Democracy is highly demanding

Dr. Barbara Fedyszak-Radziejowska, a sociologist, advisor to the Polish President and former Chair of the IPN Council speaks to Do Rzeczy’s Kamilla Baranowska.

KAMILA BARANOWSKA: During the party convention of Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform, PO) Grzegorz Schetyna promised that when his party returns to power, it will close down the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) and the Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA). What is your opinion about this idea?

DR BARBARA FEDYSZAK-RADZIEJOWSKA: One could hardly ask for a clearer message about the state of mind and the real intentions of PO politicians. The plan to shut down the IPN and CBA is the greatest proof of the commitment of PO politicians to the non-controlled model of government. Both IPN and CBA are new institutions, established by the democratic Republic of Poland, whose role it is to exercise control over widely-understood “power”. Both of them were established despite the opposition of the elites, by way of popular social support.

The polls conducted in the 1990s showed a clear difference between the elites – the political parties ranging from SLD to UW that were against opening the archives from the times of the Communist regime and the citizens, the overwhelming majority of whom demanded that this indeed takes place. AWS was the first political party that promised to open the archives. Support by voters was high enough for AWS politicians to hold enough political power to fulfil their promise. IPN not only verified the credibility of politicians referring to their “opposition mandate”, but it also strengthened the democratic mechanisms by reminding in their research and publications about the high price paid by society for the authoritarian rule, exercised outside any civic or democratic control, and if PO says that they want to shut down IPN, it explicitly and openly says that the model of a leading role of one mono-party is what it really wants. The PO politicians seemed to be saying: “We want to take the power from those ‘not authorized’ to hold it and rule outside the democratic control mechanisms”. The CBA is the second institution due to be “terminated”, which, like IPN, was established in response to the expectations of the society.

Research conducted by Transparency International shows that for years Polish people believed the threat of corruption in Poland to be very high. The media reported on the helplessness of the prosecution and the courts in the face of multiple corruption scandals. Voters had their say and the promised CBA became reality. This institution is tasked with controlling the ruling elites, who – in each and every state, at each and every time – have more opportunities and options to avoid the liability for breaking the law than ordinary people. Today, PO politicians openly declare that they will start their  return to power by shutting down the institutions established in the free and independent Republic of Poland, whose role it is to control those in power. It is rather sad, not funny...

PO politicians and their supporters also openly declare that after PiS is overthrown, we will need a radical “dePiSisification” in practically each and every state institution. Is this a natural course of action or is it proof of deep the division has become? Your experts cannot be our experts?

Replacing “experts” is a natural course of action in democratic systems. Rivalry between political elites also means that their base, their expert elites, their administrative, local government, and economic elites also compete against each other. The parties enter the election process with a promise that they have people behind them who will professionally and effectively implement their programme. They need to build their teams, this is completely normal. In a normal, democratic state a voter must be sure that when they vote for a programme, they also vote for the proven implementers of that programme. By voting, they select the political party, its programme, its base and elites. And this is how things are. The “dePiSification” does not sound normal, because it brings up clear associations with rat extermination (Polish: deratyzacja), denazification, decomunisation, and so on. This is clearly insinuated to voters – encouraging them to treat “dePiSisification” as an obligation to fight “the evil”. This destruction of a political rival is an obvious violation of democratic principles, and there is no other interpretation. Is the notion of “dePOfication” present in the public debate? I do not think so.

Democracy requires level-headed competition of at least two political parties whose programmes differ in terms of merits. Democracy continues as long as we have a political competition where once you win, and once you lose. This is why fair, free, and reliable election procedures are so important. And as long as we have this rotation, this change, as long as the voters have the real possibility to choose, the democratic system works and is not a façade, but it is real.

Can we say that we have equal political formations and balance towards the elites?

Not exactly. The entire structure, narration, story that the PO-PSL coalition has told over the past two terms of office was built on the protection against usurpers, meaning people that are not authorized, that dare to think that they may compete for power in democratic election in Poland.

Where does this belief come from?

I believe that we are still in the so-called “post-Communist syndrome”. It looks as if Polish politics according to PO, in the wake of the dualism of the 1990s (the division into the supporters of “Solidarność” (solidaruchy) and of communist virtues (komuchy)), would go towards the “leading role of one party” notion. It might be surprising, but at the time the balance between the Solidarność and the post-communist camps was much greater.

Greater than it is now between PO and PiS?

Yes, because both the politicians and the voters of both camps had just as strong legitimacy to rule. The sentiment of entitlement felt by the post-communist SLD party that was in power and won the election was based on the fact that former Polish Communist Party members accepted democratic rules, agreed to them, so they are the co-author of Poland’s “democratisation” process. It helped SLD voters, supporters of the Communist regime feel good, when they suffered from a shock on 04 June 1989 that the system they had supported was rejected by the Polish people.

On the other hand, there were some Solidarność voters who, after the martial law period and the 1980s trauma, were the ones to decide for the political change in the 4 June election, and they had the right to think that it was they who changed the political system. We therefore had two equal elites, filled with self-esteem, with a group of voters who were just as self-confident as they were. It might seem like a paradox, but democracy worked "better” then than it did post-2007. It was still a thoroughly post-PRL democracy, as the post-communists had an equal standing with Solidarność supporters, although – in a fully functional democratic system – they should have been out of the question.

