The Committee in Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji, or KOD) appeared to start suddenly out of thin air. It is now the biggest mass mobilization of Polish citizens since the days of Solidarity 25 years ago. On the one hand, this is clearly a response to the electoral victory in October 2015 of the right-wing Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS), but on the other, it is also the result of a spontaneous idea by a certain Internet surfer.
The idea for KOD first appeared on a website called Studio Opinion, a somewhat old-fashioned site edited by respected journalists of the pre-Internet era, most of whom had been part of the moderate wing of Solidarity and had contributed to the peaceful dismantling of Communist power in 1989. Someone posted a suggestion that it was time for a citizens’ movement that would defend democratic standards because the new ruling party had already broken laws in the very first hours of gaining office. The writer had a name for this movement: KOD (the Committee in Defense of Democracy), nicely echoing the acronym KOR (the Committee in Defense of the Workers), a key forerunner of Solidarity.
PiS is the first party since 1989 to rule alone without coalition partners. After almost a decade of defeats, they rolled up their sleeves and undertook to bring order to the state in their own way and at a pace that resembled firefighters who were igniting a fire instead of dousing it. The new government is composed of people long known for their radicalism and notoriety, yet during the electoral campaign, PiS had reassured the public repeatedly that these individuals would not be considered for ministerial positions. However, instead of fulfilling their electoral promises, such as lowering the retirement age and providing free medicine for older retirees, the regime immediately tightened controls on the police, secret services, and media. It also recently expanded its surveillance powers vis-à-vis citizens, in effect freeing those services from any democratic control.
This all took place during hurried, largely nighttime marathons in which the parliamentary majority repeatedly shortcut democratic procedures and ignored the requirement to consult with society. One of their first, and to their own surprise most troublesome, battlefronts was their subordination of the Constitutional Tribunal and the freeze they put on its ability to function. In Poland, as in Germany, for example, the Constitutional Tribunal had been established to ensure that legislative acts are in accordance with the Constitution.
And then there is the new President, Andrzej Duda, who won the presidential election as the PiS candidate by a spectacular margin half a year earlier. He then ignored decisions made by the prior parliament concerning the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal and waited until the new parliament could quickly vote to invalidate them. Then in December,he swore in five new judges elected by the new majority, even though at least three of the judges previously elected — and in full accordance with the law — had been waiting for months to be sworn in. Duda, a doctor of law, dismissed the opinion of all legal experts and swore in three of “his own” and then eventually two others. At this point, all civic institutions from the Ombudsman through the National Judiciary Council to the Office of the Prosecutor General protested, one after the other. Even Jagiellonian University, where the sitting president had received his doctoral degree in law, gave a negative assessment of these feverishly hurried changes. Such arrogance by the new regime would soon bring people onto the streets in a way that nobody would have thought possible.
The growing outrage was also prompted by the fact that the leader of the ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, having no official position except as party head, in effect individually directs but without accountability an obedient president, prime minister, government, and PiS parliamentary majority. Jaroslaw Kaczynski is the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in the tragic airplane crash in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010 that also killed more than 90 other important officials — an accident for which Jaroslaw has been blaming the then-ruling majority ever since.
Meanwhile, on the web page of Studio Opinion, people were reading about a suggestion to form KOD, a party whose aim would not be to reverse the outcome of the elections, but to try to construct a dam to stop the flood of actions by the new PiS regime, which was operating on the very borderlines of the law. KOD would be a forum through which people could express how horrified they were by the haste and radicalism of the changes introduced by the government, which were clearly destructive of the rule of law.
A previously unknown activist for a nongovernmental organization, Mateusz Kijowski, would answer that “innocent” call for action expressed on Studio Opinion. On November 18, 2015, Kijowski created a Facebook group he called KOD. When KOD scheduled its first march one month later on December 12 — to protest the new regime’s tampering with the Constitutional Tribunal — everybody (including the organizers!) was surprised that tens of thousands immediately showed up in Warsaw and other cities. For the first time since 1989, problems pertaining to the Constitution and the Constitutional Tribunal were being discussed on the street. Similar numbers would turnout at subsequent demonstrations in more than 40 Polish cities and in many places abroad with large Polish communities.
