The Conservative-Liberal Clash Reshaping Poland’s Civil Society
As many as 150,000 Polish women travel abroad every year to access abortions, while the right wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) government is coming up with initiatives to tighten the already strict abortion law further. The government’s policy on nurturing “traditional” values has also enabled the proliferation of the conservative organizations and movements with a relatively new civil society organization—Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture—has sprung up to demand even more stringent abortion laws. Formerly known for its strong human rights and pro-democracy movements, Polish civil society now also features strong advocates of so-called family values, religion, or education centered around national history. This happened with the conscious help of the PiS government, which clearly divides civil society into liberal, neutral, and pro-government camps. It limits access to funding for those CSOs that are either critical of the government or whose activities do not correspond with the values promoted by PiS. This has hit liberal CSOs especially hard because major international donors that traditionally supported them left the country soon after it joined the EU and EU funding does not match their needs. However, the shortage of funds seems to have pushed CSOs into transforming how they operate.
The dismantling of liberal democracy in Poland is occurring through attacks on fundamental institutions like the independence of the courts and the rule of law, but also through public discourse and increased regulation of matters belonging to the private sphere, such as reproductive health, same-sex relations, and freedom of religion. The voices of liberal CSOs and their work to promote human rights and inclusion are no longer welcomed by the government.
The PiS government clearly divides civil society into liberal, neutral, and pro-government camps.
Government policies have created an unequal playing field, marginalizing liberal CSOs and nurturing loyal ones. The opportunities now available to a CSO are much broader if it adheres to values such as conservatism, the protection of so-called traditional values, and the promotion of patriotic education, or if it is affiliated with the Catholic Church. Organizations working on topics not considered useful by the government (such as reproductive health, LGBTQI rights, or migration have a slimmer chance of getting access to funding. They are also likely to be targeted by defamation campaigns by members of PiS and their affiliates. As the Refugee.pl Foundation puts it, “Organizations have been classified as supportive (and silent) or not and are treated accordingly.”
The main instrument of the government’s strategy for developing a loyal civic sector is the National Freedom Institute–Centre for Civil Society Development, an executive agency responsible for supporting the sector and volunteering. Its creation in 2017 was not universally welcomed by CSOs. Besides the fact that the act establishing it refers to Catholic values, suggesting a bias toward a particular political program, it also lacks safeguards to ensure that this body is independent from the government.
By now it is clear that civil society was right to be wary. According to Danuta Przywara of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights says, “The institute does not exclude liberal CSOs totally from the beneficiaries; but it is very seldom that CSOs critical of the government receive funding, and if they do it mostly goes for work implemented abroad, or for acceptable topics like patriotic education.” At the same time, funding from the National Freedom Institute has gone not only to loyal or newly created CSOs affiliated with the government, but in some cases to violent organizations such as the Podlasie Institute of the Sovereign Republic responsible for attacks on the LGBTQI Pride July 2019 in Bialystok last year.
Many ministries favor conservative CSOs when they look for partners.
The new conditions for CSOs do not apply only to the distribution of domestic funds. From 2015, CSO have had very limited access to European Union funds administered by the government. For example, funding from the EU Fund for Asylum, Migration and Integration is administered by the Ministry of the Interior. From 2015, calls for funding applications from this source stopped being regular and predictable. No CSOs received money from the EU fund between 2015 and late 2019 although civil society and humanitarian organizations are supposed to be among its beneficiaries. At the end of 2019, only seven CSOs received funds, two of whom are directly affiliated with the Catholic Church. Instead, since 2015 money was allocated to local administrations and government agencies such as the office for foreigners and the border-management authority rather than to CSOs. Some of the recipient local administrations did in turn distribute the money among CSOs, but this was infrequent and not done transparently. This gap in funding coincided with a break in other international sources of funding, which led several big CSOs working on migrant protection to close their operations or to reduce their staff.
