Sunday

27th Sep 2020

Analysis

What is KOD, the Polish pro-democracy movement?

  • Pro-democracy protest in Bydgoszcz, in central Poland, in December last year (Photo: Jaap Arriens)

Poland was used to public resistance under communism.

Mass protests became a thing of the past in 1989 when the regime fell and, in recent times, only papal visits and nationalist rallies drew big crowds.

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  • KOD delegation in Brussels. From left to right: Martin Mycielski, Radomir Szumelda, Mateusz Kijowski, Maciej Kozlowski and Katarzyna Morton. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

But on Saturday (4 June), the 27th anniversary of Poland’s first semi-free elections in 1989, thousands of Poles will march to defend their hard-won freedom.

It is the latest in a series of demonstrations since the Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski won power last October.

The largest event is to take place in Warsaw, where three former presidents - Lech Walesa, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Bronislaw Komorowski - will lead a march that is to end, symbolically, at Constitution Square.

They will be joined by Mateusz Kijowski, the frontman of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD).

The KOD movement organised this weekend’s protests, as well as several others in the past few months.

They accuse PiS of trying to subvert Poland’s constitutional tribunal and public media.

They have also defended Walesa, a Nobel laureate who helped to overthrow communism, against PiS accusations that he was a regime informant.

The six month-old movement has become the face of the Polish opposition.

On Friday, KOD was among the winners of the European Parliament’s European Citizen's Prize.

Kijowski and two other KOD members, earlier in Brussels, also met top EU officials. They spoke to Donald Tusk, the EU Council chief and former Polish PM. They met Frans Timmermans, the Dutch EU commissioner who is in charge of monitoring rule of law in Poland, and European Parliament (EP) president Martin Schultz.

The EP’s conservative ECR group, which contains PiS, declined to meet them.

Model for Europe

KOD’s Kijowski, Radomir Szumelda and Maciej Kozlowski, told EUobserver that their activism went beyond Poland.

”We think Europe can learn from the Polish example”, Kozlowski, a former Polish ambassador to Israel, said.

”We, as a civic mass movement, may be the best kind of answer to the rising anti-European and nationalistic tendencies [in the EU]”, he said.

In May, KOD brought tens of thousands of people onto the street. Warsaw's opposition-affiliated mayor counted 250,000 people. PiS-controlled public media said 45,000.

With the Euro 2016 soccer finals starting on Friday, Kijowski said: ”We now need to make KOD more attractive than football games”.

According to the TNS pollster, 1.5 million Poles, equivalent to 5 percent of the population, have taken part in at least one KOD-organised event.

Forty percent said they supported the movement, 28 percent were against it and the rest had never heard of it.

What is KOD?

The movement is closely associated with Kijowski, an 47 year-old IT entrepreneur, who created it last November.

It is developing internal structures and will soon let people become official members.

Kijowski also wants to create KOD's own media, a think tank and to host arts and culture events that stimulate political discussion.

But it does not aim to become a political party and its aims go beyond PiS.

”Our main goal is to create civil society in Poland … We want people to talk to each other, but also to listen to each other’s ideas. We want dialogue”, Kijowski said.

He said post-communist Polish society “focused very strongly on personal success” and “stopped caring about politics”. He said that PiS offered its constituency “a sense of community, albeit one built on not so positive values”. But he said that its post-election behaviour shocked others out of apathy.

KOD’s Kozlowski said: ”The problem is not with PiS, it’s with the people who voted for them. They are uneducated in civic values”.

He said KOD does not want to become a political party because politics is divisive. “We want to unite, while ’partia’, in Latin, means to divide,” he said.

Katarzyna Morton, a Brussels-based KOD coordinator, said the movement is about more than PiS.

“We are not anti-PiS. Our goal is much broader than that. We want to create … a sense of community, a way of being Polish that isn’t based on hate, but kindness”, she told this website.

”KOD is a long-term project”, she said.

Ousting PiS

The movement does want to work with opposition parties to help oust PiS in the next election in 2019.

But some commentators said it could end up having the opposite effect.

Jaroslaw Kuisz, the editor-in-chief of Kultura Liberalna, a centrist media organisation in Poland, told EUobserver that KOD activism “relieves opposition parties from doing their own ground work: finding leaders, forming a programme that mobilises the masses”.

He said “it’s great that KOD exists” and that it has showed that “many Poles won’t put up with authoritarian rule”.

But he said Polish opposition parties are too weak to challenge Kaczynski, who has twice the support of the largest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO).

“It would take a political party to remove PiS from power. The current opposition wouldn’t be able to do that,” Kuisz said.

He said PO “seems unable to recover from its election loss,” while Nowoczesna, a new liberal party, is trying to poach its votes.

KOD has suggested the creation of a cross-party opposition coalition, but PO refused to join a KOD-brokered alliance. Kuisz said that if KOD did decide to become a party “that would divide the votes further”.

Baby subsidy

One reason for PiS’ popularity is a baby subsidy known as 500+.

Families receive 500 zloty (€110) for every second and subsequent child they have.

It also plans to increase tax revenue with a new bank tax and to give public aid to coal mines.

Michal Sutowski, a journalist at Krytyka Polityczna, a publication created by a group of left-wing intellectuals, said PiS’ plans “aren’t credible” from an economic point of view and that some of them could fall foul of EU anti-state subsidy law.

But he said that KOD would struggle to attract PiS defectors even if things go wrong for Kaczynski.

”Many of KOD’s members identify themselves as liberals. KOD wouldn't be credible to miners, for instance,” he noted.

He said that if the movement is seen as being anti-PiS, it could attract more middle-class urban supporters but alienate PiS voters. ”The situation would be ideal for PiS”, Sutowski said.

He said that KOD should target deeper issues “about the failures of Poland’s [post-communist] transformation.”

Left-wing

Monika Platek, a Polish professor of criminal law and a feminist, said KOD has broader political support.

Platek ran in the last election for the United Left party’s list.

She said that Kijowski’s movement showed “that one man can enkindle the masses, because many Poles feel responsible for the democratic future of our country.”

”I will keep going to KOD protests,” she said. ”It’s up to us all to take our responsibility that KOD turns out right”.

She said PiS was “breaking the constitution, weakening Poland’s position in the EU and putting us at risk of Russian influences”.

She also accused it of using hate speech and of inciting violence. “I really hope they will not tell their boys [PiS-linked youth groups] to take up street violence," she said ahead of Saturday’s rally in Warsaw.

Platek said KOD should unite all Polish people who respect democratic values.

The feminist said that she herself did not like some KOD leaders’ “fossil views on women’s rights”. But she added: ”We cannot afford to chisel out people who respect democratic order just because we don't share their [political] views”.

"There aren't that many of us”, she said.

“Even if we were more numerous than them, we are weaker because we are not willing to use violence”.

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