October 25, 2019 / 1:51 PM / 24 days ago

How a Polish campaigner forced her way into parliament

TORUN, Poland/WARSAW (Reuters) - Iwona Hartwich was banned from Poland’s parliament after camping out for weeks in a corridor last year demanding more state support for disabled people. This week she walked into the building to collect her certificate of election.

Iwona Hartwich speaks during an interview with Reuters at her home in Torun, Poland October 22, 2019. Picture taken October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

She recalls a sense of disbelief when she became one of a handful of activists to win seats in the Oct. 13 vote, in which the ruling Law & Justice party (PiS) was reelected.

“My campaign wasn’t easy, even though I got more than 10,000 votes. Nobody wants to listen to a woman who only talks about disability,” she said at her home in Torun, a city of 200,000 in central Poland.

“Is it a triumph? No. I believe parliament should be diverse.”

Hartwich, 49, whose older son has cerebral palsy, won her mandate after persuading the centrist opposition coalition to give her a prominent position on electoral lists, although she describes herself as an independent.

PiS, a nationalist, eurosceptic party, commands a majority in parliament and is in the process of forming a government for a second term after lawmakers are sworn in next month.

Three members of the tiny Green Party calling for an end to coal dependence, an organiser of protests held in 2016 against PiS efforts to introduce a near-total ban on abortion, and a gay rights activist are among other campaigners elected.

Analysts say their presence may go some way to shifting public debate in Poland at a time when PiS aims to expand its conservative agenda and enshrine more Catholic and patriotic values in public life.

“You have local government politicians, activists, people from NGOs, those are people of goal-oriented politics,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “I hope we will move from party bickering to more profound discussions.”

Hartwich, who has stayed at home to care for her now-adult son, first led a group of parents of disabled children staging a sit-in in parliament in 2014, shortly before PiS swept to power. Her husband had picketed government offices in 2009.

Their aim was to win an increase in state subsidies for family carers of disabled people.

APOLOGY

A PiS supporter at the time, Hartwich said she had hoped the economically left-leaning party would expand its large welfare programmes to give more support to the disabled.

When little came, she decided to camp out in parliament again in April last year.

With her son, Jakub, a wheelchair-bound 25-year-old, and other parents of disabled children, she asked the PiS government to pay roughly $125 per month to adults with severe disabilities, similar to its flagship benefit for all children.

At the time, the PiS government said their demands were unaffordable. It later introduced the benefit, but only if does not take an individual’s government funding above a sum equivalent to around two thirds of the minimum wage.

“We were cheated. PiS told us they would solve our problems if they won power,” said Hartwich. Asked for comment, a government spokesperson directed Reuters to the Labour Ministry, which was not immediately available.

Slideshow (7 Images)

Hartwich, her son and other protesters were banned from entering parliament until May 2020 after restrictions including a makeshift wall to separate them from a NATO parliamentary assembly meeting in the plenary room.

As a lawmaker, she hopes to persuade mainstream parties to give disabled Poles the same level of care as in wealthier western European states, with better access to physiotherapy, higher benefits and more supported living options.

“I am not naive,” she said. “I understand the opposition might not be able to get much through parliament, but some things can be done in a non-partisan way. Our community needs an apology.”

Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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