants increased after the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, passed a law on Thursday that will put the Supreme Court under the control of the government. The law would give the government the right to fire all the judges and let the minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, draft the list of new ones.

The text, as well as another one passed the week before which puts the appointment of judges under political control, led the European Commission to say that the "threat to the rule of law in Poland" had been "considerably increased".

Warsaw alone has seen its city centre fill every day with several demonstrations. Some take place in front of the top court, others before the parliament or the presidential palace.

The home of PiS's leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in a residential part of Warsaw, has also drawn people over the weekend. The man credited with pulling the strings of Polish political life didn't meet with the crowd, but his cat glared at them for a while from a window.

So far, there is no indication that the protests would have changed the voting preference of Poles. According to a poll by the IBRiS institute, PiS won five percentage points in the process, whereas opposition parties remained stable. Some 37 percent would vote PiS, and only 23 for the largest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO).

According to another poll, conducted by Kantar, PiS would lose three points, scoring around 32 percent, with PO remaining stable at 23.

But the protests could yet prove pivotal, because this time, they are mobilising new groups of the electorate, namely young people.

Just one of those who has had a political wake-up call was Lukasz, a 30-year-old singer in a rock band who also works in a sex toy shop.

He stood amongst the protests in front of the presidential palace, making a recording to post on Facebook.

"I want my friends to join me. We can watch TV series another day," he said, adding he had never been particularly interested in politics. He wasn't happy with the situation under the previous governments either and planned to move abroad.

"But now, I think that instead of dreaming of France and Canada, I should make Poland the country I want to live in."

Under the rule of the Law and Justice party, politics came into his life whether he wanted it or not, he explained.

"By standing up now, I hope to avoid waking up one day when Poland has been forced out of the EU or realising I don't have a place to live because the government has silently adopted a law that makes it easier to evict people," he said, in reference to a law pushed through during last week's tumult.

The bill gives landlords the right to expel tenants of the government's flagship apartment programme without any particular reason.

Dominik, a preppy-looking lawyer dressed in a blue shirt and cashmere sweater casually tied around his neck, was also upset about what he described as the ruling party's arrogance.

Together with some female friends, he stood holding a candle in front of the parliament on Saturday. It was shortly after midnight and, in front of the group, the upper house was voting on the Supreme Court reform amid calls from demonstrators urging the senators to kill the bill.

Rather than chanting along, the group stood there talking and exchanging jokes - as you do on a weekend night.

The girls had begun demonstrating against PiS already last year, during the black protests - when thousands of black-clad women went on strike for a day, effectively scaring PiS into abandoning a bill that would sharpen Poland's already harsh abortion laws.

Dominik, in his late twenties, said he joined them only recently; as he feared it could cost him his career if someone from the law firm where he works saw him demonstrating.

"But this time, PiS has crossed the boundaries of decency," he told EUobserver, referring to the court reform.

"This won't improve the functioning of Polish courts. And it's ridiculous that the parliament is legislating in the middle of the night," he said.

Aside from the anger with PiS's antics and being largely pro-EU, the broader engagement of young people in Polish political life has also been credited to new and inclusive forms of protest.

A woman consoles her boyfriend after he learnt the parliament passed the bill on supreme court reform. Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson

Many of the current demonstrations are organised by grassroots movements or private people rather than political parties. They have a "no logo" principle, where party symbols are banned, and the only flags allowed are those of general interest - the white and red flag of Poland, or the rainbow-coloured one representing sexual minorities.

The online pro-democracy platform Akcja Demokracja ("Action Democracy") first launched the idea of holding candle protests - so-called "chains of light" - which are now held every day at 9pm by organisations and communities in more than 140 places in Poland and abroad.

Members of the ruling party have made it clear that they aren't impressed by the protests, but their declarations seem increasingly aggressive and desperate.

On Friday, the minister of interior, Mariusz Blaszczak, suggested that many of the people who had gathered in front of the presidential palace the night before - around 14,000 according to the police and 50,000 according to the PO-ruled city hall - were just "out for a walk".

The tone escalated over the weekend, with another PiS lawmaker calling demonstrators "Bolshevik ghosts" and "widows of communist security agents", while the government-loyal media accused the protests of being "astroturfing" - a marketing method to make a public relations campaign look like a spontaneous movement - paid for by George Soros, the Hungarian-US billionaire who funds pro-democratic causes.

Such statements seem only to inspire demonstrators further.

In the early hours of Saturday, EUobserver saw protesters blocking a road near to the parliament by walking back and forth over the zebra crossing. This way, they prevented PiS senators from going home after the vote.

"We went out for a walk", one woman's sign was saying. Another woman was yelling: "As long as we move, the police cannot arrest us for obstructing public passages."

People "just walking" during a blockage of PiS politicians. Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson

On Sunday, people also went about asking their friends on social media whether they had received their money transfers from Soros already.

Protests are set to continue on Monday (24 July), as Poland's president, Andrzej Duda, is expected to sign the Supreme Court legislation the day after, on Tuesday.

Duda's signature is needed before the bill can enter into force.

Protesters, speaking to EUobserver, said they demonstrated to show their support for the rule of law and the EU.

Few believed that the protests would convince Duda to veto the bill, even if a glimmer of hope emerged after Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a Polish daily, reported on Sunday that in the rush to pass the bill, the Senate mistakenly voted on a different version than the one in the lower house.

According to another daily newspaper, Rzeczpospolita, the two pieces of legislation differ in 11 places. The speaker of the Senate, Stanislaw Karczewski, dismissed the media reports and said the bills were the same.

Women shake Poland's pillars of power

Polish women are marching again this Sunday and Monday. They could succeed where the opposition, the European Commission and other protests failed, and redraw Poland's political map.

Orban vows to defend Poland from EU's 'inquisition'

The Hungarian leader called EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans an "inquisitor", allied with George Soros and the Brussels elite, and argued for the EU executive to stop being a political body.

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