Poland has become a byword for nationalist populism in recent years as the ruling Law and Justice party defies European democratic norms with its assault on the media and the courts. But away from the limelight, there is a flourishing grassroots movement against the flaws in the country’s democratic culture on which the populists feed. Tight groups of civic activists are notching up success after success across the country on a vast range of different issues – from sex education to air quality and the rule of law, from cycle lanes and public spaces to transparency and participation in local decision-making processes.
In the eastern region of Podlasie, local activists recently ran a disciplined, sophisticated and ultimately successful campaign against illegal state-sanctioned logging in the Białowieża forest. In Silesia, Poland’s industrial south-west, residents forced the closure of a toxic coking plant last year. In Poznań, in the north-west, citizens are campaigning to publicise allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. In Warsaw, a group of parents are running a campaign to put pressure on local authorities to combat the city’s terrible air quality.
In Gdańsk, Pawel Adamowicz presided over numerous civic innovations before his brutal murder earlier this month. In 2016, Gdańsk established Poland’s first “civic panel” in order to develop policies on flood prevention in the city, with 63 residents drawn at random from the local electoral register to “raise the level of civic engagement in the areas most challenging to the city”. Gdańsk also runs an “open data programme”, publishing daily data on its expenses.
The rise of these movements is threatening to reshape the country’s politics. In urban areas, there has been a growth of so-called city movements, networks of campaigners challenging traditional political parties on questions of governance, corruption, planning and the environment.
Some local authorities have responded to this growth in demand for accountability by introducing innovative new consultation mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, where groups of volunteers and randomly selected citizens participate in the city’s decision-making process, and participatory budgets, where citizens apply for financing for projects that they have drawn up themselves.
In smaller towns across the country, long-entrenched local political leaders have found themselves under pressure or thrown out of office altogether by new candidates with no party-political affiliations.
You can read my article for the Guardian here.