Shaking Up Politics

Most countries in East-Central Europe have seen the development of two main parties, one liberal and one conservative. In some cases, the former Communist parties – like the Bulgarian Socialist Party – have occupied the liberal position. In other cases, former liberal parties – like Fidesz in Hungary – have moved across the political spectrum to secure the conservative position. In Romania and Bulgaria, ethnic-based parties have managed to carve out influential roles as third parties. Right-wing nationalist parties, like Jobbik in Hungary, have achieved a similar result.

In Poland, the former Solidarity bloc has split into two main parties: the centrist Civic Platform (PO) and the more conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS). The former Communist party, Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), continues to poll around 10 percent.

It’s not easy for new parties to gain a foothold in Poland. First they have to jump over the hurdles of party registration. Then they have to clear 5 percent of the vote to get into parliament. In 2011, the Palikot movement surprised everyone by catapulting into parliament with 10 percent of the vote. The movement was named after Janusz Palikot, who broke with the Civic Platform to create his own party. A maverick politician, he championed libertarian positions in favor of legalizing marijanua, supporting LGBT rights, and reducing the influence of the Church in the secular sphere.

Long-time feminist activist Wanda Nowicka ran on the Palikot ticket in 2011 and won a seat in parliament. “For me at that time, the Palikot movement was not a very serious political initiative,” she told me in an intervew in her Sejm office in August 2013. “In a way I thought it would be a long shot on my part to try with them, given their low respect in society. Then I thought about it longer. I consulted with some people whose opinion I valued, and they convinced me to try. I didn’t have any conviction that I would win. But running for parliament is always an opportunity to speak about issues you care about.”

Palikot attracted the attention of voters as much for its methods as its positions. He promised, for instance, to smoke a joint inside parliament to support his campaign to legalize marijuana. He produced a pig’s head during a TV interview to protest corruption in sports.

“If you want to be a well-established party using moderate methods of acting, you have no chance against those that are longer established and have solid foundations and structures. They will eat you,” Nowicka continued. “And the way to show that you are different, in most cases, is by using different methods rather than offering different messages. On some issues you can make a difference – for instance, on sexual and reproductive rights, decriminalization of marijuana, Church-state issues. This is what the Palikot movement contributed to the debate, that’s for sure. But if society decides that you are using too drastic methods, at some point you lose your credibility to make a difference.”

When we talked in August 2013, Nowicka had been embroiled in a dispute with Janusz Palikot that had alienated her from the movement. Since that time, however, the Palikot movement changed its name and Nowicka changed her mind.

“Despite making efforts to reform, such as changing its name to Your Movement (YM), the party  is not doing well,” she informed in an email update. “It has lost two elections – to the European Parliament and local  governments. Many MPs left the party. Currently, there are 16 MPs of YM plus myself. In fact, I decided to reestablish my collaboration with the party after the leader apologized to me some months later and asked me to come back. However, I have not formally joined the parliamentary club.”

As before, her focus is on the issues, such as her push for greater political representation for women and increased access to abortion services and in-vitro fertilization. “For me it’s a shame that the ideas promoted by this party, about which I care a lot, are getting lost in the debate,” she added. “Now you don’t hear YM as strongly in public debate as it was before. Now again you have the established parties that have been here for ages and acting like the only spokespersons for society, which they are not. Therefore, I decided to reengage with YM in the hope that there is still a chance that the party will recover before next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.”

The mainstream politicians, she argues, are the problem, not the people. Public opinion polls favor a change in the status quo. “The problem is that society is not very active or well organized,” Nowicka concludes. “Although people here don’t like the way politicians prioritize issues as they do, they are not strong enough to elect others who would set different priorities. If they manage to do this, to get rid of this right-wing discourse, it probably wouldn’t require that much change, because the politicians would then focus on the issues that people care about. This political class wants this discourse to prevail and wants the Church to be a legitimate actor that has a say on the lay policy of state. It won’t happen immediately. Polish society doesn’t have to change its thinking. It just has to be more active politically to change the status quo.”

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I remember thinking that the impossible can come true.

 

Tell me about your decision to enter politics.

