Title Image: A protester holds up a copy of the Polish constitution. Image: @DukaKofi via Twitter.
Over the last months, Poland’s nationalist ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) has tightened its grip on power through a series of authoritarian laws, placing the country’s media and highest constitutional court under its control. Human Rights organizations, the European Union and the US have raised concerns over the government’s shift towards authoritarianism, with the EU even threatening Poland with the loss of its voting rights within the Bloc.
The latest “reform” the ruling party is trying to pass aims at placing the judiciary branch under de-facto control of the government. The recent proposal consisted of three proposed laws: the first would require all supreme court judges to step down and give the justice minister the power to decide who should stay on. The second would give politicians control over the National Judiciary Council, which nominates Supreme Court judges, and the third gives the justice minister the right to select and dismiss the judges of the lower courts.
The planned “reform” sparked widespread demonstrations throughout Poland’s major cities, with tens of thousands protesting against what they see as an attempt of the party to move Poland ever more in the direction of a dictatorship under Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of PiS.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) July 21, 2017
It is an accepted fact that the Polish legal system is slow, has significant issues and urgently needs reform, however the “reform” the government proposed would not have fixed these issues. Rather, the aim much rather seems to have been to give the ruling Law and Justice party control over the supreme court.
Tens of thousands of citizens gathered in massive demonstrations throughout the country, which state media labeled as a coup against the government incited by foreign forces. The goal of the peaceful demonstrations: to urge the President to stop the three laws and save the Supreme and Lower Courts’ independence. And they were successful – almost.
The President’s decision was surprising – both because it deviated from the previous pattern of supporting even the most controversial of the PiS’ laws, and because of the speed at which it was made.
President Andrzej Duda would have had three weeks to make the final decision on whether to pass the laws or use his veto to have them revised, but he made his decision to veto the first two laws only days after the reforms had passed through parliament. Though the first two laws were vetoed, the third law, giving the justice minister the right to assign and dismiss judges of the lower courts, was passed by the President, making it only a partial victory for those fighting for democracy.
The President’s decision – although initially being seen as a great achievement by the protestors – also raises suspicion. Until now, Duda supported even the most controversial laws that the PiS proposed and pushed through parliament even if that meant violating the constitution, including placing the highest constitutional court under the de-facto control of the government. His latest decision to stop these two laws does not fit into that pattern.
Many think that the move made by the President – who was a member of parliament for the Law and Justice Party for 10 years – was mainly an attempt to quell the countrywide protests. The veto does not completely stop the law, it solely means that the law will be revised, and then another try can be launched by the party. This means that government may make a couple small, cosmetic changes not truly changing the impact of the laws, then push it through parliament again and have it signed by the president. This would also give the government to discredit the demonstrations for not being thankful for the government’s oh-so-gracious compromises. Additionally, it may have also served to distract from the third law being passed, which also directly attacks the independence of the judiciary in Poland.
The other option is that, after being the Polish President and not a member of the PiS party for two years, wants to get rid of his image as a marionette of the party. Until now he was seen as toothless and only there to approve the ruling party’s laws, which he has consistently been doing for the past two years. The veto may be the President’s first step towards truly giving up his PiS past and acting as an independent president. However, there is little indication that this is the case.
The wide-spread protests may also reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the government. As one Polish student puts it, the reasons are: “Andrzej Duda promised a lot of great changes for my country, but most of them were miraculously forgotten after he became the president. He and his party are breaking the law all around. Now they are ‘reforming’ to make it easier for them to break and ultimately overpower the law. Our politics are going downhill since the the election of Duda.”
The European Union has threatened that, should the laws be passed, Poland could face legal consequences in the form of losing its voting rights in the Union. A legal process was started by the EU on Wednesday (Jul. 26), giving Poland a month to resolve the problem that the laws break EU rules. The Polish government has called this “blackmail”, but the eurosceptic government in Warsaw nonetheless says that it is open to dialogue to resolve the issue.
Under the rule of the current, Law and Justice -dominated, government, Poland is becoming a more and more authoritarian state. After the enforced conformity of state TV and the highest Constitutional Court, the government has stepped up its efforts of attacking critics and independent media outlets. The latest laws and proposals would significantly threaten the independence of the judiciary rather than provide the much needed fixes to the existing problems.
As Zofia Romaszewska, much revered in Poland for her human rights activities under communist rule in the 1980s, says: “I do not want to back to the days when the General Prosecutor could do virtually anything.” But as of now, the government is leading Poland on just that path.