KOD plays in Kaczynski’s favour
KOD’s faults start with its leader, Mateusz Kijowski. Jarosław Kaczyński could have hardly imagined a better rival. The life history of the leader of “democracy defenders” is essentially non-descript.
On the surface, it would be seem that the opposition is more united than ever before. Its members are marching in protests together; its leaders walk arm in arm and appear at press conferences with smiles on their faces; they speak with one voice. You could say they are creating a Front of National Unity against Law and Justice. That is by the way in line with Mateusz Kijowski’s plan, the leader of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), who made the following appeal: “the Committee for the Defence of Democracy is open to everybody—political parties, organisations, representatives of democracy advocacy groups—let’s establish a Freedom, Equality and Democracy coalition. The nation expects us to defend it. Let’s rally around what unites us.” Except that of these protesters have nothing in common apart from fighting the Law and Justice (PiS) party. They represent different generations, traditions, and backgrounds and they have different agendas. Driving them all to march together deprives the opposition of a possibility to develop specific political programmes. Such programmes would reveal political, economic and social differences within their ranks. And KOD-ers are not interested in a programme but in removing PiS from office. That’s an end in itself. The rest doesn’t matter.
This sort of opponent is perfect for PiS. With no ideas or agenda which could attract big groups of voters, it fulfils the role of a troublemaker who is rushing to the defence of compromised elites whose tête-à-têtes were taped at the Sowa i Przyjaciele restaurant. So it’s in the interest of PiS to keep KOD alive as long as possible. The longer Mateusz Kijowski will influence the opposition, the longer Jarosław Kaczyński may rest assured about retaining power.
Man without a history
KOD’s faults start with its leader, Mateusz Kijowski. Jarosław Kaczyński could have hardly imagined a better rival. The life history of the leader of “democracy defenders” is essentially non-descript. As a matter of fact, he’s a man from nowhere who for no clear reason became an opposition figure. He’s not the man of the people type who can rally the crowds, because he often resorts to reading his remarks from a piece of paper. He’s not the epitome of success with any concrete achievements to his name. He’s not a wealthy man who could say, as Janusz Palikot once did, that having made a fortune he can now go into politics. He doesn’t have a coherent state vision that would realise KOD-ers’ dreams, either. “We’re not going to propose any political choices; in our debate we’re just sticking to four guiding values: democratic rule of law, ethical politics, freedom and civic society, respect for science and the role of culture and arts. Around these four values, we’re going to build a universal programme incorporating diverse political views,” he wrote for NaTemat.pl three months ago. Such sentences could be regarded not so much as an opposition leader’s programme as reflections of a superannuated hippie.
It is therefore surprising that a person with such an acute lack of leadership should be able to discipline the leaders of parliamentary parties. That evidently speaks of their weakness and confusion over how to take on PiS. What’s more, an attempt at breaking ranks with KOD by the Civic Platform (PO) party’s leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, has met with strong resistance within his party. Many PO members have reckoned that staying out of KOD marches would steal PO of the remaining support and deprive them of an important position in the anti-PiS front. Schetyna already seems to understand that KOD is a project doomed to failure, focusing as it does only on denying the current government. There is an obvious personal issue involved: the presence of Władysław Frasyniuk doesn’t bode well for the PO leader. The two politicians from Wroclaw harbour dislike for each other that dates back to the times of the Freedom Union party.
Embarassed to be a KOD-er
The involvement of such Third Polish Republic authorities as Bronisław Komorowski, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Agnieszka Holland or Jan Tomasz Gross in KOD demonstrations has made the movement look less credible in the eyes of many voters. In 2015, Poles voted the previous administration out of office not because they valued its opinion so much. PO and the artists and celebrities who supported it rather came to stand for ineptitude, double-dealing and nihilism. If the same personalities who got a red card last year appear at the marches of “defenders of democracy”, you can’t help but have the impression that what they really mean is not democracy but the lost appendages of power. So these are the protests of the frustrated rather than the “indignant”.
Besides, KOD hasn’t come up with any symbolism that an ordinary individual, not particularly up-to-date on current politics, could relate to. PiS for years has been building its identity around the legacy of the Home Army, Warsaw Uprising, the doomed soldiers, Katyn, and later Smolensk. Thus Kaczyński’s party became attractive to all those who value steadfastness, uncompromising nature and independence as traits in Poland’s history. Such values are hard to question in the symbolic domain.
KOD doesn’t invoke any traditions. Slogans that flash up at its rallies may well be rebellious, but they carry no deeper message. After all, no one can treat seriously such words as “Kaczynskism is as bad as fascism” or “Away with the Drake Dictator.”
