Are Protests Effective?

Yesterday I was asked by Agnieszka Lichnerowicz, a journalist at TOK-FM radio, to identify the most important thing I’ve learned while living in Poland over this tumultuous past year. My answer probably seemed counterintuitive given the events of last week: I said that I have become disillusioned about the power of street protests to influence politics.

The demonstrations in recent days have certainly been impressive. On July 20, the street in front of the Presidential Palace was entirely filled, as far as the eye could see. According to the city government (which supports the opposition), there were 50,000 people; according to the police (controlled by the national government) there were 14,000. That’s just Warsaw: protests were held in every major Polish city, and quite a few smaller towns as well. These crowds were similar to those that gathered in response to last October’s attempt to tighten Poland’s anti-abortion laws. I’ve described on this blog several of the other demonstrations that have taken place over the past year, all of which were fervent and inspiring.

So why have I grown skeptical? First, although the TV footage from last week is striking, let’s keep things in perspective. Out of 1.7 million Varsovians, fewer than 3% could be bothered to come downtown on a lovely summer evening to declare their support for an independent judiciary at a moment of genuine crisis. If we set all the protests across the country alongside the population of Poland (about 38 million), the percentage is even more dismal. Given this, it is hard to conclude that the government is facing any sort of popular insurrection.

Perhaps President Duda looked out his window and was intimidated by the size of the crowd, but there’s no evidence to suggest this. He is certainly aware of the broader opinion surveys, and these have hardly budged an inch. The useful website ewybory maintains a running monthly average for all the major polling firms, and currently the balance looks like this:

Here’s what we get if we divide these parties into those who generally support PiS, and those who oppose them:

And finally, this is what remains if we discard the undecideds, along with those parties currently below the 5% threshold needed to get any parliamentary seats.

These figures do not take into account the events of the past week, but I doubt the overall picture will change significantly. Or rather: it might change a little bit, and that might be enough to place PiS a few points below what they need to maintain control in a hypothetical snap election. That is indeed significant politically, but it doesn’t imply any sort of tectonic shift in Polish society.

The tragedy is that the Polish public is divided right down the middle, give or take a couple percentage points. Because of the nature of today’s media environment, it is extraordinarily difficult to nudge the balance in either direction, in the absence of a crisis severe enough to be impervious to spin or falsification.

In recent days, commentators and politicians have been arguing about what needs to be done to win people over to the democratic cause. How can Poles be mobilized to oppose the PiS government? Even more important, how can they be persuaded to give their positive support to this or that political alternative? How can the energy of last week’s demonstrations be harnessed, and transformed into a unified force that will topple PiS from power?

This entire debate misses the point, because it’s based on the assumption that Polish public opinion is susceptible to significant swings. That belief, in turn, is grounded in a misreading of recent history. Over the past twenty years, several parties have risen from negligible support to eventually take power, or fallen from great popularity to ignominy. Just consider the make-up of the Sejm since 1989.

This would seem to suggest that massive re-orientations are possible, but just beneath all this turmoil there has always been more consistency than met the eye. The single biggest factor in determining the make-up of the parliament after every election has been 1) which parties make the 5% cut, and which do not; 2) which parties mobilize their voters to actually cast ballots. For a reminder of how much this can change the political landscape, let’s recall the (admittedly extreme) example of the elections of 1993


Or a more recent example: a trivial addition of about 65,000 votes for SLD in the 2015 elections would have altered the configuration of the current sejm, either forcing PiS into a coalition or depriving them of power altogether. In other words, huge differences in the political landscape come because of tiny shifts the electorate, and party organization and mobilization are vastly more important than formulating the right message in order to persuade voters. There just aren’t many voters who are truly open to persuasion, except perhaps between different parties of similar ideological profiles.

Jarosław Kaczyński understands this very well, and because he doesn’t believe in liberal democracy anyway, he can thrive under these circumstances. His opponents—particularly the many people who protested last week while expressing their contempt for back-room partisan politics—believe that they are engaged in a public debate in which the side with the best message will win. So they express their views with placards, magazine articles, marches, reasoned arguments, and vuvuzelas, while Kaczyński does whatever he wants to do.

President Duda’s veto highlighted a cruel truth about the present moment in Polish politics: PiS’s attempt to centralize power and neutralize the opposition will only come to an end when enough politicians on the right decide to end it. Public demonstrations are extremely unlikely to influence such people. Of course we have examples of protests that toppled authoritarian governments. The Maidan Revolution in Ukraine is usually cited, as is the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. But both of those were incomparably larger than anything the anti-PiS forces have mobilized or are likely to mobilize. For that approach to work, it is necessary to gather enough protesters to bring ordinary life to a standstill, and to sustain that level of disruption for days or weeks. In the absence of economic collapse, it is almost impossible to imagine such a thing in Poland today.

The only realistic hope for the democratic opposition in Poland, I fear, is that the PiS government will break up from within. That’s why I’m a little bit more optimistic now than I was two weeks ago. The most plausible explanation for Duda’s veto is that he was upset over the fact that he was ignored during the drafting of the legislation, and that he feared the consolidation of power in the hands of his rival, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro. There are also rumors that some within the Catholic hierarchy are starting to grow uneasy, particularly after the Vatican’s media outlets criticized PiS’s assault on judicial independence. It is also possible that the President is concerned about a different electoral math than Kaczyński: while a minority party can gain a parliamentary majority, the presidential elections have a run-off that requires an actual majority. None of this supports viewing Duda’s veto as a reaction to the protests. After all, while he vetoed the worst of last week’s legislation regarding the appellate courts and the supreme court, he nonetheless signed a horrible bill that establishes political oversight of lower-court judges. Polish democracy is still on life-support, and Kaczyński’s authority has only been lightly dented.

Nonetheless, we now know that PiS is less monolithic than it appeared. With the façade of unquestioning internal obedience shattered, some of the previously concealed infighting might become more evident. Everything would then become more difficult for Mr. Kaczyński, and in the best-case scenario we might be back to where we were in 2005 and 2006, when PiS had to manage an unpredictable coalition.

What can the liberal and leftist opposition do to encourage this process? Honestly—not much. Maybe nothing at all. Protests might be important in building a foundation of activists who can help mobilize voters in the next round of elections, but that requires a more hard-headed form of long-term political organizing, the sort that prepares door-to-door get-out-the-vote work in the years to come. But insofar as protesters place themselves above partisan politics, and insofar as they only want to save democracy in the abstract, they aren’t going to achieve much. All those who think they are fighting a battle of persuasion within a malleable demos face a major disappointment.


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