 

I’ve been in politics since the beginning of 1990s as a civil society activist, especially as a women’s rights activist. At that time I established and ran the organization Federation of Women and Family Planning. I was occasionally trying to enter politics in the 1990s. I ran several times for the Sejm and Senate and was once even elected to the regional Mazovian  government (Sejmik Mazowiecki)  for four years.

But my recent decision to try to run for parliament was not very well thought through. Actually I responded to the call of two parties. First it was SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) that wanted me on their list. But due to the fact that at the last moment they changed what they were prepared to offer me, I resigned. I was not really determined to go through with it, and it didn’t look likely. It was not my dream.

And then came another proposal from the Palikot Movement, and again I considered this for a couple weeks before deciding to accept. For me at that time, the Palikot movement was not a very serious political initiative. In a way I thought it would be a long shot on my part to try with them, given their low respect in society. Then I thought about it longer. I consulted with some people whose opinion I valued, and they convinced me to try. I didn’t have any conviction that I would win. But running for parliament is always an opportunity to speak about issues you care about. For these reasons, I decided to try again.

When I decided to run, public support for Palikot was minimal, if at all. So the chances that they might win was not an argument to run but rather an argument not to. I also thought that in a way I would be legitimatizing a movement that was not seen as very serious. To some degree, that was what happened. Probably some people would not have engaged with the Palikot movement if  myself and some others from civil society hadn’t decided to do so.

It was not a very rational decision in the sense that there were grounds for success. Rather, it was an irrational decision that turned out to be good in the end.  In a way it was also a bit of an intuitive decision.

 

The Palikot movement got about 10 percent in the 2011 elections – and that was a big surprise.

 

It was a huge surprise. When I decided to run, it was at the end of August. We did a press conference with Palikot announcing that I would be running with him. The elections were on October 9. So it was a bit more than one month before the elections. In the beginning, the support for the movement was almost none, only 2 percent. It was gradually growing. But we hoped to get 5 percent maximum. And we thought it would be good to achieve at least 3 percent so that the party would get financial support [the threshold for qualifying for state support of a political party].

 

How would you evaluate the impact of the Palikot movement and your role in it?


I think the Palikot movement played a huge role in raising important issues and in changing the political debate. But it couldn’t change the legal system – with 40 votes in parliament out of 460, you can’t make any legislation. But certain issues were introduced to the public discourse by the Palikot movement. These were the so-called issues of conscience, such as around Church and state,  LGBT rights as well as gender and women’s issues. These issues were very often laughed at by the establishment. However, they had to be taken up for debate because the support for many of those issues was significant and could not be ignored.

The Palikot movement was struggling with tactics, whether to be more radical. It chose to be more radical and very shocking in the methods of communication they used with society. At the same time, that helped the movement enter the debate. Whenever more polite methods are used, they never succeed in having impact or at least visibility. The depiction of the party as relying on scandal and using shocking methods just for shock value is to some degree justified. But this is what society got. And it allowed the Palikot movement to become an active player on the political scene.

The other impact, and probably the more important one, has been to show society that the political scene can be changed. It happened at a moment when we thought that the political scene was so petrified that no other political initiative could succeed. Our electoral system serves the purposes of big parties. There is a very high threshold for entering – 5 percent. You have to collect a lot of signatures to be legitimate and participate in the elections. That makes it almost impossible for initiatives without resources – and the new ones don’t have resources from the state – to succeed. For society the Palikot movement was a big shock, and it demonstrated that it’s possible to shake up the political scene without state resources. That caused a mental change. In a way it provides a model for other political initiatives to follow, and not just ones from one side of the political spectrum.

 

It reminds me of the Hungarian party, LMP, Politics Can Be Different. They said essentially the same thing. Politics there is petrified; there were only two major parties – Fidesz and the Socialist Party. They too wanted to prove that a new political initiative could succeed. And they won about the same percentage of votes as the Palikot movement. But people fear that LMP may disappear in the next elections. And I hear that there are similar concerns here about Palikot.

 

This is a broader problem. It’s not just Palikot movement. Also in Italy there’s the party of Beppe Grillo, and others. For the others that arose – from the Czech Republic and elsewhere – it seems that entering politics doesn’t mean staying in politics (with the exception of the Pirate Party, which might survive).

