It was early in the morning and I was on my way to the old town in Warsaw to join the free walking tour of the old town. Mid way through, I passed by the presidential palace.
But something was different this morning, there were barricades, TV vans setting up, police walking around and journalist standing by to give live reports to the radio station.
“Is something going on?” I thought to myself and turned to my phone to find out. I couldn’t find out in time and walked off to the old town. Ah, if its truly big I’ll find out about it later on, I reasoned. The tourist were around everywhere too, if it was dangerous the tour groups would have moved away by now. So off I went to the walking tour and promptly forgot about the set up outside the Presidential Palace.
Close to the end of the tour while taking a break at the Warsaw Uprising Memorial, a few participants in the tour walked up to the tour guide to ask about the protests later today, she heaved a big sigh and began sharing her views with them. “Protests?” I turned to the another tour participant. He looked back at me, ” oh yes, it’s been going on the last few days. Protests every night actually.” I was intrigued by too hungry to think about it, so off I went to a milk bar to grab some lunch followed by a trip to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The hours to the day were ticking down and after spending a whole afternoon at the Warsaw Uprising Museum I headed back to town for dinner. I wanted to try the award-winning Bigos at Zapiecek.
The bus stopped near the city. It was around 5pm and I reckoned that this must have been the evening rush hour traffic. I was surprised that the rush hour traffic would be in the old town and not the central business district, but I shrugged and moved in the direction of the restaurant.
“Oh shit, I forgot all about this!” I exclaimed in my head, the protest was beginning in earnest. Enteprising entrepreneurs set up stalls to sell EU and Polish flags, others had stands selling ice cream, snacks and candles.
People were moving towards the protest site, many it seems out from a day of work. It was in the direction of food (my head was taken over by my stomach, lets just say). Well when in Warsaw… so I turned to follow them. I swear one day this curiosity is going to get me in trouble. But it didn’t that day.
There were parents with their prams and their children holding placcards
Teens with homemade signs crossing the street,As well as older people biker groups parking their bikes and carrying their Polish and EU flags with them. They were all off to join the rally.
Throughout the protest, which was largely made of rally speeches and cheers, the cleaners continued to faithfully carry out their duties.
I stood at a side and saw a young couple, “hi what’s this protest about?”
They looked at me, taken aback that a tourist would come up to ask, “well, our parliament has just passed a law that is unconstitutional so we are here to protest against it.”
I reckoned I wasn’t going to get much out of them and decided to politely excuse myself and walked around the protest site to get to dinner, turning to google to try to find out clearly what was going on.
The whole protest site was clean and frankly orderly and peaceful. Not every protest turns violent, something that my Singaporean brain has had to be reprogrammed to appreciate.
The long and short of it is as follows: in the most recent elections, the populist conservative Justice and Peace party (PiS) won a majority in both the upper and lower houses of parliament as well as the presidency winning control of the entire executive and legislative branch of the government. In a recent house vote in July, the Sejm voted to sign 3 bills into law. The three bills are as follows (summarised by the BBC):
- The first reform requires all Supreme Court judges to step down and gives the justice minister the power to decide who should stay on
- The second gives politicians control over who sits on the National Judiciary Council which nominates Supreme Court judges
- The third gives the justice minister the right to select and dismiss judges in lower courts
In essence, the judiciary would be subordinate to the executive, which would called the independence of the judiciary into question. This has obviously stoked alot of debate and discussion among the Poles and fears among businesses that this could hurt the country’s credit rating.
The Polish people had been doing this every night for the past few days, I had merely had stumbled on the ninth straight day of protest.
After dinner I decided to walk to the bus stop to wait for my boss. It had been more than 4 hours since I was stuck at the Presidential Palace, the protest must have fizzled out by now. My instincts looked like they would be right at first, just outside the old town, at Sigismund’s column were tourist and performers trying to entice people to shell out a few zloty, there were no crowds or masses of people. I didn’t even hear much shouting.
I walked even closer to the site (where the bus stop was), and the restaurants were full of diners, people were walking back from the streets. The protests have ended I thought to myself, people are slowly clearing the area.
My beliefs were supported because of music that was being played in the distance. It was almost as if there was a concert in front, maybe the last throes of passionate protest as people started to clear the place.
But I was wrong.
My first hint was a television station van parked at the side continuing to transmit images live.
And then the roar came back again.
For every one person who was leaving another two were coming out, the protest was not dying out it was growing! People cared and they were showing it. This was democracy in action, an amazing sight to behold.
Not understanding polish, I couldn’t make out squat of what was being said so I decided to leave the locals and go back to rest. The bus was obviously not going to come this way, so I walked to the next bus stop based on what google maps reported, and then the next, and the next. After what seemed like an eternity exploring the streets of Warsaw after dark (with the company of way too many people on a Monday night) I thought I had reached the busstop. But I hadn’t. Google had brought me to the Supreme Court, Google had brought me to another protest site.
And so my education in democratic practice continued. I had a lady speaking to her friend, “we just need to be here to add to the body count, the more of us there are the more the message will be driven home”. I saw people talking, hugging chatting and talking. There was a clear idea to make their voice heard and for the constitution to be protected – a constitution that was hard fought barely 29 years ago, a freedom that Poland last had a 100 years ago.
I was still stuck in the protests and was caught it in for an hour, but as a means of political education it was truly worth it.
Democracy alos worked partially. The next day, the president Andrezj Duda, once a loyalist of the ruling party announced (in a break from the party leadership) that he would veto two of the three bills.
This story is not over yet, it’s a partial victory for democracy, but an important morale boost for those protestors that night. This is the same country and people who rose up against Hitler in 1943 and 1944, and that overthrew the Soviets by installing peacefully a democractically elected Solidarnosc government in 1990. They have risen before, it is not a war or rebellion this time but the spirit of standing up for what is right should not be doubted. I wouldn’t bet against them regardless of how powerful the government seems.
ON THE MAP (Presidential Palace)
ON THE MAP (Supreme Court of Poland)