The Next Generation Speaks

Students of Polish Universities Protest Against the Government

Antonio Scancariello
8 February 2017

On Thursday, January 25th, students gathered in Krakow’s main square, Rynek Glowny, to protest against the constitutional, educational and political changes they see as negatively affecting Polish society.

Initially hundreds then thousands of attendants waved Polish and European flags and carried banners which translate as “Solidarity, Equality, Freedom.” They were supported by members of the academic faculties from the Jagellonian University, the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts and the Pedagogical University of Krakow, as well as numerous other colleges and institutions from in and around the city.

Jan Hartman, a professor of philosophy from the Jagellonian Univeristy, who attended the demonstration stressed its importance and compared the government’s programmes and the responding protest to the troubled situation Poland experienced during the mid-sixties while the country was under the control of communists.

“The government is afraid of you. You are young, and you are the future. Thank the government for this because it gives us power and hope,” he added.

Prof. Joanna Handerek’s comment followed a similar tone. “Democracy results from the merging and conflict of ideas. Defend yourself before you are labelled and put into categories because we are all equal,” she said.

Soon after the protest began, the group was met by a counter demonstration. They chanted nationalist slogans like “Poland for Polish people.” A brief confrontation took place before the student protest’s spokesmen asked the crowd to ignore the “provocations”.

The protest, however, was not only about educational or academic issues; it was also aimed to support women’s rights in the wake of the “Czarny Protest” (Black Protest) which was held against the abortion ban, to voice their opposition to changes in the rules for the media – the government decided to reduce the number of journalists able to attend parliamentary sessions – and to show their disapproval of the government’s clashes with the EU over the state of the Constitutional Tribunal.

Julia Michalska and Karolina Wisniowska, who helped organize the protest, said, “there have been changes in Poland and we don’t like them. We believe that values like freedom of speech, women’s and minorities rights are being destroyed and not respected.”

“The issues surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal are very important…we don’t know how this can possibly end. We cannot keep on being silent,” they added.

A Reactionary Charge

The protest took place in the midst of a turbulent period in Polish politics and society. Since the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) won the October, 2015 elections, Poland’s situation has become unstable.

One the main reasons for this unrest came from the, potentially illegal, reforms to the Constitutional Tribunal (TK) made by PiS. In 2015, Civic Platform, the previous ruling party (2007 – 2015), named five judges to the TK. Civic Platform, a moderately conservative party, was still in charge of parliament at that time, but a swing farther right had already appeared to be likely[1].

These appointments, though legitimate, were disapproved of by PiS, who saw political victory right around the corner. The true controversy begins when President Andrzej Duda, a close ally to PiS, refused to swear in the judges named by the government. Since the judges had been vetted and approved by parliament, the president’s role was largely ceremonial though necessary for the five judges to join the bench. Duda essentially pocket vetoed their appointments and waited for the next parliamentary election, after which PiS approved five of their preferred justices, and Duda quickly swore them in.

As an added insult, the PiS government will not publish or adhere to any decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal it finds onerous or limiting to their power and policies. With PiS effectively taking control of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, the EU was prompted to express its deep concerns over the rule of law in Poland[2].

Then came the above mentioned Czarny Protest, which galvanized women in over 140 cities in Poland to come out in opposition against the abortion ban, a ban which was supported by both the conservative government and the Catholic Church.

Additional protests were sparked when PiS proposed a bill that enabled the ruling government to appoint the head of public media broadcasters; it was signed into law by President Duda in January 2016[3]. This issue is linked to the reduction in members of the press able to attend parliamentary sessions, which caused late-night demonstrations outside of the Sejm (the Lower House of the Polish Parliament) eventually convincing the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to waive the restrictions. However, tensions over the subject still persist.

This matter of media autonomy proved to be a central one for the student protesters. Seen as a valuable platform through which to discuss issues of public relevance, the students have become concerned about the language used by the media outlets and the government itself, which , according to Ms. Michalska and Ms. Wisniowska respectively. The most feared outcome is the fostering of an authoritarian society through the misuse of mass media, disinformation and speeches of hateful rhetoric.

Ms. Michalska spoke on this topic. “We are not so optimistic about the changes in Poland. We would like to start a public debate about our issues. We have the support of the academic world, which should join the discussion, despite the government’s opposition.”

Marek Pawelek, from the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the Jagellonian University, said: “I think the main reason for this protest right now is the language used by the government. Even in a cosmopolitan city like Krakow you can feel the aggression. People are wearing T-shirts with nationalist slogans, and they think they are allowed to do it because of the government’s attitude.”

“We don’t want a divided society, and we want to discuss problems and be able to do so in a tolerant way,” Ms. Wisniowska added.

With similar scenarios being experienced by neighbouring countries, many believe that Central Europe is risking a march toward oligarchic governments where only the powerful elite will decide the fate of the masses. As the situation in Poland unfolds, only time and the persistence of voices, many of them from minority causes, will determine the future of this still developing democracy.

[1] http://www.wral.com/poland-s-media-meet-unexpected-limitations-in-parliament/16470245/

[2] http://www.vox.com/2016/6/1/11823742/poland-constitutional-crisis

[3] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35257105

Antonio Scancariello holds an MA in journalism from De Montfort University, UK.