In 2018, a book by prof. Rafał Matyja, conservative political scientist, entitled “Emergency Exit”, brought a new outlook on the events in the political life. The author of the book recommends generational change in political life and rejection of the main divisions connected with two strong parties – Civil Platform and Law and Justice. However, he does not give any instruction how to get rid of a trap in which Poland is caught. The comments to the book are several, different circles find different “truths” in it. For sure however, this is one of the most important and inspiring texts for those who think on the current Poland and the strength of Polish state. Watchdog Poland also finds a lot of inspiring ideas there, which it commented in a text: Poland – a plan for everyone. The article is translatedand adapted below.
Citizens Network Watchdog Poland will be turning fifteen this year. We certainly had an important impact on the fact that citizens more and more exercise their rights and are ready to defend those rights at courts. It is our achievements to have made some authorities and institutions realise that providing information is their duty. We managed to build a movement of people who what to influence the transparency of local government and the state. We feel strong in many ways. But there is still many things that we failed to accomplish and we know we won’t succeed unless we all change in Poland.
Being frustrated isn’t difficult, given that after 15 years of speaking about the right to information and civic rights, after achieving some small but promising changes, it turns out that in many areas we have not moved ahead a bit or even stepped back. There is a lot of evidence for this. When it seemed to us that knowledge about village funds is well-established – that residents know that this is their money, and that authorities respect it, problems have bounced back – mayors have started to put pressure on people when it comes to allocating money for the purposes they choose.
Political parties know that their finances should be public – this is what the Constitution says and on many occasions political parties lost a court case to us on access to information. Despite this, the biggest parties still make it difficult for people to access information. Exemplary for the approach to transparency are words by Minister Maciej Wąsik during one of the meetings on the act on transparency of public life. The proposal to introduce a mandatory online register of agreements for all entities that need to provide public information, he commented as follows:
So that would be on political parties? I do not see any political will to do that.
Are these really words that we should be hearing from a politician who has a public good at heart?
Not only politicians, but also courts often do not understand the idea of a transparent state, denying us, by unfavourable judgments, the right to know. Just a few examples show the scope of reluctance to disclosure that is trasferred to really harmful verdicts based on doubtful legal basis (other verdicts).
- rejecting access to information on how law is made. In 2018 court ruled out that rerecording by CCTV cameras from the parliamentary session during which state budget was voted and important laws depriving some groups from their rights was enacted, is not public information. The issue was important as there were serious doubts whether during this session – held on 16 December 2016 – there was a quorum. The series of harmful verdicts that gave a basis to it, started in 2012 – when the court decided that access to e-mails in which legislative proposals were submitted, is not public but some “internal information” (no such concept in the law). [more in English]
- hiring policy in public companies. It is difficult to struggle with cronyism if citizens do not know whether local councilors who should oversee mayors, are dependent on the latter or not. It may happen if councilors are employed in the institutions subordinate to mayors, such as municipal companies. However courts rule that citizens have no access to information on who is employed in public companies.
- how public money is spent to promote the ruling party. These are often cases when public position (and money) is abused for private goals. In a case of promoting Minister of Agriculture in the commercial by the Agency for Restructuring and Modernisation of Agriculture (public institution) in the pre-election period, in the public TV, the court decided that citizens cannot have access to information on their agreement due to the need of protecting entrepreneur’s secret. It is worth noticing that the information concerned only public bodies and that the situation was condemned by the Supreme Chamber of Control.
And last but not least – the officials, the most important link in exercising the right to information in Poland. It might seem difficult to comprehend but very often taxpayer’s money is spent to train these officials on how not to provide information.
Why is this happening?
This is but a handful of examples that show that a change is needed, but not in individual institutions, only a total change. We can win individual matters, we can give people strength to act, but we will not see this breakthrough, which should have long been made as a result of our activities and activities of other organisations. Why did not it happen? A accurate diagnosis of this situation was given by Rafał Matyja in his book “Emergency exit”:
If access to a valuable good, that is jobs in state owned companies, requires civic attitude to be compromised, it is almost certain that this pattern will dominate public life.
Why are we so often disappointed after the election? We vote for a candidate who seemed to understand that power must be overseen, but then he/she spoke as a citizen. It seems that in Poland one can still not be both a governing politician and a citizen, and this applies to both central positions as well as those with local governments. Unfortunately, this mechanism is something that developed immediately after transformation.
Not only by thinking of administration and companies as of a legitimate prey of the winner, who can seize it after the election without using any objective selection mechanisms. Also by using these resources, which are extremely difficult to be renewed: trust in institutions, the ability to cooperate acrossdivisions, international position or public financial resources.
According to Matyja, for over a decade politics instead of strengthening, weaken the state and has been feeding on more and more sharp divisions. It is easier to manage conflict than to try and build consent across divisions. The first step to change is to give citizens a critical view of reality so that they can realistically assess the effects of decisions taken by ruling politicians. To achieve this, however, media must be independent and reliable. We do not want Poland to be ruled by a lack of trust in citizens by the ruling power. We want Poland, in which problems are openly discussed, the opponent is listened to and disputes are based on arguments, and not clamored down. We want a country where politicians trust people and show them what condition of the state is and how they rule, and problems are solved together. Because we are all responsible for Poland.
And although I feel that we have not been able to prevent such turn of events, we can change it. Matyja, being a pessimist as he is, who does not believe in ideals, still says:
A lesson from history is not fatalism. On the contrary, history shows how actions by individuals may reverse the seemingly inevitable trends.
And we seek to reverse these trends, our Program for 2018-2020 is precisely a plan to start a total change. By bringing the subject of openness everywhere, where it meets reluctance – be it state-owned companies or political parties, we want to show that there is no other way, if we want a good and really democratic country. We, as citizens, are also responsible for this country and it is our duty to check whether the politicians chosen by us act to its detriment. For now, this task is being made very difficult to us.
According to Matyja, we found ourselves on the verge of eras and the old system is falling apart, finally finished off both by events in the country as well as global trends. Either we can use this moment to create our narrative, overcome clientelism, build confidence of power to citizens, or nothing will change. And how is it? Matyja says:
The elite, who for the last quarter of the century shaped our image of the public sphere, did not believe that a high price could be paid for the weakness of the state, (…) appreciated inactivity, conformism, submission to the interests of power. For many years, their explanation has been that no state is perfect (…) any unnecessary obstruction of life with thought-out rules was criticised.
Maybe we have no reason to speak so sharply, but certainly the loneliness of local watchdogs, paternalistic treatment of citizens demanding information and calling them “pettifoggers”, as well as many cases on which we advise are symptoms of lack of space in the public debate for those who want to discuss these rules.