Of course, Palikot is in a very bad position. I am the last one to defend it. It made a lot of mistakes, and it continues to make them. Partly it’s because of the mistakes they have made, but it also seems that certain barriers to this kind of initiatives continue. If you want to be a well-established party using moderate methods of acting, you have no chance against those that are longer established and have solid foundations and structures. They will eat you. And the way to show that you are different, in most cases, is by using different methods rather than offering different messages. On some issues you can make a difference – for instance, on sexual and reproductive rights, decriminalization of marijuana, Church-state issues. This is what the Palikot movement contributed to the debate, that’s for sure. But if society decides that you are using too drastic methods, at some point you lose your credibility to make a difference. You can’t be only a party that talks and doesn’t show some success. It’s a vicious circle or a Catch-22 situation with such initiatives.

 

Can you give me an example of one of the important mistakes that Palikot made?

 

You are aware of my situation?

 

A little bit. But it would be helpful if you provided some background.

 

Well, that was probably the biggest mistake and the beginning of the decline — and that’s not just  my opinion but that of many others, including political analysts.

Basically, for reasons other than what was said, they decided to get rid of me by saying that I’d accepted, as deputy speaker, an end-of-year bonus from the speaker of parliament. These bonuses for speakers used to be routine. But the party made a big scandal about it, saying that everybody could take them but me. So, they wanted me to resign from the office. It didn’t matter that before we even talked about this issue in the party that I gave the money to charity. I don’t feel guilty. As I said, this is a normal official yearly payment that you receive as a certain benefit. But for some reason, as the party was claiming, the Palikot movement is pure and different, so how dare I consider doing this?

Anyway, it was clear to the majority including myself that this was a pretext. There have been other examples when the party didn’t act with such clean intentions toward its own people. It raised a lot of public debate, and there was very strong pressure on me to obey the decision of party. At the beginning, when I didn’t see any option, it was of course very painful for me. To question my morals is the worst thing that could happen. But after reflecting on my situation, I decided not to give up and not to resign. The main reason was that women’s movement stood strongly behind me and did not want me to resign.  I was even telling the party leader to please consider withdrawing the decision, that continuing the fight against me could have a detrimental impact on the party. No, Palikot wanted to move on and vote me out.

And he lost. It was a very stupid strategy. If you are a clever politician, if you want to make a move like this, you have to get others to support your call. However, it was obvious that other parties will not  suport him. Otherwise they would have to treat their speakers in the same way. For example,  if they fight with Civic Platform and with the main speaker of parliament from this party, then how can they think that others will follow their call?  As expected, Sejm did not vote me out.

As I see it now, the main reason the party wanted to get rid of me, was my effort to build a strong women’s platform in the party, which many perceived as a threat to them. And for some party members, I was seen as competition. Attacking me they lost suport of the women’s movement and their credibility as a pro-women’s rights party, since I was strongly associated with feminizing the party and the agenda.

For example, I succeeded in introducing the parity provision into the party statutes, meaning that in all elections they have to have 50/50 men and women according to the zipper method. If you have 40 electoral regions, that means that 20 will be women in the first position and 20 will be men. That was my success. Many people saw this as a threat to them because they would have to find these women and these women would take their positions. In parliament at that time, Palikot had only 5 women out of 43. It was very minimal.

Since then they started to lose a lot in opinion polls. That was the beginning of their decline. Now they’re around 3-5 percent or less. It didn’t help with other initiatives either, like engaging with Europe Plus, which also seems to be a movement that’s not well thought through.

 

I’m very interested in the parity provision. Has there been any effort to do the same thing in other parties?

 

Not really, though many parties have been saying that they are practicing it. They have better results regarding participation of women. In the case of Civic Platform (PO), it’s probably easier, since they are a big party. They can prove that they practice that by showing in the electoral list that they have a zipper system in putting men and women on the list. They have many women in parliament. But they have been very negative about introducing parity.

However, a couple months ago when I was still in the Palikot movement, I prepared a draft law on parity and the zipper method for one of the male members of parliament to introduce. We made a strategic decision to have a man introduce the law. But it’s still not considered. Not long after, PO introduced a law on zipper. They don’t want to say they are for parity, but they support the zipper for the first third of their list. In a way they are moving in this direction.