Young people were quick to spot the insincerity of the movement, and have no illusions about KOD on web discussion forums. A plethora of memes that mock up the “defenders of democracy”—for instance, one with the Constitutional Tribunal President, Andrzej Rzepliński, who says: “I decree: paying alimony violates the constitution” (an obvious dig at Kijowski, who is in arrears on his child support payments)—reflects the lost battle of aesthetics. Or: “Dad in ORMO, son in KOD, democracy always in vogue.” When these two identities clash, KOD doesn’t stand a chance. And it must lose, because it doesn’t represent any tradition. Its activists are not being provocative and ironic, as the Orange Alternative once was, or rebelling against everybody, like the Together Party.
But, most importantly, the identities of individual opposition parties blend with KOD. The Nowoczesna party has ceased to be lemmings’ hope, because its leader is increasingly seen in the company of pensioners with banners that ridicule Kaczyński. This process of Ryszard Petru’s party dissolving in KOD has already had an impact on voter support. A recent poll gives Nowoczesna the same number of votes as Paweł Kukiz’s party, although until recently it was soaring high with over 20% support.
The involvement of the Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) in KOD rallies is even more difficult to understand. Their rural and small-town electorate have nothing in common with the “defenders of democracy.” For them, they’re a bunch of apparatchiks and hysterical eggheads who have been stripped of the benefits of power; and no decent farmer would like to welcome to his farmyard a guy looking like Mateusz Kijowski. The alliance between the Peasants and Kijowski is equally exotic and suicidal. Admittedly, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz is trying to backpedal on his involvement in KOD and that’s why he’s put forward his own proposal to settle the dispute over the Constitutional Tribunal, but it’s getting late. PiS is reaping benefits from the introduction of the 500 plus programme, which will be mostly felt by village and town residents, as the wages are lowest there. PSL members have got bogged down in the marches, and if they stop marching, they will be branded as traitors by the KOD-ers.
Delegitimization of the Third Republic
KOD’s disintegrative influence on the opposition is very apparent in the clash between the protests and the current government’s social and economic programmes. Exceptionally smooth implementation of the 500 plus programme and, what’s more, in cooperation with private banks, has shown that unlike the previous government, PiS really wants to raise the living standards in Poland. To what extent this can be done through redistribution, is) an altogether different issue. These days, though, cash is flowing in to the citizens. It’s debatable whether the “Home plus” programme will be introduced during the course of this parliament, and whether Mateusz Morawiecki, the deputy prime minister, is really going to make life easier for businesses, but carrying the 500 plus through gives voters hope that also these promises might be fulfilled. Should that happen, it would mean, as Kaczyński calls it, overcoming the defeatist approach of public authorities, or the inability of governments to carry out big reforms that improve the quality of life for the citizens and governance. If it happens, the myth of the Third Republic as Poland’s golden age will burst like a bubble. The elites of that time kept telling the public that the state couldn’t afford big-scale social programmes, and that the state was under no obligations towards them. Upending these rules could have two results. Either PiS takes us steady downhill to bankruptcy and we’ll soon start to have problems as in Greece, or it will be made apparent that Third Republic elites did a poor job of governing.
With the child benefit of PLN 500 in hand, many will be more inclined to lean towards the latter. In these circumstances, KOD marches attempt to defend what is indefensible. For if democracy under the Third Republic was tantamount to ineptitude at managing public money, the public will prefer the Fourth Republic. So, also on this count the dividing line plays in Kaczynski’s favour.
If the opposition parties were competing with PiS in terms of programmes, PO’s experts would be most surely busy working on a new liberalisation package for businesses. They would be holding Mateusz Morawiecki to account for his declarations and introducing their own ideas of how to boost Poland’s economic innovation. To sustain its support and credibility, the Nowoczesna party would have to engage young academics to prepare administrative reforms and measures to simplify the taxes, which would help businesses cut their costs on law firms, tax consultants and accountancy firms.
Invariably, new solutions come to life because of competition on the political market. Wooing voters, parties must constantly adapt to the ever emerging social needs. Only by doing so can they address voters’ expectations. KOD has effectively stifled this competition, losing ground to PiS as regards the programmes. Kijowski has been very successful in clearing the political scene for Kaczyński of competitors who might offer an alternative to the current government.
When seen from this angle, KOD’s existence in its present shape is a boon to PiS. The governing party will therefore do everything it can for Mateusz Kijowski to keep on marching and inviting opposition leaders to the rallies. The more of them that come, the less threat they will pose. Unfortunately, that doesn’t spell an end to the Constitutional Tribunal controversy any time soon, just because it has been keeping KOD alive.