Something Rotten in the State of Poland?

You may have seen the recent headlines:

"Poland’s democracy is crumbling."
"The pillars of Poland’s democracy are being destroyed."
"Poland: Europe’s New Headache."

Less than a year ago, Poland was being hailed as Europe’s success story. What happened?

In October, Poland was hit with a political earthquake when the Law and Justice Party (PiS), won a sweeping victory in the Parliamentary elections. Since then, the new government has tightened its grip on the media and pushed through questionable constitutional reforms. As a result, tens of thousands of Poles have taken to the streets in protest.

The PiS criticizes immigration while simultaneously trumpeting the return of ‘traditional’ Polish values. Their Foreign Minister has critiqued left-wingers for their desire to create a "mix of cultures and races, a world of bicyclists and vegetarians," and Kaczyński himself has said that Muslim refugees are riddled with parasites and disease. When the PiS isn’t curbing women’s rights, being homophobic, or drumming up anti-German sentiment, they’re working tirelessly to reveal the international ‘conspiracy’ which resulted in Lech Kaczyński’s plane crash.

And yet, this party was elected by a massive margin. How?

Well, they know their voter base: patriotic, Catholic, conservative, and rural. They have made numerous populist pledges: increase the minimum wage, roll-back the retirement age, expand family benefits, and raise taxes on foreign assets. When coupled with the increasing unpopularity of the previous government, change became an increasingly compelling argument.

The most powerful man in Poland today, PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, is unelected and unaccountable. The identical twin brother of previous Polish President Lech Kaczyński (killed in a 2010 plane crash), Jarosław stayed out of the spotlight during the recent election, only emerging once the PiS had secured a victory.

Following the election, Western observers were quick to note that the PiS’ extraordinary concentration of power (with control over both the Lower Parliament and the Senate, the Presidency, and possibly even the Constitutional Court) allows them to push through essentially any legislation and make sweeping constitutional changes, potentially transforming the country into another illiberal democracy in the Hungarian mold.

It seems as if these concerns are slowly being realized. With the stage being set by the previous Civic Platform (PO) government and their tampering with the Constitutional Court, Poland’s highest judicial body, Poland’s current democratic crisis quietly began:

In October, the outgoing parliament dominated by the liberal Civic Platform filled five upcoming vacancies in the Court. Three judges were elected for slots which opened in early November, before the start of the new parliamentary term. Two were chosen to succeed judges whose term would end in December.

The Constitutional Court reviewed the validity of these elections. In a December 3 decision, it held that the first three judges were elected properly but the two judges who would replace those whose term ended in December were not.

Had the newly-elected PiS government appointed two judges as per the Court’s decision, the issue would have been resolved. Instead, they declared all 5 appointments made by the previous government void and swore in 5 new judges of their own.

As a result, the court and the parliament are deadlocked. The Court’s Chief Judge has refused to allow the 5 new judges to hear cases, while the PiS-controlled parliament pushed through a new law increasing the number of judges needed to reach quorum in the court, effectively forcing the court to accept at least one of the PiS appointees.

Not simply content with eroding the Constitutional Court’s ability to maintain legislative checks and balances, the PiS took further steps to undermine a democracy’s most important public accountability mechanism: the media. On the 31st of December, the PiS passed another controversial law, allowing them to directly appoint the management of the Polish national television and radio networks, TVP and Polskie Radio. While the PiS claims the reforms ‘depoliticize’ the airwaves, the law does not affect the right-wing pro-PiS networks.

The European Commission has begun a formal investigation to determine whether the public broadcasting reforms, as well as the Constitutional Court debacle, violate ‘European Values’ (as per Article Seven of the Lisbon Treaty). This is the first time that the EU authorities have invoked this enforcement mechanism, under which Poland’s EU voting rights could be suspended.

The Commission must tread carefully, however, as negative findings are likely to exacerbate Polish anti-EU sentiment. Indeed, one tabloid has already depicted Angela Merkel as Adolf Hitler with the caption "again they want to supervise Poland."

With cohesion amongst the EU at an all time low, the next few weeks are especially important. How will the EU respond as another of its members swings to the right? How will Poles react to their democratic rights being slowly chipped away? And perhaps most importantly, how far is the PiS willing to go?

Robert Gorwa

Robert is a graduate student at the University of Oxford. He was recently an International Relations student at the University of British Columbia, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Envoy.

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