Unfortunately these draft laws are still pending in parliament and are not being finalized. Civic Platform is divided, like on many other issues, and some MPs are against this. This is one of the issues that PO started but hasn’t finished. But they submitted a draft law. Forget about PiS (Justice and Law Party), even though they have a lot of women. These are big parties. If you have a party like SLD or Palikot, which can bring to parliament only one person or two from the list, it’s much more difficult to achieve parity. But if you have 5-7 people from one list, it’s easier.

 

Superficially, it seems that a lot has changed here in Poland with the status of women, even though issues like abortion remain controversial. But what do you think are the major successes with the women’s movement?

 

Let me start with more general comments about what the transformation meant for women and their rights. Paradoxically, not everything the transformation brought to women was good. The antiabortion law was introduced after the transformation – as a result of the change and also by arguing that everything under Communism was bad, including the abortion law. Also the role of the Church was something that we noticed as a very negative phenomenon, and the position of the Church is constantly growing. It has had a big negative impact on society and the decision-making process as a whole, but particularly on women. Becoming an informal but very important and powerful actor on the political scene, the Church took this opportunity to oppose loudly many women’s rights and reproductive rights in particular.

It’s not only abortion. It is sexuality education. Also over the last few years, there’s been the debate on in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Eight years ago, IVF was not controversial. It was a normal medical procedure, and the Church had nothing to do with it. When the Church decided to engage with IVF, it became the most controversial issue. Although 65 percent of Poles suport IVF, politicians are unable to pass the law due to strong pressure of the Church. The Church has become a big actor in conserving an ideal, traditional vision of women, as a Matka Polka [Mother of Poland] staying at home, taking care of children, and understanding that this is her primary duty. In many debates, the Church plays this role. Now we have political parties that speak strongly on those issues, so the Church doesn’t have to be at the forefront. Women’s issues, which were not discussed or very little discussed under Communism, have now become controversies around which the political scene was organized in the 1990s. For instance, you were either for or against abortion. It was not just the issue of abortion but of building a new identity for and division line of the society and the state.

On a personal note, I have been engaged in struggles for women’s rights for all these years. Surprisingly, I received an award in exile from the New School for Social Research, nominated by Prof. Ann Snitow who portrayed me as a dissident of the new times. In her much-too-flattering opinion, Snitow was trying to show that the reasons for struggles have changed over time. Before, dissidents struggled against the Communist system. Later came other fights, however. Struggling on behalf of women, who constitute half of society, is still not seen as a struggle for freedom and independence. It’s seen as having low importance. You probably know Shana Penn’s  book of about women in Solidarity — Solidarity’s Secret – about those women activists who disappeared. Many women who were struggling for independence, once this independence came, were sent back home. They were not given proper recognition. I am glad that finally Shana Penn, who has done so much to bring the role of women — and the women who have been completely forgotten — back into the public discourse, received a medal from the Polish president. As a former Solidarity member, of course I’ve always been for transformation. But I’m also critical about what it brought for women.

This negative phenomenon played a role in something that you were asking about, something more positive. After transformation, the struggle for women’s rights forced women to get organized. Under Communism, there was no real women’s movement. There was one main organization and maybe some initiatives, but no real women’s movement in the 1980s. It started in the 1990s once the threat of restricting the abortion law became a reality. The women’s movement in Poland at the beginning of the 1990s was the first in the region. Many women, when I was meeting them for instance in the Czech Republic, said there was no need for a women’s organization because everything was okay. And we were looking at them like “What?!”

In Poland, the movement started around abortion, but the traditional package of women’s rights came immediately – violence against women, staying at home versus pursuing a career, electoral rights. Under Communism there had been a quota for women in politics. Of course these women at that time in politics didn’t represent women’s issues. But at least they understood that there should be some diversity, some representation. When the quota was abolished, the number of women in parliament decreased drastically, because all the men thought they were the best and women were not organized and couldn’t fight for it. In the 1990s, we were struggling with quota laws. At that time, we didn’t say parity but, rather, a quota: 30 percent.