The PiS government reacted nervously, describing the protesters as disgruntled supporters of the centrist Civic Platform, which had lost the election, or as diehard Communist supporters. Jaroslaw Kaczynski called the KOD marchers “Poles of the worst sort.” In response, people came to subsequent demonstrations with buttons and placards that read, “I’m a Pole of the worst sort.” Interestingly, the several-thousand marchers and demonstrators often converged in places considered PiS strongholds. Most who came out had retired from active participation in public life after 1989, as they felt they had done their bit.
After organizing one countermarch with their own supporters, the new government went on the attack, declaring the KOD protesters included former members of the Communist nomenklatura and secret service. But at first glance, it was clear that the public, which dominated KOD demonstrations, included many recognizable faces of former Solidarity activists or activists of various more recent nongovernmental organizations. In addition, there were — as early surveys indicated — masses of ordinary people who in recent years had not been involved at all in public matters.
When I arrived at the first KOD meeting in Wroclaw, the room capable of seating a few hundred was bursting at the seams. At least half of those people had come from small towns and villages around Wroclaw. Although every mention of PiS prompted boos, whenever someone stepped up and warned that we should not dismiss supporters of the ruling party in that way because we have to live with them in the same country, that person was applauded. When one older woman got up and told everyone that she had already written to Pope Francis in Italian asking him to support the movement, a thirty-something in the back row shouted that even though he is an atheist he would like to sign that letter too. Among those who spoke were teachers, freelance artists, a bus driver, a watchmaker, a homeless person, and a flower vendor.
To counter the verbally aggressive discourse dominating right-wing demonstrations, such as calls to hang adversaries from lampposts, KOD introduced a friendly, good-natured, humorous, at worst ironic, tone. When a journalist asked someone why he was marching with a dog, the answer was that his dog came along because he doesn’t like what Kaczynski’s cat is doing (the PiS leader’s fondness for his cat is well-known). Another young man joined the march with a banner that read, “I got so upset that I had to bring a banner.” At the next demonstration, the same man came with a larger banner that read, “This time I was so much more upset that I brought an even bigger banner.” A small girl sitting on the shoulders of her father had a tiny banner that read, “Please don’t do those things to people.” Thousands of people gathered in Wroclaw’s Salt Market, increasingly known as KOD Market, burst into song. To show they were aware that the government and parliament had been making their decisions under cover of night, they sang the refrain from an old pop hit, something like “tattle-tittle-tattle-tittle-tattle at night, but blah-blah, blah-blah, and blah by day.”
KOD’s mass activities have been organized by a middle generation shaped by employment within a modern, frequently western, corporate environment, whose style of management is sometimes met with a certain resistance by ordinary participants. As the majority of people in the demonstrations are over 50, for now this is a revolution primarily of 50-year-olds. Some young people are taking part (there is even a separate youth unit within the movement), but in an aging Polish society, this is above all a movement of “Grey Panthers.” And this is why leaders of the old Solidarity such as Lech Walesa are continuously celebrated at KOD gatherings. After all, this generation has under its belt the experience of the multimillion-member democratic movement that was Solidarity and the remarkable political education such experience engendered.
KOD has also brought together people with very diverse political views. A young enthusiast of the socialist thinker and revolutionary leader Rosa Luxembourg stands next to a woman who wants KOD to use as its anthem an eighteenth-century song “Bar Confederation” that refers to an association of Polish aristocrats who wanted to rebuild the failing Polish state on a radically conservative basis. At recent KOD events,leaders of significant political parties are sometimes invited and uninvited. Mateusz Kijowski, the leader and the only person who speaks to the media on behalf of KOD, speaks of the movement as programmatically nonpartisan and even apolitical. At the same time, an elder participant who was once a member of the antitotalitarian opposition, Professor Aleksander Labuda, says publicly that calling the movement apolitical is like asking children to believe in fairy tales.