Today, our political scene can be built free of such a burden. The main political factions draw on their Solidarność roots. However, it suddenly turns out that one of them establishes themselves as if they were to continue the PRL model, which is based on the logic that all that is needed is one, leading, partisan power, crème de la crème, the best possible option that the Polish people can dream of. And that it is the one that should be granted power and exercise it “until the end of time”. It is reminiscent of the “One Russia” party – after all, the motto of the last KOD manifestation was “One undivided Poland”.

Despite the lack of balance, PiS managed to win two elections in 2015. Some elite members still cannot understand how this could have happened.

If someone is deeply engrossed in the media narrative, then they might indeed be surprised, but not me. How could we assume that Polish people will voluntarily agree to the rule of one party? Yes, there are still some who believe in such a project, because they put in a lot of effort to make it come true; many insulting phrases had been said, voters supporting the competitor for power had been marginalised and insulted. When we read through the recent book by Jarosław Kaczyński, “Przeciw monowładzy” (“Against mono-power”) we might get the impression that even the politicians representing Porozumienie Centrum (Central Alliance) did not believe in the success of their own party. The process of building an alternative for the rule of the Round Table elite was extremely difficult. Establishing a competitive political formation and surviving on the political scene required resilience. However, in a society that gave rise to Solidarność, politicians wishing to build an alternative faction had the moral duty to survive. And I am not going to cry over those who believed that the “one party” governing model is possible in Poland and that it may be strengthened by manipulating voters.

Which does not change the fact that the manipulation was effective for quite some time.

I believe that the reason why this method was effective is because a lot of important issues were omitted in the public debate. Very little place was devoted to democracy; that is, to understanding how difficult and demanding it is to build a democratic system, to build democratic institutions and mechanisms. Democracy is an extremely demanding political system, much more difficult than all authoritarian forms of government, as it imposes a lot of requirements both on the political elites and on the voters. The elites must remember that they will lose power and that another set of people will come after them and verify whether they were fair in their governance. The voters must read the programmes of parties, keep an eye on political life, be interested in them, assess the politicians and they must not treat the results of the election as a lottery or a casting show for beautiful women and handsome men.

Unfortunately, we know that this is not how it really works.

And it is no wonder. Have we been building civic awareness of democracy and its mechanisms for the past 27 years? How much effort does the education system, e.g. in the USA, make so that local governments, the social activism, civic attitudes, democracy, competition, are strengthened at the school level, when the elementary attitudes of a conscious citizen are being shaped? And in Poland, we learn how many councillors there are in a municipality or in a poviat. We memorise, instead of understanding mechanisms. And this is how it simply had to be, unfortunately.

That is why a large part of the society believed Donald Tusk at one point that perhaps we should stop dealing with politics? “Let’s not make politics, let’s build stadiums” – that was PO’s motto.

Well, if a young, handsome, charming person, with roots in the Solidarność movement, surrounded by people who also have roots in the Solidarność movement, appears on the political stage, it is easier for them to create a narrative that allows citizens to take a rest. They do not have to read, be interested, pay a subscription fee.

This is where not only a weakness of democracy comes to life, in this we can also see the longing of the elites for the monopoly of power. Maybe it is the natural dream of power, to “beat” all of them once and for all, and rule “until the end of time”?

And when it turns out that it failed, there is hysteria and threats of dictatorship, comparing Kaczyński with Putin, and calling for a revolution.

When the belief takes root that we are “the only right elite” that should govern Poland, the victory of a political rival is often perceived as an absolute threat to the country, the beginning of an end to the world as we know it. This is not about emotions, this is about social mechanisms. And the social mechanisms indicate that, if PO supporters believe that they are the only ones who are right, that they are the only elite, and that PiS, from their perspective, is a threat, the faster it is possible to overthrow PiS, the greater the chance to return to how things used to be.

PO and Nowoczesna politicians know that PiS might convince voters during their four years in power that this is what democracy is about, that you implement the programme that was promised during the election, that the new elite, contrary to the threats being made, is doing quite well. From the viewpoint of the political social technique, the attempt – seemingly desperate and emotional – to not only discredit those in power but also do everything to overthrow them before the end of their term of office, is understandable. We need to remember that it was successful once, in 2005-2007.

From the viewpoint of transforming the social and political reality and verifying new elites, is one term of office enough?

The key to building democracy is to convince voters and all citizens that make up our society that alternative political parties that gain power and serve interchangeably, according to their programme and the election results, are a value in and of itself. If the rule of PiS resolves a few social problems, problems with foreign politics or commercial politics, this will be a huge step forward in building democracy.

It will also turn out that this party can also rule for full four years and for one, nothing bad happens, and a few issues might be resolved in a positive way. If a school of democracy has tiers, we might finally graduate from being a junior high school, and with continued learning, we might be admitted to the last class of senior high school. This change would not be discredited or ignored.

After one year of being in power, the challenge that PiS often faces is that the new elites are incompetent. In particular with regards to the appointment of those managing state institutions and companies, we clearly see that the bench is pretty short.

In order for a person to be recognized as a professional director, who is capable of successfully managing an institution, they must first be appointed to the position of director. If PiS is to have a bench they can select people from, they must first sieve through a whole mass of people to see who are fit and who are not, and have a ready and proven team of people. Voters observe this process carefully and assess it at the next election. Four years is not a long period, but considering the pressure the new elites are under while acting and gaining new experiences, the pressure exerted by the artistic circles, the scientific environments, the judges, please note how many social circles are today engaged in building an image that only one elite should rule – and this might bring beneficial results. I myself can stand my ground in such difficult and unfavourable conditions, and this is the situation that PiS found itself in, they can always stand their ground, including in critical situations.

Do Rzeczy Source: Do Rzeczy