Concilium Civitas Almanac 2020-2021 Professor Joanna Regulska How Will the Pandemic Affect Local Democracy and Self-Governance in Poland

Joanna Regulska

University of California, Davis*

How Will the Pandemic Affect Local Democracy and Self-Governance in Poland?[1]This essay was written in September 2020.

The pandemic has spread across the whole world. There is not a place or person that has not been affected to some extent by the SARS-CoV-2 virus: individuals; state institutions, at the local as well as the national and global levels; international organizations and NGOs; the poor as well as the rich; migrants and refugees; inhabitants of villages, towns, and cities; women and men. Hundreds of thousands of people died, in Poland alone over 90,000. However, it would be an oversimplification to assume that the effects are being felt to the same extent, everywhere and by everyone, without taking into account historical, cultural, economic, social, class, racial, and gender-related circumstances (Roy, 2020). It is worth considering, therefore, how the pandemic has affected and will influence democracy in Poland, especially local democracy, in other words local self-governance.

The reconstruction, remodelling, strengthening, and restructuring of local democracy has been going on in Poland for several decades. Before 1989 the strength of the community revealed itself both through protests (strikes and demonstrations), constructive actions, and through a sense of social responsibility and solidarity (as in the activity of the underground “Flying University”). Many visible and less visible initiatives and instances of social mobilization strengthened social ties and built a sense of mutual support that transcended divisions. That was a grassroots movement, a response to the oppression of an authoritarian state, the restriction of free speech, the ban on meetings and demonstrations, and violations and restrictions of basic human rights (Krzemiński (red.), 2010).  Grassroots mobilization was also a response to the continuing material and economic difficulties and to the absence of mechanisms that enabled society’s needs to be regularly met. These movements brought various reactions by the state: increasing repression, waves of arrests, police brutality, and a further militarization of the state apparatus. At the same time, deluding the public by making previously scarce goods such as oranges and clothes more readily available on the market was designed to distract attention from further political crises and abuse of power by successive governments, parliament, and other political institutions.

After 1989, the building of Poland’s democracy and local self-government, as well as their institutionalization, went through many developmental phases associated with new legislation, new powers for local authorities, access to new funds, new administrative divisions of the country, the ingenuity of local authorities and the courage they showed in taking decisions that would have lasting effects. The initial stages of local government reform (formulation of legislation, etc.) consisted of top-down processes (Dziewanowska, 2000). Implementation, though, came to be in the hands of the newly elected local authorities which had in fact, since the very beginning, been under constant pressure from central government bodies and political institutions and parties (Regulski, 2000). These local institutions provided a framework within which new political, economic, and social activities could be designed and implemented. Here local democracy was, as it remains, deeply rooted in the local environment, the history, culture, and social practices of the given locality, which in turn influence the state and its apparatus.

Since 1989, Poland’s local democracy and self-government have been simultaneously inspired and formed by a variety of social processes. Here central has been the development of structures of cooperation and support, as with the taking of interest in neighbours and attending to their needs, and the development of concern for the common good and for the local environment (especially in smaller towns and villages – where there is a noticeable change in quality of life) (Regulski, 2006). Unfortunately, these processes have also triggered xenophobia, discrimination, and social exclusion based on gender, sexual orientation, race, or class. Conservatism in its broadest sense has come to the fore, along with intolerance, radical nationalism, and statism. This last, in particular, has become almost from the very beginning a great threat to local communities and their engagement (Olbracht-Prondzynski, 2020).

Ever since the start of Poland’s transformation in 1989, residents have influenced the formation of local identities through social participation in economic, political, social, and cultural life. These activities have brought to many localities new events, festivals, and even new products, the sale of which has in turn supported local businesses. It has often taken many years for such identities to form. New ideas for solving problems, building strategies for change, new initiatives, and a great wave of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness have all become driving forces for action and the building as well as rebuilding of local communities (Trutkowski i Mandes, 2005).

