Another weekend, another protest march in Warsaw…. This one wasn’t as large as some of the others that have made headlines since PiS took power in 2015, but it represented an issue that could become extraordinarily important. Even as Jarosław Kaczyński’s authoritarian rule has grown stronger, even as one public institution after another has fallen, even as the judiciary has lost the ability to protect the constitution—even through all this, Poland’s cities have retained a vibrant public sphere thanks to the ability of city councils and mayors (called “city presidents” here) to circumvent the heavy hand of the central government. Nowhere is this more evident than Warsaw, where anti-government demonstrations are held with the blessing of the city administration. This is a vital line of defense for those who continue to believe in liberal democracy, which is precisely why it is now under threat.
Last week a parliamentary delegate from PiS introduced a piece of legislation that would transform Warsaw into a massive urban agglomeration, linking the city with dozens of towns and villages in the surrounding countryside. This didn’t come directly from the government, because according to parliamentary rules a formal government proposal must go through a process of committee hearings and public comment. A law proposed by an ordinary parliamentary delegate can move quickly to a vote without any of these delays. If anyone knows why such a strange loophole even exists, please tell me. Regardless, there is very little the anti-PiS opposition can do to block this law.
The rationale behind the legislation is transparent, though of course its author denies it. As the proposal currently stands, the new metropol would have a governing council with representative elected by district, so that a massive downtown neighborhood with hundreds of thousands of residents would have the same number of votes as a farming village beyond the current city boundaries. Since PiS controls most of the rural areas, this would allow them to take over Warsaw. It would be as if, in the United States, Montana had the same number of senators as California. Oh, wait…. Anyway, this is the only way PiS will ever take over Warsaw, and even this strategy only works if the boundaries are pushed far, far beyond anything that looks like an urban space. The law would make Warsaw the largest city by land area in Europe, five times larger than Paris.
The city council of Warsaw immediately announced a referendum, scheduled for March 26. Presumably the residents of the city will vote overwhelmingly against the reform. Even setting aside the antidemocratic nature of the law, there will be major consequences that will shape the city’s future. Opponents have noted that the longstanding complaint of the small towns and suburbs around the city has been the lack of adequate downtown parking or good limited-access highways into the city center. The city residents, however, tend to favor improved public transport, less downtown traffic, and cleaner air. The battle is being described as parks vs. parking lots.
This was the issue behind the protest last Saturday. The signs reflected the ironic, referential sense of humor typical of Varsovians (see the pictures below). For example, one placard read “San Escobar demands annexation to Warsaw” (if you don’t get the joke, click here) and another said “We demand Warsaw from Sea to Sea, with Madagascar included” (referring to the description of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic as stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and also to the bizarre demand of pre-WWII antisemites that Jews be deported to Madagascar). Another poster was a copy of a poster from the early 1950s labeled “The Great Architect of the New Warsaw,” but with Kaczyński’s face inserted where Stalin’s had been. My favorite was a cardboard copy of the landmark from Warsaw’s palace square, the so-called Zygmunt Column. The original has on top the figure of the king who moved the capital from Kraków to Warsaw, but this version had an inflatable duck with the label “Jarosław III Żoliborski,” a play on the famous Polish king, Jan III Sobieski. Kaczyński’s name has led to lots of duck jokes (kaczka=duck), and this one added a reminder that he comes from the prestigious intelligentsia neighborhood of Żoliborz, which is ironic given his longstanding populist tirade against the “elites” of Warsaw.
Will this sort of demonstration accomplish anything? Probably not. The humor will have the same impact as a Saturday Night Live skit: the liberal audience will be thrilled, but the people who support the government won’t appreciate the jokes, which will feel like insulting taunts to them. But in a way, that misses the point. PiS has all the power right now, and the only constraint they face is the risk of a wave of protests so massive that they disrupt the functioning of the state—something on the order of Maidan in Ukraine, Tahrir Square in Egypt, or (more relevantly) the Solidarity movement right here in Poland. That’s extraordinarily unlikely, to put it mildly.
But that doesn’t mean that protests are irrelevant, or that the upcoming referendum in Warsaw (which won’t block the legislation) is pointless. The democratic oppositions in Poland or in the United States can’t realistically stop Kaczyński or Trump. Only a revolt within PiS or the Republicans could do that. But the opposition can, and must, work to maintain a strong sense of civic engagement and democratic activism, because the alternative is cynicism, hopelessness, passivity, and atomization. If those attitudes spread, rebuilding a democratic culture after Kaczyński and Trump fall (as they must, eventually) will be extremely difficult.
This struggle won’t end any time soon. Those who believe in liberal democracy have to focus on the long term, and be prepared to persist even if success remains years away. Demonstrations like the one in Warsaw last Saturday are a key part of that strategy.