Poles divided 40 years after birth of Solidarity

Bernard OSSER
·4-min read

Forty years after the Solidarity movement united Poles and sparked their peaceful triumph over communism, the EU member is now deeply divided as concerns mount over the health of its young democracy.

In what has become an iconic image, on August 31, 1980 freedom hero Lech Walesa used an enormous pen to ink an agreement with the communists that gave rise to Solidarity, the Soviet bloc's first and only independent trade union.

"I knew the communists wanted to deceive me, that they were trying to strike a deal with us but remain in power," said Walesa, the shipyard electrician turned Solidarity leader turned Polish president. 

"I wasn't going to let them fool me. I told them to give me just a little but I was thinking I'd take the rest myself. And I did," the Nobel Peace laureate told AFP. 

Ten million Poles -- workers, intellectuals, farmers, teachers, artists, students -- joined the peaceful movement that was unlike anything the country had ever seen.

It was all but crushed a year later when General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law and Walesa was arrested and interned.

But Solidarity still went on to win Poland's 1989 semi-free elections, ushering in the first democratic government of the former Soviet bloc and ultimately leading to the fall of communism.

- Cornerstone of independence -

"August 1980 is a foundation of independence and Polish democracy," said historian Aleksander Hall, who was an advisor to Walesa and later a member of the first democratic government. 

"The Solidarity movement was exceptional as much for its size as for its peaceful strategy and played a primary role in the destruction of the old system," he told AFP. 

Today, Poland is a member of both the European Union and NATO. Its economy, the EU's sixth largest, saw uninterrupted growth for 30 years until the coronavirus pandemic struck. 

While its economic transformation has been a success, on the political front the country is now divided more than ever. 

The results of July's presidential election highlighted the polarisation. Right-wing President Andrzej Duda, who is closely allied with the nationalist government, was reelected by 51 percent of the vote in the run-off against liberal challenger Rafal Trzaskowski. 

Trzaskowski won big among the middle class, young voters, big city dwellers and the well educated, while Duda was generally backed by rural Poles, the elderly and the less educated -- although the political fault lines can even run through individual families.

- Rule of law -

Since coming to power in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has pushed a nationalist strategy that troubles the liberal segment of the population.

The party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, once a close Walesa associate who is now his arch enemy, has notably introduced a slew of controversial court reforms that critics, including the EU, argue pose a threat to judicial independence and the rule of law. 

PiS insists the changes are necessary to tackle corruption in a judiciary still haunted by communism. 

According to the conservatives, post-1989 Poland was established on the basis of a flawed compromise between the communists and some of the Solidarity liberals.

They believe an overhaul of state structures will rid Poland of the vestiges of communism, while critics see the move as a bald-faced power grab. 

Solidarity is still around, though today it is just a regular union with around 500,000 members. The present-day incarnation is also government-friendly, which has earned it criticism. 

"It's very effective as unions go. All it has to do is put forth its demands and it gets what it wants," liberal lawmaker Jerzy Borowczak told AFP, referring to the union's cosy ties with government.

"What's missing today is the atmosphere of that time. We were united. Today it's one against the other," said Borowczak, who was one of the main organisers of the 1980 strikes that led to the birth of Solidarity.

In a sign of the times, the two Polands will be commemorating the 40th anniversary of the movement separately: Walesa and the opposition in the morning, followed by Duda and the government in the afternoon. 

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