Europe

Civil society and the far-right: a tale of two Polands


Many Poles and Europeans breathed a sigh of relief after Poland’s 2023 parliamentary elections. While none of the parties openly opposed to the then incumbent Law and Justice won the most votes, the combined votes of the Civic Coalition, the Third Way and the Left Alliance allowed them to form a coalition government. This dashed the hopes of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party of a third consecutive term in office. Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Coalition and current prime minister, called 15 October “one of the best days of Polish democracy” and claimed that Poles had “won freedom, […] won back our Poland“. Foreign media similarly interpreted this changing of the guard as a sign of hope in what was seen as a crucial election not only for the country but for the entire region, which had been most directly affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As the dust settled and the new government got down to work, it became clearer than ever that the far right was here to stay. Despite Warsaw’s changed approach to diplomatic and domestic relations, marked by an almost immediate drop in hate speech that had significantly worsened the well-being of minorities (the latest research shows an increase in suicide rates since the introduction of so-called “LGBT-free zones” in some Polish cities), there is still much work to be done by civil society actors to fend off sentiments that could weaken the fragile new stability of recent months.

Limits, borders, sympathies

Certain issues are already on the horizon and, if not addressed by the new government in the coming months, could easily be exploited by far-right parties such as Konfederacja (Confederation). One of them is the changing attitude of Poles towards Ukrainians. According to the latest polls, the initial enthusiasm for their permanent presence in the country has cooled significantly, with 50% of Poles aged 18-49 responding negatively to the possibility of Ukrainians staying in Poland for many years. While the reasons for such a shift are complex – ranging from uncertainty about the outcome of the war in Ukraine to a sense that people’s efforts to welcome earlier waves of refugees have not been recognised – politicians and NGOs should pay particular attention to these sentiments, as they can translate into wider political trends.

Various groups are also using this anti-Ukrainian sentiment to drum up support for farmers’ protests, attempting to build a wider anti-EU movement around the argument that the free trade agreement between Ukraine and the bloc is actively damaging European agriculture. Only recently, for example, Konfederacja and Law and Justice MPs allowed protesters into the Polish parliament, showing their support not so much for the farmers’ opposition to Ukrainian grain, but for the European Green Deal, the cancellation of which is another of the movement’s demands.

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Moreover, the farmers’ protest must be seen as one of many expressions of anxiety about the growing cost of living crisis, which, coupled with the consequences of climate change, will not go away any time soon. Worryingly, the response of successive governments to these issues appears to have been largely unsatisfactory and slow, despite the warnings of many non-state actors such as NGOs, academics and informal groups. Perhaps the biggest change in Poland over the past decade has been the incredible agility of its citizens in responding to successive political crises. This change needs to be taken seriously by party politics. Indeed, it may prove to be Poland’s greatest hope in the face of future challenges.

Active, concerned, exhausted: civil society in Poland

“It is worth noting the rapid development of civil society in Poland since 2015,” says Agnieszka Jędrzejczyk, a journalist with OKO.press, one of the country’s main media outlets. “These were not only grassroots protests, which required organisation and trust, but also the activities of larger entities that support civic participation in public debate.” Observers of the numerous protests and activities of Poles in the last decade find it hard to disagree. Poles have developed a new understanding of civic engagement, both through massive street demonstrations – against the near-total ban on abortion in 2016 and 2020, and against changes to the judiciary in 2017 – and through the immediate, volunteer-based response to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who entered the country after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

For the first time since 1989, people who previously thought of themselves as apolitical or unconcerned with politics became conscious of their own agency as citizens. They underwent a high-speed education in their rights, liberties and the limits of their own activism, whether volunteering at the Polish-Belarusian border, protesting against the so-called “homofobuses” (lorries driving around big Polish cities, spreading homophobic and hate speech), or organising emergency welcome points at train stations in late February 2022.

Those activities were undertaken independently from any central political power or “mainstream” politics. Now, as the 2023 elections have shown, some of the very same people who were new to activism entered politics, mostly on a local level.

“This is where they apply what they have learned and make other people interested in public life. Many formerly active citizens turned to local politics through this path, and now they come up with or use legal solutions to deal with new challenges,” observes Jędrzejczyk. As of yet, not that many of these forms of political participation have penetrated the “mainstream”, but there are some first examples of such processes.

Perhaps the most interesting one is that of Michał Kołodziejczak, the former leader of the (often-viewed as populist) AGROunia movement of farmers – now Poland’s deputy minister of agriculture. Only time will show to what extent people like him brought change to the country and countered the far-right. 

With the support of the Heinich Böll Stiftung European Union



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