If opposition politicians really need to hold press conferences only to jump at each other's throats, they should do it in the primaries, not during the election campaign. What we need is to find a way to make the fight among the opposition happen before the election campaign even begins. Once it starts, we should only focus on fighting the right-wing coalition government and the Confederation- says Marta Lempart.
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At the beginning of December, all opposition parties along with several civil society groups signed the so-called "Agreement for the Rule of Law". It was announced that brand-new legislation will be drafted and presented that would restore an independent judiciary as well as help end the legal conflict between Poland and the European Union, and activate the EU funds that are currently blocked. It is the second half of January and the draft bill has not yet found its way into the Parliament.

For the first time since 2015, Polish opposition parties and civil society groups have worked together to draft a joint bill for the parliament. As signatories of the Agreement for the Rule of Law, we decided to work on a piece of legislation developed by the Polish Judges Association Iustitia – the National Council of the Judiciary Bill, the Supreme Court Bill, and many other draft laws that would help meet the requirements imposed on Poland under the CJEU rulings.  

We agreed that the draft bill Iustitia had been working on is the one we should all support and present in the parliament. It will be the very first piece of legislation developed as a joint effort by the "united opposition". It means there is no room for mistakes or miscommunication, and the final version of the bill must be accepted by all the signatories.

Hasn’t it been accepted yet?

Well, the draft has been accepted and the legislation was sent for further review by members of the working group, but, unfortunately, some of the signatories still have further comments. 

What kind of comments?

Some are of substance – I would say most of the comments are substantial. Some are totally irrelevant. In my opinion, the role of the civil society organizations involved in the works is to make sure that the effort is real, not feigned, and that there is no room for emphasizing differences, for ruining joint efforts by meaningless political publicity stunts. We cannot allow politicians to do what they usually tend to do – water things down.

I can see clearly how tempting it is for politicians to seize the moment and use such an opportunity for their own partisan interest. They always end up having to make the unfortunate choice between what is good for Poland and what is good for their own party.

Luckily, the politicians that we are working with are able to resist the temptation. Well, at least most of the time.

Has the work been delayed on purpose?

No, it has not. There have not been any purposeful attempts to delay it so far. It all looks promising. I can see some real effort and I hope that the satisfaction of working together and achieving our common objective will outweigh the temptation to go solo for the sake of more publicity. I have never seen so much political goodwill before.

How many signatories misuse the opportunity for publicity stunts?

My estimation is that approximately 50% of those participating work hard and are genuinely involved in the work on the bill. 45% do substantial work for the most part, and the remaining 5% cannot fight the temptation to use the opportunity to improve their party’s position.

And it is not stable, it is a process, the roles are not fixed, they change all the time depending on the situation. What is important is that we are making progress. I believe we are heading in the right direction.

What are the politicians involved in the project trying to water down?

- Oh, it is always the same. They tend to speak with too much caution, be purposefully vague, so there is enough leeway for interpretation. Or backing out, if necessary. For me, a yes is a yes, a no is a no, we need to be direct, even blunt, and speak frankly. Otherwise, the message is being effectively watered down.

Is it?

We would never agree to that. People in civil society organizations are all about calling things what they are. We focus on things that matter. And this is what makes us powerful.

When are you going to finish working on the bill?

The bill must be ready by the end of January. I can’t imagine a situation where we cannot and do not present it by then. If the opposition won’t be able to make a deal and support the final version of the bill, despite the efforts of the civil society groups and Iustitia’s input, then it will be a disgrace. It will be discrediting for them.

Why is the bill so important in respect of EU funds?

The reason that EU funds for Poland are blocked is, among others, the fact that the contentious Disciplinary Chamber still exists and continues to adjudicate. It should have already been dissolved. The CJEU ruling has not been enforced because of Mr. Ziobro’s stubbornness. And because Kaczyński is afraid of him. In a little while, Poland will have to prove that its laws are in line with EU regulations. And the ruling party has not even prepared any bills yet.

Our bill offers a way out of this gridlock. It is exactly the law we need to adopt. We must get it passed so that the European Commission can decide whether Poland is taking a step towards restoring the rule of law.

Is it possible that PiS will find the bill convenient?

No, it will definitely not be convenient for the ruling party, they do not want Polish law to be in line with EU regulations. But I think getting the bill passed would signal a concrete response from Poland that we know how to solve the problem and restore the rule of law in our country. How to restore the independence of our judges. The European Commission will not rewrite Polish law for us. It is our job and our responsibility to do it.

Has the draft been presented in Brussels or Strasbourg yet?

I believe the original draft written by the Polish Judges Association Iustitia has been discussed there, but the final version with amendments suggested and accepted by all the signatories will only be presented after the working group is ready with it. 

Marta Lempart. A "united opposition" or separate tickets?

What could be the possible outcome of your joint effort for the opposition as far as the election is concerned? Will there be a joint ticket, or will the opposition opt for separate tickets?

