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How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

The recent scandals of the Polish opposition were of its own making, and have set back attempts to unnerve the ruling party.

by Martin Ehl 13 January 2017

Ruled by a conservative, one-party government, Poland is struggling to preserve its fragile and young democracy. To this aim, one would need – among many other things – a well-organized, broad-based, creative, and well-respected opposition. The respect and creativity aspects, however, have been put in particular jeopardy after last week, when two affairs struck the opposition camp – both because of the awkwardness and inexperience of its leaders and not through any efforts of the government.

 

Both mishaps are understandable – politicians are only humans after all. But being the opposition in a fragile democracy demands more than merely human skills. The opposition parties had been occupying the main meeting room of the Sejm, the lower chamber of parliament, since the week before Christmas after the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party moved to limit media access to sessions. Members of two parties – Civic Platform and the Nowoczesna.pl (Modern) – took turns blocking PiS, which has a simple majority in the legislative body, from continuing with its practice of quick decisions without parliamentary debates.

 

What a surprise it was then when Modern’s leader, Ryszard Petru, left Poland for Portugal for a private New Year’s Eve celebration there! His colleagues had already been deliberating on how long a blockade made sense, because even sympathetic media were already growing tired of covering it. And Petru’s holiday merely gave opponents an occasion to make a joke out of the entire situation. (After a month, the opposition ended the blockade yesterday without being considered the victor of the whole stalemate).

 

That incident boils down to mainly an image problem of the opposition, and its most popular party. But the second affair is much more dangerous for the fate of the resistance to the government of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. What he is afraid of the most are popular protests in the streets, which damage the image he likes to create of a “people's government.”

 

There was one man who was able to get up to tens of thousands of people into the streets in protest against PiS’s forceful one-party rule since it won the elections in October 2015. His name is Mateusz Kijowski, and he is an IT expert who used Facebook to start what is now known as KOD – the Committee for Defense of Democracy – a popular movement that is able to mobilize more people than all the opposition parties together.

 

KOD works in the tradition of historical Polish resistance movements – on a voluntary basis. People have been sending money to support its activities. But last week the Onet.pl news portal and Polish daily Rzeczpospolita revealed that the IT company of Kijowski and his wife had been paid from this collected money, which was officially earmarked for the maintenance of the KOD website. Not only was the collective leadership of the movement unaware of that, but also one of its other leaders tweeted that his company had been doing website maintenance for KOD for free. Kijowski admitted to receiving the equivalent of around $22,000, and, in an interview with the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, also admitted it was probably “inadequate” to simultaneously be the leader and the provider of professional services for the same movement.

 

No one can probably imagine the joy of Kaczynski, who has been scrutinizing Kijowski for any weaknesses for more than a year. Kijowski’s only one seemed to be his inability to pay alimony for his children from a previous marriage on time. Now he says he lives off of the generosity of his family, suggesting he has no official income.  

 

KOD is scheduled to organize elections for its leadership in March, which will likely also lead to its transformation into a political entity. At this moment it is clear that the popular movement, which organizes protests not only in Warsaw but also in other cities, will struggle to overcome this image and confidence problem.

 

In general, the Polish opposition hardly has any tools to counteract the strength of Kaczynski and his party, which still has, according to polls, the support of around 30 percent of the electorate. KOD’s ability to mobilize people, which now seems in question, was so far the strongest answer to that. The already dwindling creativity of the politicians of the Polish opposition has a new challenge to tackle.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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