This was not always the goal intended at the outset by the residents, or by local government authorities. In fact, all of the governments since 1989 have been conservative and strongly resistant to guaranteeing human rights for all of Poland’s citizens. Exclusion, marginalization, and discrimination have not been eliminated; tolerance of minority groups, migrants, and refugees and the acceptance of diverse sexual identities as well as support for same-sex marriages have not been included in the right to equal treatment for all. On the contrary, these tensions have intensified in recent years, and the new wave of LGBT-free zones created by local governments show how Polish democracy is becoming weaker, while under threat at not only the national, but also the local level. The Polish state has become less inclusive and more discriminatory. For example, at the end of the summer of 2020 it was broadly reported that over one hundred Polish municipalities had adopted resolutions restricting the basic rights of the LGBT community (Ambroziak, 2020; Pankowska 2020).

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has been indifferent to national borders, to global divisions into more- and less-developed countries, or into different political groupings. It has not accepted social or racial divisions: the rich and the poor have been struck, although the latter have paid a much higher price in terms of loss of life. Paradoxically, the pandemic has on one hand democratized society: power, privilege, money, social origin, and job title have not offered protection from the threat. But on the other hand, a new social order has emerged, and it has put into question existing values, motivations, and ideologies. Social, economic, and political differences have not only deepened at a dramatic rate; they have also created new divisions and exclusions, as in the case of people living alone, of the elderly who have been isolated at home, or of migrants unable to return to their home countries (Babakova, 2020). The tensions around cultural values, beliefs, and faiths that exist both within each country and also across the countries have become the bases and driving forces strengthening the mechanisms of discrimination, intolerance, and stigmatization. Indeed, across the world greater divisions have arisen between those who have and those who have not (because they have lost what they had or have never owned or had access to certain goods) (Augustyniak (red.), 2020). At the same time, standards of social behaviour have also changed and continue to change: things that were considered right have become unacceptable, while things that were unthinkable have become the norm. Economists warn that unemployment may increase in Poland, and that the scale of the impact of the coronavirus is becoming visible around the world (Devlin and Moncus, 2020; Szymanski, 2020).

So what has the pandemic shown us and what initial conclusions may we draw? How are these painful changes, which are happening across the globe, affecting relations between state and local government? Will these changes strengthen or weaken local government and what threats are already visible?

Undoubtedly, extraordinary measures are needed to combat coronavirus. At the same time, the existence of a new global state of affairs has sharpened political battles, not only on a global scale between individual countries (such as with the pirating of masks and medical equipment and the monopolization of the vaccine market against the virus, in which the United States took the infamous first place), but also at the national and local levels (Kishi, 2020). Political groups have continued their election campaigns as if nothing has happened (e.g., in the U.S. and Poland), while the courts have violated democratic principles by adopting political positions and elevating politics above the social good and the principle of equality (e.g., in the primary elections in Wisconsin, US) (Gilbert, 2020; Landman and Splendore, 2020). Authoritarian and dictatorial leaders have either issued bans that have enabled them to reinforce their positions (as in Brazil or Hungary) or have gone so far as to order the shooting of people who, for various reasons, have failed to obey the bans and gone out onto the streets (as in the Philippines). In many countries the pandemic has been used as an excuse to weaken human rights, by limiting people’s ability to vote or by introducing more restricted rights, as in case of the reproductive rights of women in some states of the U.S. (Nash, Mohammed, Cappello, Naide, 2020) or by holding an anti-abortion debate in the Polish parliament (Grochot, 2020)). Finally, some states have introduced new methods of population control by decreeing new police powers, or by engaging in surveillance of people and violating their privacy rights with the use of drones and other technologies (Armenia, China, India, Iran, Israel, Kenya, and Russia). At the same time, some heads of state have chosen the reverse strategy of failing to take any specific action (which led to rapid spread of the pandemic as in the U.S.), giving contradictory information, persuading their citizens that everything is fine (Belarus, Brazil, Egypt, North Korea, and Turkmenistan) or failing to respond to requests and appeals from local authorities for medical equipment and funds to help save lives. Other countries have increased censorship, by restricting press freedoms and any criticism of their governments’ and employers’ actions (Bangladesh, Yemen, Cambodia, Myanmar, Serbia and Thailand).