My basic assumption is that working together on legislation restoring the rule of law could be a litmus test. There are many other policy areas with lots of room for improvement and areas where the state basically fails. We should join our forces and work together to produce restorative legislation to fix the country. What is important, such legislative working groups cannot consist of politicians only. On the contrary, these should be teams of independent experts, researchers, representatives of social organizations, NGOs. It is the only way to eliminate or resolve potential conflicts of interest that could ruin any chances of agreement. And there is always a prospect of conflicting interest where there are different parties involved. It is inevitable, but it needs to be nipped in the bud.

If the opposition wants to fix education or the healthcare system, they need to join a work group, roll up their sleeves, do the work,  sign the final version of a particular bill, and be ready to pass it as soon as the ruling party loses the majority in the Sejm. 

This is what makes us, members of civil society organizations, different from politicians. We know that hard work and merging interest is essential to succeed.  We need to see the tangible results, whereas politicians stick to old tricks that no longer work. They prefer fake debates, fake events, where no one really exchanges any opinions. It is all about publicity, media attention and exposure. The one with the best PR team wins. That is not democracy! It is feeding the ego. Get to work, people! Do your job!

Szymon Hołownia suggested a debate.

Oh, well, that is what all politicians like best. That is what they stick to. But these are never real debates. They get a platform to present their agenda and they usually use it to fight and insult one another in public in a very embarrassing way. It is a disgrace. It is insulting to the public.

What makes you think so?

Sometimes, I really feel like I am watching a power play on a playground. While the country is being governed by an organized crime group, opposition politicians engage in infighting for visibility and publicity. My friends got a pet, a lovely fluffy ball called Pompon the dog. He never seems to get enough attention, even though he has all the attention in the world. He is desperate to be seen, to be heard, to be in the centre of attention, all the time. "Look at me, look at me…".

That is exactly what some Polish politicians do every damn day to be recognized, and that is the biggest problem of the Polish political scene. It is a disaster! We had a taste of it during the 2019 election. People who traditionally support the opposition really yearned for a new quality in politics, not just cheerful smiles and friendly patting on the backs, no matter how reassuring. They wanted the opposition to rise to the challenge of dismantling the ruling party and cleaning up the mess.

Well, this time it must be different. We need to go at it from another angle. The opposition really has to do the hard work, and joint legislation is a good starting point. Especially, if they want to go as a "united front".

Who would be responsible for the electoral program if there is a "united opposition"? The work groups you’ve already mentioned?

We are not talking about electoral programs anymore. It is all about developing draft bills that we need to pass for Poland to recover, it is about legislation. I am begging you, let’s not talk about Power Point presentations, it is not about the graphics or bullet points or press conferences. It is definitely not about each opposition party trying hard to stand out from the others. I am so sick and tired of that. What is important is that the opposition parties must have restorative legislation ready by the time they have the majority in the Sejm. That would be something, a real breakthrough. And something measurable for the public, too, a tangible result of joint action.

So far, we have only managed to successfully join forces on one project, the rule of law legislation.  

And I believe it is all because of the Free Courts group. They are relentless. And I do not see how it could happen without members of Iustitia. All these people are so patient and decisive, focused on the goal.

If a "united opposition" block is indeed on the table, will it run on one ticket or two?

Contrary to some concerns, I believe that we should follow the example of Hungary. If the united opposition wins the election there, we should really consider a similar strategy. We should have a primary election and involve the public in the decision-making process. The voters should be given a way to codecide on who gets on the ticket and represents them in the election.

We desperately need to be effective this time, so we must make sure all the infighting among the opposition ends before the electoral campaign starts. Then it is all hands on deck, and we should all focus on defeating the ruling United Right coalition (Zjednoczona Prawica) and the Confederation party (Konfederacja). 

That is why we should organize something like primary elections in the US. This would give opposition leaders enough time to debate, present their agenda, and give them exposure. And voters would come in and pick whomever they find best suited for the ticket. May the best one win. People want agency and we need to deliver. If the opposition fails to understand it, they can expect a low voter turnout. If you want the outcome to change, you have to change the methods, one simply cannot expect a different outcome while sticking to old, ineffective ways.

We need to keep in mind the end goal – and for me, the goal is a high turnout rate among those who support the opposition. Opposition politicians need to understand that they have to earn the votes. They have to work for it. They can’t take it for granted.

PiS will not be able to rig the election if the opposition gets significantly more votes. It is doable, but only if the opposition considers the voices of younger voters. They took to the streets in 2020, but they will not cast a ballot if the electoral campaign looks the same it did back in 2019.

What else can we do to increase voter turnout?

Well, people will be more eager to cast a vote if they feel they have more agency. That is the most important factor. They must know their opinion matters, that they have the power to change things and make things happen. We are all so used to being told what is best for us, who we should vote for, but we no longer trust the leaders to make the right decisions for us. What is more, some of us, especially the younger ones, start to challenge the status quo and demand to be heard. Why should we let the leaders decide on their own? Just because they wear suits and pretend to do the adulting? If we give the power to decide back to the people, it might be enough to turn the non-voters into voters. No matter what party they identify with.