Throughout the 1990s, the women’s movement including many organizations struggling for different women’s rights, working together and building the agenda that was the foundation for what happened in 2009, with the Congress of Women. This was built on the foundation of women’s work in the 1990s. In this sense, women succeeded in raising the issues to build the women’s agenda, analyze what was wrong, and provide solutions to improve the situation for women in the private and public agenda. However, we’ve not been successful in implementing our agenda.

 

The women’s movement here in Poland was in many ways ahead of other organizations in the region. The Congress of Women has emerged as a potential model for women’s organizations in the region. Have you seen other examples of organizing n the region that can help the movement here in Poland take a step forward?

 

I’ve been quite engaged in the regional women’s movement. I was one of the founders of ASTRA – Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health. I was also one of the founders of the Karat Coalition, another network of women. I am aware of the situation in the region, and I have been working a lot with women in the region. I can’t think of any organizations that could be a model for us because it seems that in terms of scale and issues, the women’s movement has been the strongest here over the years.

Of the other movements I know in the region, the strongest seem to be in the Balkans where there are quite strong feminists. You can have more visibility in such small countries than in a country like Poland. But I don’t want to minimize their impact. I like a lot of organizing they have done, especially focused on violence. If were to compare, it’s not who is the strongest, but the issues they were raising. In Poland, violence against women has been a very important issue though our movement abroad was more identified with reproductive rights. There are other organizations in the region where violence was the main issue women were struggling with – such as Nane in Hungary, Babe in Croatia or the groups working on war and war crimes in the Balkans at that time.

Other movements were probably stronger than us in recognizing the value of things that women had in the past, like economic rights. In the 1990s, with the exception of abortion, we thought that everything under Communism was bad. Economic rights were maybe not bad but we were too shy to demand that they be retained. If you stood up for kindergartens and creches and other social benefits then you were seen as supporting Communism, and we were scared to death about being associated with Communism. Now in the 2000s, the dynamic changed with the new generation and more demands for the state to provide economic and social rights. In the 1990s we were shy, but women from other countries were not shy. They knew they wanted to maintain their economic rights. They were in a way more aware of what they were losing than we were. Also maybe because our economic situation was a little better.

 

You said that the power of the Church has increased. What do you think the future will be – a continual fight between the Church and a wide variety of people, not just fighting for women’s rights, but various liberal causes? Or do you see some kind of accommodation? In other countries, we do see some progressive movements emerging in Church circles.

 

The process of liberalization within the Church is slowly progressing here in Poland as well. It starts from recognizing sex scandals  – such as pedophilia. However, it’s not as strong as other parts of the world. It would be stronger if Polish society would be more vocal. For me, the process of the modernization of society should continue in Poland as it did in Catholic countries like Spain. People have a very simple solution: they can just leave the country. Many don’t practice religion any more even if they do stay in the country. But many people go abroad and see different ways and places where the Church doesn’t dominate society. They like it and they come back and see something they didn’t see before, because they thought that was the norm.

However, it will take a long time. Those most interested in maintaining this status are not the Church, or not just the Church only, but also the political class. These are the politicians who are pushing a more right-wing-oriented policy of the state. It’s not that the society is expecting policymakers to work on those issues. The public wants access to all kinds of rights, policies, and resources like IVF, sexuality education, contraception. I would say the same about abortion, though the stigma around society is growing, for many reasons. This law has been in place for more than 20 years, so it seems like a certain norm. For young people, this is the law they know and that has always been. They don’t remember, like my generation does, the liberal law that was in place since the 1950s. We still remember when we could decide for ourselves.

But when a woman gets pregnant and she doesn’t want to continue the pregnancy, she is not going to look primarily at the values of the Church. She wants to get rid of the pregnancy. She thinks, “I am against abortion and it’s evil, but I can’t have this child because my situation is such and such and such.”

The politicians are not operating on our behalf. My identity is still with society more than with any political class. We want politicians to reduce unemployment, increase chances in the labor market, reform the health care and educational systems. This is what the public wants politicians to engage with. But politicians are always engaging in ideological issues, which are easier and simpler than improving access to health care, good education, or work. Polish society is in a way conservative. But our politicians are much more conservative than society itself.

