In a display of bitter divisions between ruling elites and the opposition, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the partly free election that marked the end of the 45-year Communist rule in Poland was an overwhelmingly partisan affair.
The ruling right-wing populists from the Law and Justice (PiS) party held a number of official events in the capital Warsaw, carefully planned not to give too much credit to heroes of the anti-communist resistance of the 1980s – among them Lech Walesa – who now happen to be in the opposition’s camp.
The opposition gathered in Gdansk to warn of risks to democracy that PiS’ rule has exacerbated.
Both sides cranked up their rhetoric as the autumn general election is becoming a now-or-never moment for PiS and the opposition alike.
“I used to be very critical of the Round Table talks and the June 4, 1989, election but I can see their importance now,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in the Polish Senate. He likened 1989 to an “awakening of the Polish nation.”
“I hope that such an awakening is taking place also today … and we can’t waste it,” the PM said in reference to the PiS government he is heading.
In Gdansk, the leaders of the opposition and their ally, the President of the European Council and Poland’s former PM Donald Tusk, held a separate event that appeared as much a celebration as an election rally.
“You have to be brave, you have to be determined, you have to be smart and you need good ideas. You must not be outplayed even though you lost the first game,” Tusk said, alluding to the May 26 election to the European Parliament that PiS won convincingly.
The election result left the opposition in disarray and apparently without a plan for the general election in the autumn.
“I can’t listen to it anymore ... they have public media, television, and we can’t do anything. Back then, [communists] had all the media and we only had leaflets and zines,” Tusk told the opposition leaders, recalling the events of 1989.
On June 4 of that year, Poles voted in the first partially free election after World War Two as the communist regime and the opposition led by the Solidarity trade union agreed to sit down to negotiations – the so-called Round Table talks – to push at least some democratisation.
The talks took place as the economic woes of the communist bloc became too acute to ignore while the international context – the perestroika in the Soviet Union in particular – created an opportunity for dissidents.
The election proved a landslide success for Solidarity even if it was guaranteed only 35% of seats in the lower house of the Polish parliament, the Sejm. Solidarity stormed the Senate, taking 99 out of 100 seats.
The election gave the movement such momentum that, only months later, Tadeusz Mazowiecki took office as the first non-communist PM in what still was an overwhelmingly communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
The Polish revolution of 1989 paved the way for other countries in the region, with the communist regimes all collapsing by the end of 1991. Poland joined Nato in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
Three decades on, the legacy of the revolution continues to divide Poland and influence current politics. The incumbent PiS has long underlined the exclusive character of Poland’s transformation that left millions behind in poverty, the narrative with which the party won the 2015 election.
Poland’s liberal opposition is largely unapologetic about the transition from Communism to democracy and market economy although that view has become more nuanced recently as PiS’ critical view has gained traction with voters.
Flipping at least some of those voters will be the opposition’s crucial challenge in the autumn election.
Virtually the only – and feeble at that – connection between the two camps was President Andrzej Duda’s speech in Gdansk. It was read out by his aide to the largely negative crowd in which some of the more confrontational individuals chanted “Constitution! Constitution!”
By the chants, they referenced PiS and Duda working hand in hand to defy constitutional guarantees of the judiciary independence
“Presidential letters are often very well written but it would be good if presidents themselves read them and implemented what they wrote,” former president Aleksander Kwasniewski said in Gdansk.
A former communist party apparatchik, Kwasniewski was Poland’s president between 1995 and 2005. He oversaw Poland’s accession to both Nato and the EU.
“I can only smile watching how former functionaries of the communist regime are lecturing us on what democracy is,” retorted Duda in Warsaw.