Katarzyna Wężyk:
Grabbing power by spreading chaos

An almost total ban on abortion, a law introducing a two-year prison sentence for offering sex education and another on protecting state property against Jewish claims – these are the pressing matters the lower house of Polish parliment debated on April 15. In normal times, those laws would be subjects of heated debate and street protests. But these are not normal times. Poland, like the rest of the world, is in lockdown.

It seems as if the ruling Law and Justice party was employing the ‘shock doctrine’ playbook to the letter: using crisis to enforce controversial policies with little to no resistance from people while they were distracted. Not quite, though: citizens’ legislative initiatives, such as a ban on abortion due to serious fetal abnormalities, have to be processed within six months of the first session of the parliment, and this deadline expires on May 12. But the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

‘They want to take advantage of the fact that we can’t take to the streets’, said Marta Lempart, an organizer of the Women’s Strike. It was the Women’s Strike four years ago that, through mass demonstrations, forced the government to retreat from similar draconian changes to Poland’s already very restrictive abortion law. This time women’s organizations had to adapt their protest to the available means: they have been campaigning on social media, bombarding MPs’ mailboxes with e-mails calling for them to vote against the bill, and protesting in queues in front of shops. Two meters apart from each other. ‘We use forms of protest that allow us to stay home or combine it with everyday activities. A walk to get milk and flour can also be a fight for dignity. There is no law forbidding me from holding a poster while queuing’, said Lempart.

Governments around the world are using the coronavirus pandemic to increase their powers. They are introducing laws that ban public gatherings, expand surveillence, allow them to arrest the political opponents and journalists and rule by decree. A textbook example of this power grab is Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who did all the above— for the duration of the current state of emergency. Orbán also has the sole power to decide when the state of emergency ends.

The Polish government didn’t directly follow the lead of its closest regional ally. Its power grab is more subtle. At its core is managing insecurity.

Take the presidential elections, which before the pandemic were set for May 10. Prolonging a presidential term usually causes justified anxiety among the opposition and pro-democratic forces: it weakens institutional checks and raises concerns that the leader will not want to give up office when the crisis ends. In Poland, however, it is the opposition that has been demanding a postponement of the presidential election by the means allowed for in the constitution: declaring a state of natural disaster. So far, these demands have been unsuccessful. According to polls, if elections are held in May, incumbent president Andrzej Duda will win in the first round: a rally ’round the flag effect in full swing. So the ruling party is pushing towards elections with full force.

Their first idea was to make senior citizens and those quarantined vote by mail. When the number of COVID-19 cases increased, Jarosław Gowin, the leader of a small but key faction in the ruling party, proposed to amend the constitution to extend Duda’s term of office by two years. The opposition, whose votes are needed for this amendment, unequivocally rejected this idea. Finally, on April 6 the majority in the Sejm decided that the entire public would vote by mail. The elections would take place on May 10, with the option to postpone them to May 17, and the mailmen would have to deliver 30 million ballots, a massive undertaking for which the post office is totally unprepared. Postal trade unions are already considering a general strike.

The bill still has to be approved by the upper house, the Senate, and then it comes back to the Sejm for a final vote, which can happen as late as May 6. Gowin continues to oppose the May elections, and his MPs may still cast the deciding vote. The opposition, however, isn’t putting too much faith in his change of heart: Gowin is known for expressing his moral protest against the more undemocratic reforms introduced by the government and then voting in line with Jarosław Kaczyński.

Polish and European control bodies—the ombudsman, the OSCE, the European Commission—are sounding the alarm that the May elections would not only be a threat to the life and health of citizens, but would also be undemocratic: the coronavirus pandemic suspended the campaign, and the election law was changed last minute and in an unconstitutional manner. The legitimacy of a president elected under such circumstances would be extremely weak.

Nevertheless, three weeks before the election Poles still don’t know whether voting will take place at all; if so, when; and whether the result will be recognized by the international community. The opposition is similarly disoriented: they weren’t able to come up with a joint strategy of whether to take part in the election or boycott it altogether.

In managing the crisis, PiS isn’t going for the spirit of the blitz, for the ‘keep calm, carry on, we’re all in this together and together we shall overcome it’ mantra. It’s not using the closer to home legacy of the Solidarity movement. Quite the opposite: its main tactic is to divide and rule, and to put the responsibility for the pandemic and its victims on the Polish people. It’s not the government’s fault that hospitals are tragically underfunded; that there are not enough tests, beds and personal protection equipment even for the health professionals; or that 17 percent of those infected, a record high, are doctors and nurses. No, the virus spreads in hospitals, to quote Deputy Minister of Health Waldemar Kraska, because health professionals ‘downplay the procedures’. ‘It’s the nonchalance of some medics, especially the older ones’, he said.

Whistleblowers who report on the dramatic state of Polish health care end up fired. Nursing home workers hear that they are responsible for spreading the coronavirus to their patients because they work in several facilities, to make ends meet. And if the May election turns out to be an epic organizational failure, it will surely be the fault of the postmen. They are already complaining that people treat them as carriers of the plague.

The arbitrariness of the restrictions imposed on citizens under lockdown contribute to the general chaos. As in most countries, these restrictions  limit outdoor activities to the necessary minimum—you can go to work, see a doctor, shop for essentials and help sick relatives—and ban mass gatherings. Common-sense measures are, however, accompanied by prohibitions that are difficult to defend. When outside, you should keep two meters’ distance even from your spouse. You have to be 18 years old to take out the trash—minors cannot leave the house without an adult. The government banned entry to parks and forests, but the ban initially didn’t apply to hunters. Recreational cycling, depending on a policeman’s interpretation, may count as an indispensable need or, as a cyclist from Krakow learned, cost you PLN 12,000, three times the average monthly salary. Policemen have also been permanently equipped with new powers: failure to comply with an officer’s orders will be punishable by arrest or a fine.

‘Most of these bans are there to blame people for the spread of the virus. We allowed PiS to put us in a self-made Panopticon: we check on our neighbors and argue on Facebook whether going for a walk is responsible or not, and we fail to notice that the government has been giving itself the tools that would allow it to stay in power for the next 10 years’, said sociologist Elżbieta Korolczuk. ‘Initially, they might have been as lost as everyone else, but now it is a strategy. [They want us] to fight with each other and have no time to keep an eye on the authorities’.

In the current chaos, both pundits’ debates and everyday conversations fall between two extremes: Kaczyński is either a political genius five steps ahead of everyone else, expertly using this crisis to expand and cement his power, or he is a political lunatic driving himself and Poland full speed towards the wall. The jury is still out, and in the meantime the government has been implementing its agenda without major hurdles.

April 24, 2020.

Katarzyna Wężyk is  a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw. From march to April 2015 she was a Milena Jesenská Visiting Fellow at the IWM.

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