Interview with Mateusz Kijowski: ‘Poland is no longer a democracy’

28 October 2016
VoxEurop

Mateusz Kijowski during a demonstration in Warsaw, 13 March 2016.
Mateusz Kijowski during a demonstration in Warsaw, 13 March 2016.

Since it came into power, the Law and Justice party has been slowly eroding the rule of law, says activist and president of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy Mateusz Kijowski. Last month he led anti-government and pro-European demonstrations in Poland and was recently awarded the European citizen's prize by the European Parliament.

VoxEurop : How did the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) come into being?

Mateusz Kijowski : By chance, although there was an obvious need for it. [Opponent of the then Communist regime] Krzysztof Łoziński wrote the article “We need to found a Committee for the Defence of Democracy” in reference to the Committee for the Defence of Workers (CDW) that was founded in 1976. The next day, I shared it on Facebook, and my post created a buzz. When Danuta, the wife of Jacek Kuroń – one of CDW’s founders – “liked” it, I created a group to discuss the themes evoked in the article.

The article stated that we were in a difficult situation, akin to the 70s, and that fundamental values were under threat. Action was needed, like in the days of the CDW – in a transparent way that showed firm opposition. The author had identified three action points – surveillance of leaders and protests; public awareness, and aid for those impacted by the “change for the better” announced by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) when it came to power.

Then what happened ?

Within three days, 30,000 people joined the Facebook group. They wanted to form an organisation and demanded that we take to the streets and take action in the real world. Several business people offered to help with free flyers and transportation. On 3 December, we organised our first protest in front of the constitutional tribunal. Nine days later we organised an historic march that brought together all opposition parties – the three represented in parliament and all the leftist movements that hadn’t passed the electoral threshold for representation.

We were expecting a couple of thousand but in the end 70 000 protesters showed up. We were all surprised. And that is how it all started.

Who are your sympathisers and which media cover your updates?

Our sympathisers are ordinary citizens. The mainstream media were straightaway interested in what we were doing. It was unusual to attract so many members so fast, and we have social media to thank for it. For each event created on Facebook, normally only 10% of the people who sign up actually show up. It was the opposite for our events. It was really something. The protests reached proportions that were out of the ordinary. The second big protest was held on 19 December in over twenty cities in Poland. And the one after that, which focussed on defending free press, took place on 9 January.

What is next for the KOD?

Right now we are creating structures and institutions to support them. These will make the movement more efficient. Events are good to start with, but we need to think long-term now. That is why we created an association. We now have media support from the news channel koduj24.pl, for example, and from the whistleblowing website oko.press.

Is the treat to Polish democracy real, and if so why?

In fact, Poland is no longer a democracy. The laws passed by the majority in parliament have already stripped us of some of our civic rights. Surveillance of citizens is already possible without a court order. The political system already controls the judiciary. Party officials are dismantling public services. Under the new law on farmland real estate, property rights are no longer a given. In fact, farmers are permitted to sell their land to hardly anybody anymore. As as consequence, they can't get credit because they can't mortgage their land, as they are not technically the owners.

New tools paving the way to a totalitarian state have been created. On the one hard, we can be thankful that we have no political prisoners and people don't shoot each other in the streets, but on the other hand, civic rights depend on the will of public servants and politicians, not on legal rights enshrined by the Constitution.

Do you feel that the voice of the KOD is being heard in Europe?

I talk quite often to European media and leaders, as well as to those from beyond, in particular in the U.S. and Japan. Through my contacts with foreign politicians, I know that they are aware of the situation in Poland. EU representatives have told us that our protests were impressive. Such attention is very dear to our hearts because we rely on the support of our European friends. Notwithstanding the Polish government's desire to put up a wall between the European Union and European citizens, we have common values, rules, and goals.

Do Poles really share the same values as Europeans? Aren't the 2015 elections a demonstration of how they are more conservative?

The fundamentals of this society haven't really changed. People just got fed up with the former government [the Civic Platform (PO) 2007-2015], and started saying that something had to change. The opposition and people who wanted to take advantage of the sour mood polluted the atmosphere. Despite the circumstances, Poles remain very pro-European. European values resonate with them. According to polls, 80% of all Poles are in favour of staying in the European Union. No other Member State can boast as high an approval rate.

So, how can you explain the PiS electoral victory?

The PiS didn't win the vote: other political movements lost it. There was no conservative tipping point all of a sudden. Only 18 percent of all registered voters cast a ballot for them, that is 37 percent of the actual voter turnout. PiS reached an absolute majority due to a number of other factors. Voters could choose between two Left lists that failed to reach the threshold (5 percent for parties, 8 percent for coalitions), even though between them they had 10 percent of the vote. If they'd joined forces, they'd have have a couple of dozen seats, and the PiS wouldn't have had a majority and would have been forced to form a coalition.

What should Poland's role be in Europe today?

Poland is one of the biggest countries in the European Union and it will be the 5th by population after the UK leaves. Its role should match its demographics. The most important thing though is its mission, not its rights. Our commitment to European integration should be contagious in a way that other nations would build the European community with enthusiasm and defending its values.

Especially those like openness, tolerance, acceptance of multiculturalism, and cooperation based on a common market and capital. Deeper integration is in my opinion the way to go.

Should Poland take action through the Visegrád group?

I don't think the Visegrád group is relevant in this context. Jarosław Kaczyński the current President of PiS, and Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, have agreed to stick together come what may, but the Slovaks and Czechs have distanced themselves. We've parted ways. Moreover, I should stress that, while the Hungarian government is very popular, the PiS could very well lose its power rapidly. Kaczyński and Orbán's collaboration could easily be cut short. I am convinced that Poland will come around and that the Visegrád group partners will welcome us back, with even stronger ties to provide mutual support within our region.

What should be Poland's position on refugees?

The government's current policy is unfathomable if not scandalous. Part of being a member of the European Union means resolving common problems together. Some believe that it is Greece and Italy's problem, but that is not true. Suppose hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees flooded Poland? Would we want the EU to tell us that it is our problem? Of course not! We'd need to solve it together.

How can we change public opinion in Poland?

I believe that Poland must invest in civic education. Many citizens have a negative attitude towards refugees out of ignorance. The party in power went to great lengths to grow their fears. They have a xenophobic approach. Kaczyński even declared that refugees carry bacteria that they are immune to and that are lethal for us. Such nonsense! In addition, Poles need to understand that fleeing one's homeland is no picnic. Refugees have left their countries because they had no choice. It is worth it to help resolve conflicts by taking action at an international level. We need to find a way to help before they leave their homeland. But if they really have to come, we must take care of them. We need to realize that there are going to be many more waves of migration, if not just due to climate change. If we take swift action, we can do a better job welcoming them.

Translated by Rita Smith-Lemaire

This article is published in association with Alternatives économiques.

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