Marta Lempart. Do opposition parties need primaries?

What can we do to make voters have a say in who gets on the ticket?

Oh, there are dozens of possible solutions at hand! We can organize a primary, we can organize debates involving delegates of various backgrounds, civil society organizations, all sorts of organizations. A couple of thousand representatives who could help make the right choice of all the candidates to get on the ticket.  Everything is possible and doable if there is the political will to do it. It all depends on the will of four guys wearing suits who got really comfortable with deciding for us. They are used to having their way and who knows if they will be willing to give up that power and let the public codecide. They would have to understand and internalize the notion that they do not own causative agency. It is Poland that matters. The voice of society matters, and it cannot be ignored any longer.

Thousands of young people took to the streets in 2020 to protest the near-total ban on abortion. They do not agree with what the ruling party does to women, they do not agree with human rights violations. Still, you claim the young are not interested in the election. How come?  

We are the last generation of Polish people who would crack under the moral pressure to vote, swayed to action by the threat of "democratic backsliding" that the ruling party is so voraciously pursuing. We would respond to taglines such as "we cannot afford to be indifferent" and we would be terrorized with angry rants of the righteous columnists. But it does not do the trick with today’s youth.  

The ruling party tried to break them, quite literally, they tried to beat them up in the streets, and the opposition tried everything from complaining, nagging, urging, threatening to bend them to their will. But they are unbreakable and somehow immune to all of that. You can try to yell at them, but it would be pointless. Young people today simply refuse to do what they are told to do both by the authorities and by any of the self-proclaimed authority figures. They are ready to respond with ‘Fuck off!’ or ’Get the fuck outta here!’ to anyone in a position of power who abuses it, no matter if it is PiS or the opposition.

And to be honest, I admire their bravado. Our generation never had that kind of courage.  If we had had enough courage, everything could be different now. But we did not, and we were emotionally blackmailed and coerced into voting for the lesser evil. Not asking for anything in return and not getting anything in return. Not even an ounce of respect.  

Luckily, young people today are not likely to be guilt-tripped. They could not care less about being blamed for the electoral defeat of the opposition. And they are right about it. If the opposition loses the election, well, it will only be their own fault, nobody else’s. Members of political parties look at public opinion polls and they must now know that dodging the issues of women’s rights, human rights, or climate change will take a heavy toll during the election. They have the polls and they must realize that young people do not trust politicians. Now, the question is what they will do with that knowledge, if anything at all. They might accept the facts and act accordingly or change nothing and keep blaming the non-voters for their own failure.

In our political "bubble", it is usually the older generation who dreams of a "united opposition" block. But some of the younger voters emphasize and point to the benefits of separate tickets, especially the left-wing ticket.  

I suppose voters who support fighting for human rights and a secular state - exactly the two notions that the conservative right-wing and the right-wing-pretending-to-be-centrist are terrified of, well, they may believe that one, joint electoral ticket will pose some kind of a threat. And that is their right.

It is not surprising. The centrist, conservative opposition has been practicing catering to the needs of the Catholic Church while neglecting the needs of the public for many years.

That is such an understatement. I believe it is even worse – I believe NONE of the opposition parties have ever listened to their own voters. The sole fact that the decisions as to who makes it on the lists or not are usually taken by two or three men behind closed doors makes it an epic fail. Fixing it is a sine qua non condition if we want to be authentically represented in the election by members of opposition parties. The selection process has to be free from personal bias.  

The 2020 protests brought many positive changes and I would call them successful in many respects. We managed to threaten the ruling party to the point they needed to cancel the Sejm sittings and seriously considered using the army to pacify legitimate political protests. But in a way, we failed, we were not able to give the opposition enough scare so that they would start respecting their supporters. The respect of the opposition is not a given, it is conditional. Some opposition politicians still take their voters for granted and believe they can berate, scold and push their supporters around.  

Have you ever discussed it with the leaders of the opposition?

We touched upon the notion of a joint ticket some time ago. But if it was meant to happen, we would have to readdress it and start a whole new conversation. There is a lot of resistance in the opposition parties, or in any party, to be precise, to joint tickets. And if the names on the tickets were to be chosen with the public involved, oh, that would be a lot to swallow for those who are used to getting their way. But the resistance might be significantly reduced if the opposition parties work together on legislative projects with some success and if the success will be acknowledged and rewarded by their supporters. People who support the opposition parties out of habit or simply because there are no better options, they have long been longing for a breath of fresh air. And some concrete actions, too. Even if the joint ticket scenario will be out of the question, working together on a series of projects might prevent the opposition from fighting each other during the election instead of fighting the ruling camp. When people get to know each other and work together in good faith, good things happen. It makes it much more difficult to think of them as enemies and stab them in their backs. And it is much easier to ignore and neutralize the impact of those who have to steal the spotlight and be in the center of attention no matter what. Just like Pompon the dog.

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