Today KOD is about to take a serious turn. The growing participation in the demonstrations seems to have reached its maximum potential. The very dedicated coordinators of the movement who do not live in Warsaw have temporarily put a brake on growth, as they are being authorized by the Warsaw committee to perform tasks that go beyond their social legitimation and often — because of the huge scale of the movement — their organizational abilities. In addition, there is an unsolved controversy as to whether KOD demonstrations, dominated by national and European flags — the latter cursed by PiS and removed from their governmental conference rooms — should include other flags, such as LGBT or Ukrainian. For the time being, despite periodic invitations to the leaders of oppositional parties, only flags representing political parties are considered unacceptable.
Perhaps more importantly, the movement has not absorbed new developments on the left, including those that identify themselves with the dissident tradition of the Solidarity period and are breaking the umbilical cord linking them to the post-Communist Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD). Members of the small Green Party are welcomed if they do not appear under their own banners. However, a sensation of the most recent elections, the “Together” party (which almost made it to Parliament, even though it was established just before the elections) is in conflict with KOD. Its well-educated thirty-something members openly say that they do not want to treat the black plague of PiS with the cholera of neoliberalism. What they mean is that KOD appears to be close to the “Modern PL” party, which recently won seats in Parliament and is led by a young economist, Ryszard Petru.
On February 27, 2016, KOD organized a key event in Warsaw — a march under the motto “We, the people,” which was intended to deny the government and the PiS majority any monopoly on the use of patriotism and national symbols. Unexpectedly, the march became dominated by the need to defend Lech Walesa, who had long been attacked by the right — including groups even more extreme than PiS — for an episode in his youth. As an intimidated young worker under pressure from secret service operatives, he allegedly signed an agreement to serve as an informant, but he subsequently refused to collaborate. On February 22, the “Walesa affair” was brought up anew by the Institute of National Remembrance, a government agency that announced to the press it had recently uncovered new files that appeared to implicate Walesa as a collaborator. Five days later, people poured onto the streets to protest.
The Walesa affair diverted attention from important questions that KOD still has to ask: in particular, what next? KOD cannot survive as a powerless reviewer of the government. It has to find more constructive forms of activity. Meanwhile, a petition of KOD’s program of changes to the Constitutional Tribunal was put into motion, and during a television program, Mateusz Kijowski announced, with a somewhat cryptic smile, that KOD is currently constructing its own program for the coming months. Yet as leader of the movement, Kijowski says that KOD will never compete in elections, but is present only to guard democracy.
The biggest challenge facing the movement is the division between those quietly waiting for what Kijowski and his friends in Warsaw will come up with, on the one side, and those who would like to take part in creating such a program, on the other. The latter are largely those expressing themselves on KOD’s website, which has more than 50,000 members. According to KOD and city authorities, the recent demonstration in Warsaw on February 27, 2016, had at least 60,000 participants; according to government and police estimates, it had 15,000. The popularity of PiS fluctuates between 35% and 25%; according to the most recent surveys, KOD is supported by 43% of society.
However, the dispute over numbers is not the most important issue. The “We, the People” march reintroduced these words, well remembered in Poland, with which Lech Walesa began his address before the US Congress in 1990. At one of the happenings organized by KOD, a six-hour event entitled “Essentials,” people were given packets of freshly baked bread straight from the bakery and copies of the Constitution freshly printed for the occasion and still smelling of ink. They read aloud the Constitution, which — according to KOD — is broken every day by the government. Here again, the struggle is over definitions, and over meanings: What is a state of law? What is the Constitution for? Who is a nation? Who has sovereignty? And in this tug-of-war, where is Poland?
At one of KOD’s demonstrations, I played on my little harmonica Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the anthem of the European Union, and got a standing ovation. The people had been standing for some time already, determined to preserve the values symbolized by those familiar notes that our new regime would like to erase from the musical staff.