Many ministries favor conservative CSOs when they look for partners. For instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected only conservative groups to organize a network of cultural and diplomatic programs across the country. The Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Culture are often funders and partners for events and projects organized by members of the Confederation of Polish Nongovernmental Organizations, an umbrella organization uniting conservative CSOs.
Crisis Paves the Way for a Better Future
However, these efforts coupled with defamation campaigns sometimes lead to results that were not envisaged by the government. A shortage of resources prompted CSOs to reach out to the public more actively, explaining the purpose of their activities and asking for support. Heated political debate and strong affiliation of parts of society with various political camps made this task even easier. For instance, after Watchdog Poland, which works on government transparency and accountability, was directly attacked by PiS politician Krystyna Pawłowicz in February 2016, donations to it increased. By the end of the year donations from individuals increased sevenfold and businesses started donating for the first time. By 2018, donations had doubled in comparison to 2016 and exceeded the grant funding Watchdog Poland was receiving. These numbers reflect a transformation in the organization’s operational model: its team became more active in the regions and created a support network. Watchdog Poland also developed a communications and outreach strategy, and started using its events as fundraising opportunities.
The picture is similar for several other CSOs. After Centrum Praw Kobiet, one of the oldest organizations in Poland working on women’s rights and domestic violence, lost access to government support, it started partnering with celebrities, bloggers, and public figures to spread its message about the important work the organization was doing and lead fundraising campaigns.
But it is not equally easy for all types of organizations to raise funds. For instance, people keen to support work on domestic violence might be less forthcoming for activities related to reproductive health. It is often difficult to motivate people to donate for many aspects of human-rights work. To tackle this problem, leading figures in civil society created the Civic Fund, a grant-making organization to support the protection of civil rights and freedoms and constitutional values. It became operational in 2018, with a budget for that year of around €127,000. Backed by individual donations, it primarily supports three types of organizations: those unable to get public support, those that must not receive public support if they are to remain independent, and those working in areas that the board of the fund believes are crucial for safeguarding democracy in Poland.
The Civic Fund has already played an important role in supporting pilot projects of many small CSOs, migration organizations when they experienced a funding gap, and important and innovative initiatives such as public conversations to counteract the polarization of society. Independence from institutional donors enables the Civic Fund to experiment and invest in initiatives vital for the development of a democratic society and to react swiftly to challenges to it. Its operational model is being replicated by other groups and a similar fund for LGBTQI initiatives is being discussed.
According to the Civic Fund’s Julia Brykczyńska, in the beginning it was possible for the organization to collect funds without investing much in a communications and outreach strategy but now competition has increased as more organizations choose to appeal to the people. This signals an important shift in the development of civil society and gives hope that it will become more professional and sustainable. Filip Pazderski of the Institute of Public Affairs points out that reliance on the public also demands greater transparency from CSOs. A major lesson for the whole sector came from the damage done to the award-winning Committee for the Defense of Democracy after its leader was involved in a conflict of interest and misappropriation of funds in 2017 .
It would be incorrect to think that only liberal civil society benefits from public support.
However, it would be incorrect to think that only liberal civil society benefits from public support. For example, All-Polish Youth, whose activists were investigated for the Pride attacks in Bialystok, also states that it functions solely thanks to contributions and voluntary payments from its supporters. And in 2016 Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture collected more than 450,000 signatures on a petition to parliament proposing that abortion be punishable by a prison sentence unless the woman’s life was at risk. Conservative CSOs have access to more financial resources thanks to the instruments created by the Government and the messages they are working with are quite conducive for the part of society (for example, fear of others such as migrants or minorities and pride for national history). They are also supported by the media connected to the state.
This means that liberal organizations and movements in Poland need additional support to reestablish equal playing field and to compete efficiently. But the current crisis also makes liberal circles more resilient, generates rethinking of the models and standards of CSO work and facilitates stronger connections with the public). The transformation that Polish liberal civil society is going through represents a positive trend. It might even become a blueprint for the region and beyond.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.