‘We are increasingly seeing the dark side of civil society’

 

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Martyna Bogaczyk, president of the board of the Education for Democracy Foundation, a Polish civil society organisation that has promoted democracy since 1989, with a focus on three areas: democracy education in schools, civic duty and activism, and global solidarity.

1. What would you say are the most pressing challenges that democracy faces in Poland?

As you know, in Poland as in much of Central Europe space for civil society is shrinking. In Hungary, in particular, the government is introducing legal changes that are making things harder and harder for civil society. So indeed, some actions by other actors, notably governments, are having a negative effect on civil society. But right now, I would rather focus on the challenge that stems from developments that are taking place within society, and civil society, itself.

I would place the origins of the current division that affects Polish society mainly in two historical points: the introduction of economic reform in the early nineties, which had dramatically unequal effects on society, and the Smolensk catastrophe: the 2010 plane crash that killed the President of Poland along with many government officials, members of parliament, senior military officers, figures of culture and civic activists. In my opinion, it was this catastrophe, and the different ways it was processed by either side of society, that showed us how different from one another we are, and how different our perceptions of reality and visions of Poland are. I believe this was the beginning of a process that resulted in more radical political movements reaching parliament, and politics becoming a lot more polarised. The division within Polish society was exacerbated.

I would say we are currently divided into two ‘clans’, each with its own history, historical memory, values, assessments and political positions. This is the biggest democratic challenge for us, because we have reached a situation in which we find it difficult to talk to each other. As a result, a civilised and meaningful political conversation cannot take place. Families cannot talk normally around the Christmas table anymore. People who are on either side of this cultural and political divide are not talking to each other.

2. How has this division affected organised civil society?

Polish civil society is wide and diverse: it includes not just formal non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on democratic governance issues, but a whole range of organisations, from trade unions to student organisations, and from religious associations to grassroots movements to service providers. There is a sector of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on the rule of law, education for democracy, anti-discrimination and human rights, which has a very critical view of what is going on and is working to bridge the gaps. But let’s not forget that civil society also includes countless organisations that provide social services, such as education and healthcare. I believe that some of them may have other opinions about these developments. Some of them don’t care or don’t think that these developments affect them, and still others are not speaking about them for fear of losing public funding, which can be one of main sources of income for them.

3. Are you witnessing rise of so-called ‘un-civil society’, as it is happening elsewhere?

Indeed. ‘Un-civil society’: I think that’s a good way to put it. Because civil society also includes a number of organisations that are waging a cultural war and deepening the divide. They are occupying spaces meant for civil society and they are even grabbing the human rights language for their own purposes, using it against the advancement of rights.

In fact, I would say in this respect we have three distinct problems. First of all, there’s the phenomenon of GONGOs (government-organised NGOs). We call them ‘mirror NGOs’, because they mimic the structure of existing, legitimate ones. And when the government is pushing for a specific reform, these organisations support the government’s initiative, and the government can say that it consulted with civil society and that civil society is in its favour.

Second, there is the fact that both fake CSOs and other groups that may be ‘legitimate’ civil society - in the sense that they are not government-organised - but that do not promote rights and democracy, are also borrowing the language of democracy and human rights. This is a completely new experience for us, because after the fall of communism and the transition to democracy in 1989, we believed we were past all of this: that we had a functioning democracy, we were part of the European Union, so these were our shared values. And now we are realising that these values are in fact the object of a dispute, that they don’t mean the same thing for everybody, and that for some, they are just a means to a different end.

Third, we are increasingly seeing the dark side of civil society, in the form of an anti-rights discourse that is anti-Semitic, anti-migrants, anti-refugees. This discourse is becoming normalised to the point that to a growing sector of the population, it is perfectly acceptable. Rights have become something that can be traded. Rather than being recognised as universal, they can be denied to ‘them’ if that means more benefits can be distributed among ‘us’. So many Polish citizens are voting for right-wing parties that promise them social benefits that won’t be ‘snatched’ by foreigners, because they are going to keep them out.

4. How is progressive civil society reacting to this situation?

Many organisations are working to bring dialogue back into local communities. The change that we need will not happen as a result of a more liberal and human-rights oriented political party winning the elections, but through a change in the political conversation. We need to sit people on opposing sides at the same table and teach them how to hold a dialogue and discuss issues that are close to them. We are not trying to have them agree on everything; in fact, what we want is for people to understand that it would be impossible for all of us to agree on everything, and what we need to do instead is accept plurality and diversity. But we do want to hold a conversation aimed at achieving consensus on core values: those that make it possible to have a conversation in the first place.

Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Education for Democracy Foundation through its website or Facebook page.