Knight in Shining Armor? The Changing Notion of Civil Society in Poland
Europe (Central and Eastern)
Recent years have brought worrying developments for liberal democracies. Participation and voter turnout are historically low (cf. IDEA, 2017), which makes way for democratic fatigue or even de-democratization (Ágh, 2014). In Europe, Poland and Hungary are often cited examples of this development, as they were labelled “consolidated democracies” less than a decade ago (Freedom House, 2017). Since then, governments have come into power that oppose the ideal of liberal democracy and its components (Chapman, 2017; Karolewski, 2016). Given the optimism that fueled the democratization process in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990ies, these trends are of particular concern. The proposed contribution takes a closer look at the proclaimed “democratic crisis” by investigating the concept of civil society for democracy.
Although social movements and popular protest are considered crucial factors for the events of 1989, civil society promotion in CEE by international institutions in the years that followed focused on funding civil society organizations. This often led to the emergence of organizations that were not rooted in the respective societies, or even undermined inherited structures (Ekiert and Foa, 2011; Jacobsson and Saxonberg, 2013). It is therefore unsurprising that especially Polish civil society, which can look back on a long tradition of political engagement, was criticized as apolitical and lacking a vision in the mid-1990ies (Jezierska, 2014). However, in the last decade and due to the most recent political developments, new social movements, responding to the political crisis and distancing themselves from predominant organizational structures, emerged (Piotrowski, 2012). This hints at change concerning not only the political system, but also at an altering discourse on civil society in Poland.
Is such a change of (public) discourse in fact observable, and if so, what are its implications? Whereas early conceptualizations during the 1980ies presumably are explicitly political (Arato, 1982), the expected pattern during the process of European integration until the early 2000s is very different, but less clear. To what extent has the often criticized inflation of civil society with the “third sector” (Bunynan, 2014) taken place, and who were its proponents? The election of the PiS government and the “illiberal turn” accompanying it might pose a new watershed in the debate. New actors both on the liberal and non-liberal side are emerging, many of them re-evoking the anti-communist legacy of Polish civil society and opposing the neo-liberal notion of the third sector.
The proposed contribution investigates these altering conceptions of civil society in Poland by analyzing the discourse maintained by different institutions (foreign organizations, supranational, bodies, domestic think tanks) in their publications (i.e. grey literature) at different points of time (1980ies, 1990ies, and 2010 onwards). Of particular concern is whether civil society is framed as a “part”, a “kind”, or a “sphere” of society (Edwards, 2011), and which are the respective implications for the relation between civil society and democracy. This approach serves as a basis for discussing the perceived or actual transformation of democracy, and the role civil society has to play in it.