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Europe

Poland takes to the streets

Poland's society is split over the new national conservative government's policies like it hasn't been in years. By the thousands, people are taking to the streets in nationwide protests.

Fueled by anger, protests against newly elected President Andrzej Duda began harmlessly enough on Facebook a few weeks ago.

Then Mateusz Kijowski launched the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD) - and within days, the newly founded protest platform had 40,000 followers.

KOD - the choice of name is reminiscent of the Worker's Defense Committee (KOR), a Polish civil society group launched in 1976 by legendary Polish opposition activist Jacek Kuron. His widow was one of the first to support Kijowski's new initiative on the Internet.

Tense atmosphere

Three weeks after KOD was founded, , facing off with a group of nationalists who tried to drown out the protests with shouting, loud music and insults. Police kept the two groups at a distance.

A day later, the situation had turned, and downtown Warsaw was dominated for the most part by supporters of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The leader of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) - the party President Duda belongs to as well - holds no office in the government, but is regarded as being in control all the same. Kaczynski is the President's and the Prime Minister's mentor, and can be assured of their support in pushing through his agenda.

Mateusz Kijowski

Mateusz Kijowski initiated the KOD

"We are the real Poland, not the thieves and communists who ruled until not too long ago," Kaczynski told a crowd of 20,000 cheering supporters.

The head of the PiS appeared intent on to deliberately fanning the flames. Appearing on TV ahead of the demonstration, he branded his critics as "traitors," adding they are the "worst kind of Polish people."

That very day, t-shirts cropped up - sporting the slogan "The worst kind of Polish People."

Those are just two examples of the many protests Poland has seen over the past few days.

Spreading the blame

Apart from the protests, Poland also hasn't seen a mood like this in a long time.

What is particularly unsettling is that people rarely debate or discuss the issues on hand. Instead, there are tussles and hostility on the street and social media - as if arch enemies were facing off, not citizens who just happen to disagree.

While most critics blame the PiS for the current split in society, the national conservatives blame the previous government. PiS politicians invoke a "natural process", saying that the civic platforms must take leave of their loss of power, which is painful. Massive criticism from foreign media, they argue, is "proof how far the liberals' feelers and networks reach" - a conspiracy against the "true Polish people."

European Parliament President Martin Schulz called the political situation in Poland dramatic and compared it to a coup - a remark for which Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo demanded an apology.

Lech Walesa warns

Andrzej Duda and wife

President Duda and his wife at the inauguration ceremony in August

Prominent Polish citizens also warn of an escalating situation. This could end with a civil war, former President Lech Walesa told Polish TV, urging a referendum that could lead to the dissolution of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, as well as the President's resignation.

Former Polish heads of state and presidents criticize the instrumentalization of the Constitutional Court. "Governments go, democratic Poland stays," they wrote in a joint declaration. But the PiS has held fast to its course, including plans to make public radio, TV and the PAP news agency national media.

Meanwhile, many observers in Poland wonder how things could get this far.

A glance at the past shows that the PiS is not the only one to blame. The previous government didn't live up to its reputation as a "liberal civic platform," turning instead to neo-liberal economic policies that ended up not reaching enough people in the middle of society, essentially passing by the losers of Poland's transformation program.

The previous government took care of its own: businessmen and the wealthy. Just ahead of the election, the government also elected five Constitutional Tribunal judges. President Duda refused to swear them in, electing five new judges instead.

"We'll continue to keep an eye on the government," Kijowski said. But political education in Poland is just as important, he said, adding that over the past 25 years, the Polish people have forgotten how delicate democracy is, that "it's not self-propelling." Those in power, he said, seem to have forgotten not to confuse "the power of the majority with a dictatorship."

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