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Poland: Bringing NGOs into the government fold?

A new centralized agency will be responsible for funding Poland's NGOs. Critics worry it is an effort by the ruling nationalist conservatives to rein in civil society.

A controversial new law regarding Poland's NGOs awaits the signature of President Andrzej Duda. With his veto of two of the nationalist conservative's justice reform bills, he renewed the hopes of many who had been downtrodden by the country's slide to the populist right. But since Thursday evening, Poland's downtrodden now includes tens of thousands of NGOs.

No later than November, all nongovernmental organizations are to be centrally funded. Currently, funding comes from ministries and local administrations. A new funding body, the National Freedom Institute - Civil Society Development Center, will be attached to the prime minister's office. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (pictured above) is a loyal member of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS).

"NGOs should be better funded," said Wojciech Kaczmarczyk who is responsible for the government's NGO relations. The government wants to offer 22 million euros ($26 million) in funding to the NGO community, a 40 percent increase thanks to a new gambling tax.

Read more: Poland's right-wing government takes steps to control NGO funding

Norway threatens to withhold funds

Some NGOs are supported by the EU, Switzerland and Norway, which has protested the new centralized funding body. Norway is threatening to withhold its annual contribution of 5.5 million euros ($5.9 million) in NGO support because of criticism of the new National Institute for Freedom by Poland's NGO umbrella organization.

The group called on Poland's senate, which is also controlled by PiS, to reject the new law. The umbrella group worries that funding priority will be given to those groups sympathetic to the government and that are conservative and Catholic in nature.

Poland protests

People in Poland took to the streets in July to protest against proposed reforms to the justice system

"The Polish state supports the liberal and Christian ideals of its citizens," the new law's preamble states. In particular, the country's centuries' old independence movement, and its religious and "socialist" traditions, are emphasized.

Opposition senator: PiS fears NGOs

Two years of PiS rule have shown that progressive NGO initiatives have lost support from relevant ministries. In many schools, anti-discrimination workshops, activities concerning women, foreigners, and the LGBT community, and environmental conservation projects have all been put on hold.

"The PiS is afraid of the NGOs," said Bogdan Klich, an opposition senator. "This law is a knife in the back of civil society." He fears that NGOs will become tools of the government, although governments giving priority to sympathetic nonprofits is not a new phenomenon in Poland.

"Small and poor citizens' initiatives" across Poland will be better supported, said Kaczmarczyk. Some NGOs have interpreted this to mean increased support for conservative Catholic or PiS-friendly regional groups, to help them take part in pilgrimages or reach pro-PiS events.

President Duda has the final say, as he does with every new law. Unlike the justice reforms he vetoed, he has made no statements opposing the NGO law.

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