At both the local and national level, in Poland, in the spring and summer of 2020, the enormous pressures generated by the rapidly changing needs impacted the urban and rural administration system. As a result of the Special Coronavirus Act, the pandemic changed how local government units (LGUs) operate. It expanded the range of their tasks and powers, allowing them, among others, to provide assistance to the local communities (e.g. by granting additional care allowances and other help for those most in need). At the same time, this legislation’s lack of precision caused much confusion as to their legal grounds, how they should be applied, under what framework the new regulations were being introduced, etc. (Związek Gmin Wiejskich, 2020). This, in turn, had a number of legal and financial implications. Tensions also arose among the different levels of government in connection with the new tasks. As a result of the initial absence of special regulations in response to the pandemic, the new directives were conflicting for LGUs. They had to carry out their statutory work and at the same time comply with the new directives (instructions to stay at home or restrictions on social gatherings), and with a lack of funds for their implementation (Starczewski, 2020). Over time, some tensions, such as in the previously mentioned stay-home orders, have eased, but others have remained and will lead to more long-term effects.

Despite having responded promptly to the crisis, because of a lack of funds or the necessary legal powers local and regional authorities were unable to meet the financial needs of their territorial units. The funds available for natural disasters proved insufficient. Already after the government’s enactment of the Anti-Crisis Shield (introduced in stages between April and June 2020 to support businesses and preserve employment during the pandemic), local governments (especially rural district authorities) appealed vigorously to the government for LGUs to be included in these anti-pandemic measures. They pointed out the additional tasks that the Special Coronavirus Act had imposed on them and the financial stress the resulting drop in local government revenues had caused (Bazylak (red.), 2020; Związek Gmin Wiejskich, 2020). The protection packages for businesses which were introduced in certain municipalities testify to the great ingenuity and foresight of local government officials. Some of them offered deferred payment of local taxes, cancellation of arrears, rent exemption, and suspension of all kinds of payments. But those measures undoubtedly lowered the local authorities’ revenues; they rapidly increased their indebtedness, even though many were already in poor financial condition. Increased expenses, reduced income, and higher expectations for help from residents and local business have triggered many tensions, both between local institutions and residents, and between self-governments at all levels (municipal, county and provincial) (Klimek 2020).

The central authorities’ reactions (in the spring and summer of 2020) were not always adequate, clear, or timely. In the beginning of the pandemic, the Polish government issued assurances that it had large financial reserves and could handle the crisis without question. The first wave of the pandemic made it clear that a district head or a town or city mayor mattered far more to us, the local community, than did the state authorities. Local leaders proved much more responsible and efficient in taking care of their constituencies. Many of the initiatives that were undertaken showed that local authorities not only reacted immediately but also undertook strategic economic protection of both individuals and businesses: fee exemptions for child day-care services and kindergartens for parents, tax relief for entrepreneurs, aid for local restauranteurs and caterers, and support for hospitals for purchases of protective equipment and other medical supplies are the most important examples (Januszewska 2020). Faced with the central government’s delayed response or lack of reaction to the rapidly escalating needs, local government officials took responsibility, acting quickly and addressing a wide range of local issues. The active attitude of local government officials had multiple effects on local communities; it allowed them to strengthen local ties and to increase the sense of the protective role of local governments, and at the same time it constituted a positive response to fear and loss of trust in national state institutions. However, the maintenance of financial and economic stability and meeting the needs of citizens in the long term depend not only on the creativity of local government officials, but also on cooperation with state administration bodies at the national level (a good example of such activities was the transfer of EU funds from Regional Operational Programs to meet current local needs) (Taborek, 2020).

