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Europe

Opinion: Poland's government at a crossroads

The events of Friday night at the Polish Sejm do not bode well. It's the first time a popular demonstration has escalated in this way. The government needs to wake up, says DW's Rosalia Romaniec.

The events in Warsaw late on Friday night marked a caesura. Not since 1989 have the police in Poland used force to clear a path for the country's rulers – past a protesting people. The government should be ashamed. Instead of trying to de-escalate tensions, it continues to further division and destabilization in Poland.

To help us understand, let us look at the night in question. That evening, thousands gathered outside the Sejm building in Warsaw after news spread that the government intended to restrict media access to parliament. People immediately took to the streets, not just in Warsaw. Many were following what was going on the Sejm building on social media, and were outraged by scenes of a kind they're not used to seeing in Poland.

Awakening old memories

An opposition politician in parliament had his microphone turned off. He was silenced. It was disastrously symbolic. The opposition responded by occupying the plenum. Some representatives publicized the uproar in the plenary chamber via Facebook Live, which resulted in demonstrators trying, unsuccessfully, to gain entry to the Sejm building. After this the angry crowd blocked all the exits.

The situation continued to escalate every few minutes, yet the governing party did not interrupt the vote on legislation. Instead, it summarily relocated it from the plenary chamber to another room, and the opposition was reportedly prevented from participating in the vote. Afterwards, supporters of the government were unable to leave the building because the crowds were rampaging outside. It was only shortly before 3 a.m. that a massive police operation cleared the way for two of them – Prime Minister Beata Szydło, and her "Oberguru" Jaroslaw Kaczyński, who, although no longer in office, is still the party chairman of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and is able, as such, to bring the government to heel. Both of them left the compound by car.

It is, of course, a great humiliation for a government when its own people rise up to such an extent that it has to call in the police. What is even worse, though, is when the forces of law and order resort to violence. This completely destroys respect for the government. Scenes of women and men lying on the ground, screaming, held down by police, are dangerously reminiscent of the old days when the police were still known as the "milicja."

Threatened escalation

A damning indictment of this government! And a bad omen for Poland. It seems the chaotic situation there has long since reached a point where questions of who's right or wrong, what law is at issue, who is provoking whom and how are merely secondary. People have ceased to argue with cool heads and are simply positioning themselves on one or the other side. The rift is growing; the two sides are becoming entrenched. It's time to step back and consider things at one remove. It then becomes clear that an increasing number of Poles are so outraged that they will take to the streets in the middle of a cold winter night to demonstrate for the thing that always united them in the past: their sense of freedom.

When this Polish locomotive begins to roll, there's no stopping it. The following day there were large crowds on the streets again. The state made its presence felt in the center of Warsaw in the form of the police. The prime minister gave a televised address, in which she appeared more or less inflexible. But good approval ratings aren't everything. You have to govern democratically. Above all, the government must remain loyal to the constitution, not a ruthless party leader like Kaczyński, who does more to destroy the people's sense of unity than strengthen it. Otherwise the prime minister won't be in power for long. Not in this country.