Where do we move from that? The problem is that society is not very active or well organized. Although people here don’t like the way politicians prioritize issues as they do, they are not strong enough to elect others who would set different priorities. If they manage to do this, to get rid of this right-wing discourse, it probably wouldn’t require that much change, because the politicians would then focus on the issues that people care about. This political class wants this discourse to prevail and wants the Church to be a legitimate actor that has a say on the lay policy of state. It won’t happen immediately. Polish society doesn’t have to change its thinking. It just has to be more active politically to change the status quo.

 

You mentioned people’s dissatisfaction with politicians, who don’t reflect people’s priorities. That’s not just a problem here or even in this region. There seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with political elites. There is also a great dissatisfaction on economic issues – after the economic crisis and the failure of the state to provide the services that people want. The two things that were supposed to be victorious after 1989 have generated a great degree of disappointment. Do you think this disappointment can be addressed within our existing institutions or do new institutions have to be created?

 

Occupy Wall Street and the indignados in Spain also show this disappointment. In Poland we don’t have movements that are so well organized. But I have a feeling that the level of disagreement with the issues we have to face, and with the failure of politicians to address them, is growing globally. These movements, popping up here and there and including the Arab Spring, even if they don’t bring immediate effects they can grow to such a level of dissatisfaction that we might have something like 1968. In the longer run this state of affairs can’t be maintained.

Although successful in expressing dissatisfaction, these movements are not so successful in bringing new visions and solutions. But it might just be a matter of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple years we have some revolutions here and there on the global stage because the level of inequality is unbearable and people will not tolerate it any more. In the EU we have a lot of problems of all kinds, including unemployment among youth. But look at the rest of the world — the developing world, the poor people living outside the EU and trying to enter the EU as this isolated or closed paradise. This is not sustainable over the longer run. It reminds me of ancient times when barbarians were always destroying well-organized civilizations like Rome. It can last for 20 years or 50 years. But if you look at history in the longer perspective, it’s just can’t continue. At one end of the world, you have people living on $1 a day and in the other you have these isolated paradises in Europe and the United States. I’m certain that big changes will happen in time.

 

When you think back to your worldview around 1989-90 when things were shifting, have you changed your perspective in any major way?

 

It did shift significantly. At that time I was very enthusiastic about the changes and thought they should happen. However, I think it was a missed opportunity in so many ways. If for example this change happened when society was better organized, better able to control the politicians, maybe we could have introduced protection mechanisms and, for example, prevented the loss of women’s rights. Society became independent, but the price has been high. Women lost their rights. We lost completely our right to decide over reproductive functions – this was huge. We couldn’t defend that.

Also, we could have better controlled the Church. We didn’t think that we needed to replace one power, a totalitarian regime, with another different power. The Church is in a way a force that wants to rule our thinking. It wants us to think the same as they do, but it also wants the state to establish just one state of values as the only one allowed. At that time, we had this feeling that the space left by the Communists was immediately filled by the Church.

That leads me to another problem. Maybe at that time there should have been more sensitivity about making such drastic economic changes that had such a high cost for big segments of the society. Poland is one of the most neoliberal economies, and the restructuring of the country took place without consideration of the effects it would have on people. The inequalities are growing. There are big parts of society that have no prospects now. This phenomenon is growing because this lack of prospects is being inherited by the younger generation. For people in the rural areas, on the big collective farms that were a traditional Communist feature, those farms just closed and the authorities didn’t think about what to offer to those people. They were just supposed to accept that they would be the victims of building a new beautiful world.

There were a lot of things done wrong. I think we could have avoided many of them. Inequalities in the society are constantly growing due to extreme neoliberal policies. The poor continue to get poorer. And for too long social inequalities have been seen as unavoidable side effects of an economic transformation for which the state does not need to take responsibility. Now at least, this issue is starting to be recognized. But from discussions to solutions is a long way.

 

When you think back to 1989, and you evaluate everything that has changed between now and then, how would rate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

 

Somewhere in the middle. 5.

 

Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?

 

8.

 

When you look at the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Poland, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

I’m not that optimistic. Let’s say 5.

 

Warsaw, August 19, 2013

 


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