Since local governments are a relatively young institution, created from scratch thirty years ago, the question arises: can any lessons be learned from the past? The scale and nature of the problems is obviously different: many years have passed since the transformation began (in 1989 in Poland), as we have more efficient institutions, well-grounded procedures, and better-educated officials. However, due to the problems faced by local government officials and the rapidly growing threats to democracy in Poland, the situation within which local government finds itself and the problems it faces can be compared with 1989 and the period of reforms. At that time, local governments were also operating with very restricted funds, running into many legal uncertainties and acting under great time pressure. They had to confront an avalanche of responsibilities and yet lacked established models of conduct, strategies and solutions. The battle against unemployment, struggles with the education system, rapidly worsening poverty, a decline in the quality of life of entire villages and towns in the wake of industrial restructuring, and the rapid rise in social welfare needs (assistance to pensioners, those on benefits, the homeless, single mothers, or the sick), politicization of local governments or constant discussions on changes in the administrative division of the country are familiar pains of Poland’s transformation period (Najdowski, 1994). What has become sorely evident now is that our past actions or lack of thereof have a bearing on our current problems.

Poland’s educational reform is a case in point. Its critical assessment and negative effects are widely known in Poland. Development of the education sector’s infrastructure has not been a governmental priority for years, but organizational and curricular changes in education have; the latter in particular have become tools, for successive governments to make their ideological mark. Neglect of the infrastructure is now becoming very evident; schools lack IT equipment, adequate teaching platforms and the funds to introduce such improvements. Curricular changes and constant transformations of the structure of schooling (e.g. the introduction and then shutting down of lower secondary schools) seem, from today’s perspective, to have been a waste of time and money. The most recent educational reform has not only weakened local government, by establishing a stronger role for school superintendents, but has also reduced the educational opportunities available to students from smaller towns and poorer families (Niezgoda, 2011; Rzeczpospolita, 2017). In the spring of 2020 the pandemic deepened these inequalities at an unprecedented rate. Remote learning put greater responsibility on parents and other adults, who were not always available or able to help. It also required IT equipment, stable internet access, and suitably prepared staff. Private schools have had such facilities for years, whereas state (public) schools suddenly had to face new demands and expectations from pupils, teachers, parents and carers. On the one hand, local authorities had to act quickly to enable students to continue their education and complete one school year and start a new one. On the other, though, they had limited room to manoeuvre and insufficient funds. State (public) schools, especially those in small and medium-sized towns and villages, were severely affected by the growing needs, lack of funds, time pressures, and solutions inadequate to the demands of new situation (Redzisz, 2020).

The pandemic also deepened social inequalities. After 1989, the transformation hit hard many social groups (e.g. elderly, low-skulls workers) and it initially increased unemployment. Many people, for health, professional, or family reasons, could not adapt overnight to function in the new context. The advent of the pandemic caused the poorest groups to lose the most and to suffer to the greatest degree from homelessness, increasing hardship, and loss of work (Pikuła et. al, 2020). Local authorities responded. The municipal forces (city guards) were tasked with ensuring that the basic needs (shopping, delivery of medicines and meals) of the elderly and those living alone were met, by organizing home visits and telephone calls. In these crisis circumstances the impoverishment of society was sudden and severe; thousands of citizens not only lost their incomes but also failed to receive any assistance from the state because the government’s Anti-Crisis Shield failed to provide support for them. The differences between contractual employment, specific-task contract work, and self-employment, which had been on the rise for years, became even more pronounced. Incidents of alcoholism and domestic violence directed at women and children became more prevalent because the victims of violence were suddenly locked up at home with their oppressors (Kocejko, 2020). Many difficulties and social disparities also became apparent in the case of refugees and immigrants, whose material situation, and often also their legal position, have always been unstable (Babakova, 2020). Some local authorities provided immediate financial aid and urged other district councils to respond and deliver aid quickly.

What kind of future lies ahead? The first wave of the coronavirus pandemic has shown us, once again, how economically divided, stratified, and polarized our (and not just our) society is. The presidential campaign has highlighted significant and ever deepening disparities as well as the return of the nationalistic state (Chadwick, 2020). The pandemic has questioned the very varied ‘benefits’ of the liberal system, identifying their instability and temporary nature (Guasti, 2020; Krastev and Holmes, 2019; Rapeli and Saikkonen, 2020). Not everyone has had the luxury of working from home. Many medical and service workers have been forced to go out to work, either because they are engaged in critical occupations or because they cannot afford to lose their wages (Kalan, 2020).  The call for protection of the working middle class has become a clear accusation levelled against governments and employers, public as well as private, and has turned into an often-repeated appeal not to ignore the health of those who have to go out to work during the pandemic so that others can work from home.

