Should Poland celebrate a quarter century of democracy?

What Poland has and has not achieved since the fall of communism.

Economic grievances have transformed into support for the far-right in Poland, argues Stokfiszewski [Reuters]

Twenty-five years ago on June 4, Poland witnessed parliamentary elections which removed from power the Polish United Workers’ Party and led to the dismantling of the communist system. Communism came to Poland after World War II, during which the Germans and the Soviets decimated the country’s liberal and patriotic political elite, leaving it too weak to resist political pressures from outside and from parts of Polish society seeking a socialist system.

In the mid-1970s in Poland, open democratic opposition was formed which centred around Solidarity – the trade union and social movement under Lech Walesa’s leadership. Through strikes, demonstrations, underground publications, self-education centres, cooperation with international dissident movements and support from the West, the opposition forced the government in 1989 to introduce round-table talks between the Communist Party and leaders of the Solidarity movement in order to develop political and economic reforms.

One of the results of the talks was the June 4 elections in which the representatives of the regime were defeated. A few months later, Polish dissident Tadeusz Mazowiecki began heading Poland’s first non-communist government since World War II, and a year later Lech Walesa became the head of state. In 1999, Poland joined NATO and in 2004 became a member of European Union. Now, 25 years later after the eventful 1989 watershed, it is important to reflect how these events have not only affected Poles’ political and economic lives but also transformed the geopolitics of central Europe.

Change for the better?

The transformation which started in 1989 certainly brought Polish citizens political freedoms. The introduction of parliamentary democracy, abolition of social-control tools such as repression or censorship, as well as the establishment of a framework for civil society has increased the sense of individual freedom and the possibilities of impacting the surrounding socio-political reality.

At the same time, radical economic reforms led to the dismantling of the welfare state, and their devastating social consequences are being felt until this day. In response to the economic failures part of Polish society turned towards the extreme right. The swing towards right-wing politics, along with the increasing power of the Catholic church has strengthened conservative trends in society as well as legislation affecting women’s reproductive rights and minority rights.

Witness – Bartek s Getaway Bus

In 1990, Mazowiecki’s government began to implement economic shock therapy, whose architect was Polish economist Leszek Balcerowicz. The aim of the “Balcerowicz Plan” was the transition from a centrally planned economy to a free market system, prioritising the privatisation of enterprises and other state properties. The social costs of economic reforms were huge.

Unemployment rose reaching more than 16 percent in 1993 and around 20 percent ten years later. Many of the industrial plants that had been the core of the Polish economy in the communist era were liquidated. People lost their jobs, careers, self-esteem and sense of dignity.

A wave of strikes hit Poland in the 1990s, bringing to the streets public industry and service workers. Soon the first signs of a massive social stratification started appearing. A narrow business elite established itself at the top of society, propped up by a stable but limited middle class. The vast majority of Poles remained at the bottom of the social ladder, where thousands of ex-workers and their families continue to struggle with the aftershock of market-economy reforms.

It is among these people that critical attitudes towards the changes in Poland after 1989 began to grow. More often than not, these negative feelings found expression in anti-Semitic, homophobic and xenophobic narratives, captured by and organised into football hooligans’ groups, extreme nationalistic movements or conservative political parties.

Thanks to the support from the Catholic church, which had an intransigent approach to communists and took a very influential position in public life after 1989, such nationalistic and conservative attitudes spilled over into mainstream politics and the media. It peaked in 2005, when the right-wing Law and Justice Party took power in Poland. Since then conservatism has increasingly affected public life. Demands to limit women’s reproductive rights, open criticism against sexual freedoms and against diversity of individual and collective identities are being raised with growing audacity and – even worse – are gaining greater social resonance.

The period of Polish political and economic transition has supposedly come to an end, and the Polish state continues to hold the course towards more privatisation and more dismantling of an already meagre welfare system. In the past two years, the retirement age has been raised and the eight-hour working day regulations liberalised. In the sphere of individual freedoms and gender equality, there are ongoing battles to ban in vitro birth methods and tighten the already restrictive abortion laws. Both campaigns are openly supported by the church. Culture is beset with moral censorship, cuts of public funds and attempts to limit access through regulations in favour of intellectual property rights. In the construction, education, healthcare and culture sectors the number of workers whose employers are not paying social security is rapidly growing.

However, the right-wing narrative on economy and politics can only be pushed that far. There are already signs that Polish society is resisting social conservatism and economic asceticism. Last September, over 100,000 people marched in Warsaw carrying placards with the slogan “Enough of neglecting society” after days of nationwide protests which gathered trade unions, social movements and indignant citizens. Demonstraters demanded socially oriented solutions to economic polices as well as more participatory mechanisms in decision-making processes. In November, two demonstrations took place in the streets of the Polish capital, Warsaw, against the rising far-right. 

The forthcoming years will require a change in the approach to the role of the state and the implementation of new transformational ideas on socio-economic solutions. In order to avoid social disaster, it will become necessary to formulate a new social contract and to establish code of common values which would reduce xenophobic trends fed by a sense of economic insecurity.

On June 4, we certainly have a reason to celebrate. But 25 years of economic reforms have led to a situation in which the challenges we are facing are no less testing than those confronted by the authors of the 1989 regime reform. 

Igor Stokfiszewski is a journalist and activist of Political Critique, an independent socio-political organisation operating within Poland and Ukraine.