The pandemic has also drawn attention to deepening class divisions. The absence of social awareness and solidarity have made society increasingly polarized into those who will survive and ride out the crisis and those who will fail to cope. Although it would seem that at the moment there is no unemployment crisis in Poland (as is the case, for example, in the United States), there are many indications that a crisis will come, and it is only a matter of time before the labor market adjusts to the changes. Both older and more recent examples from Polish history show that the lack of a rapid and prudent intervention from the central institutions, government as well as parliament, coupled with the absence of a clear strategy of action, may drive people onto the streets as soon as the danger from the virus has diminished (Ekiert and Kubik, 1999). As Polish society believes in the strength of its vote and has achieved a lot by participating in strikes and demonstrations, they may become citizens’ natural reaction also now (Kasztelan and Hruby, 2020). Burglaries, thefts, and breaches of law are already visible in the data on increasing crime rates. Anti-social behaviour such as violence, racism, and discrimination have worsened; everyone is fighting to a greater or lesser degree for their own interests.

Local self-governance and local democracy have also become very vulnerable because local authorities’ weakened finances will severely undermine the activities of non-governmental organizations, which have been the driving force behind many positive local initiatives since 1989 (Kurczewski (ed.), 2003; Oko press, 2020; World Economic Forum, 2020). As we already know from the past, the apathy that characterizes Polish society (which has the lowest rate of participation in social initiatives in the European Union) could, paradoxically, intensify, increasing the risk that citizens will engage only in protests and fail to take any local actions. There is a possibility that social apathy will give central (as well as local) authorities the green light to introduce authoritarian and dictatorial measures, and will create opportunities for the violation of human rights under the pretence of helping citizens and therefore of having to limit the effects of the pandemic, as is already being done by many other governments in other countries. At the same time, we can see that some local mobilizations, do not go away and continue, and are visible on the streets of Polish cities (Dobier, 2020).

The laws and practices that govern democracy will undoubtedly be put to the test. They will not pass the test everywhere, and nor will they be able to withstand the pressures from businesses and individuals, central and local authorities, political organizations and institutions as well as formal and informal pressure groups. In this situation the role of the state in science, in the economy, and in the creation of social wellbeing should become the main force that can reduce the risk of economic disaster (which threatens private businesses and individuals’ domestic budgets) caused by the pandemic. The relations and links between the local and the national level will have an even greater role to play than they have done up to now. The question remains, will the central authorities take advantage of the pandemic to increase control over local authorities? (Osiecki and Żółciak, 2019) Will there be, on the one hand, further transfers of responsibilities to the local level, without the funding to carry them out, and, on the other, a reduction in local authorities’ autonomy, through limiting their capacity to take independent decisions and carry out tasks? We know from the past that central institutions and political forces have, at times, resorted to such methods. The need for a strong state and efficiently operating central authorities, which becomes evident in such crises as the current one, may therefore strengthen the country’s centralist tendencies. This sort of a change would not come as a complete surprise, because centralist trends at the fiscal, political, and systemic levels emerged in Poland following the introduction of the local government reforms in 1989 (Regulska, 2009).

Another increasingly strong (but not new) threat to local governments is the progressively stronger influence of political parties on their governance. And this is true not just during the election campaign, when more and more often party’s election programs have little to do with the local needs of residents and instead represent political program of their parties, as has happened during the local elections’ campaigns (Bukowski (ed.), 2011; Hess, 2010). And yet the elected authorities are to represent the citizens, and not fulfil party tasks. The latest example of the party’s strategy and desire to control local governments is Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) (Peace and Justice’s) idea of ​​changing the borders of the Mazowieckie Voivodeship. The strategy is simple: carving out Warsaw and nine other communes connected with it and creating two new voivodeships: Warsaw (Central Mazovia) and regional Mazovia (made up of the remaining communes). It is not only a return to communist times and the idea of ​​49 voivodeships, but also the further politicization of voivodeship self-government. Warsaw being in hands of the opposition affects the election results of the entire voivodeship (currently it is ruled by the Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform)-Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish Peasant’s Party) (PO-PSL)) coalition. A new split would reduce this influence and thus open up the possibility of better results for PiS and – potentially – the governance by this party. At the same time, such a change would lead to a drastic financial weakening of the new Mazowieckie Voivodeship (regional Mazovia), introducing a lack of financial stability, which would mean less funds for roads, hospitals, rail transport, schools, and cultural institutions. As a consequence, PiS would gain more power and thus fulfil its political ambitions, but the citizens would suffer because of the lowered quantity and quality of services (MLZ, 2020). It is clear that the new voivodeship means a new administrative machine and new costs, while financial resources are limited. A delay in the implementation of programs and investments launched by the previous authorities cannot have any positive effect.

Another example of how PiS’s control over local governments can unfold is the issue of the allocation of funds that Poland has negotiated in Brussels. Leaving aside the issue of whether Poland got more or less money–as it is not essential for local governments at the moment–what is important is that these funds come from two sources: the regular European Union budget and the so-called pandemic budget, which is to stimulate economic development and new investments. How much money Poland will receive will depend on how the previous funds were spent, as well as on whether the regulatory requirements were met and whether the principles of the rule of law were not violated (Bielecki, 2020; Sudak, 2020). Despite the rigid framework for granting funds, the Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy will be allocating funds for specific projects, infrastructure investments, and programs, i.e. decisions on what, who, where, and how will receive funds, remains in the hands of PiS party. We know that the distribution of EU funds in recent years has left a lot to be desired. We can therefore assume that little will change in this regard; some local governments will be rewarded and others will be punished.

The struggle for control over a way out of the crisis and over the future shape of the state will not allow a continuation of the decentralization processes as we know them. In an ideal world the relationship between the state and local government is not based on a need to control and centralize, but rather on cooperation and a balance of power. However, in Poland the circumstances of the crisis have not allowed a balance to be struck in this relationship. Instead, they have led to tensions and accusations of ineptitude or, conversely, demonstrations of one-upmanship (e.g., the conflict over which of them should support nursing homes). Criticism of the government’s operations has intensified, furthering censorship and restrictions of freedom of speech, but not only in media (ever since PiS came to power and took control of the public media), but also at an individual level: nurses and doctors may not criticize the state of the national health service and the lack of adequate preparation for the pandemic, while service workers are forbidden from decrying the lack of personal protective equipment and their employers’ failure to observe regulations.

In spite of the mounting workload and threats, local governments will continue to be the main provider of care for citizens. The question is how long the provision of care by local governments will last. This will depend on the authoritarian actions of the current political regime in power, as well as on the availability of financial resources, since their lack will translate into cuts. But local authorities are definitely Poland’s only institution to have enjoyed a consistently positive reception since 1989 (Feliksiak, 2018). Their concern for the local community is not surprising, because it is the local authorities that have managed to invest EU funds effectively and that have, since 1991, been improving the quality of life of Polish people through public investment. The lack of financial resources in a situation of crisis and the central control of their distribution weaken local governments and decentralization, and thus the principles of a democratic state. As we know, after 1989 it became evident that these bottom-up and top-down mechanisms of action had different effects and translated into very different mechanisms of action of both central and local authorities. Often the interest of local communities was lost in the clashes between local governments and higher levels of administration, and with the changing political elites.

The involvement of citizens in building local communities must therefore be supported, strengthened, celebrated, and recognized as a fundamental component of a democratic state, especially in post-crisis times (Kongres Ruchów Miejskich, 2020; Sześćiła, 2019). Unfortunately, Poland and Polish citizens know how to live under political oppression and economic crisis. Only the future can tell whether and to what extent such experiences will serve this time around, and that future depends largely on us.

*The author thanks Zofia Włodarczyk of the University of California, Davis and Cezary Trutkowski of the Fundacja Rozwoju Demokracji Lokalnej (Foundation in Support of Local Democracy), Warsaw for their valuable comments.


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