EUobserver opinion: Poles must defend their hard-won democracy

Met dank overgenomen van EUobserver (EUOBSERVER) i, gepubliceerd op vrijdag 26 februari 2016, 17:12.
Auteur: Martin Mycielski

4 June 1989. On this defining day of European history, Poles votes in their first semi-free elections since World War II, clearing the path for the Eastern Bloc states to abolish Communism and join the free world.

12 December 2015. Less than two months after the parliamentary election and barely six months after the presidentials, tens of thousands flood the streets of major Polish cities, soon to be joined by hundreds of their fellow countrymen in capitals around the world. All chanting with one voice: “Freedom, equality, democracy!”.

Just a month later, the European Commission, in cooperation with the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission i, launches a probe under the Rule of Law Framework in order to assess the situation in Poland. The first time it has done so since the mechanism’s introduction in 2014.

What went wrong?

For Poland, over the last 25 years politicians on the left and right have grabbed power just as quickly as it has slipped through their fingers.

Everyone wanted a piece of the cake - a country on the fast lane to becoming a major player in the international arena.

What went wrong? From the European perspective, the last eight years have been a time of stable, if predictable, rule by the Christian democrat Civic Platform party (PO). But for Poles struggling with everyday life, these “warm tap water” politics, as the media dubbed it, were an easy to grasp reason for all their suffering. Believing it couldn’t get any worse, they demanded change, even if change meant turning the temperature all the way up and risking getting burned.

The PO, while still popular with the wealthier middle class, to many less-fortunate Poles was by then an embodiment of corrupt elites, having indeed been involved in several minor scandals. Combine that with the growing threat of Muslim extremism, which right-wing politicians throughout the Western world skilfully (and somewhat ironically) forged into a fear of refugees, and the relatively liberal, pro-European Civic Platform was doomed.

Their opponents, the right-wing conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), led with an iron fist by Jaroslaw Kaczynski (twin to late president Lech), won a landslide victory, securing a majority in both chambers of parliament.

Having won control of the legislative and executive branches by popular vote, PiS claimed it possessed the mandate to completely reshape the country, referring to their programme as a “good change” to soften the blow.

But their journey towards absolute power, or dash rather, required some bold moves.

The institutions

It’s important to note that Law and Justice’s victory, while formidable, did not grant them constitutional majority in the parliament’s lower chamber, the Sejm. Unable to change outright the constitution (a relic of the past, post-Communist era, as they claim), they went for the next best thing.

As in most countries, the Constitutional Tribunal serves as a safeguard of democracy, ensuring that any law passed by parliament complies with the highest law, the Constitution. This was seemingly in the way of Kaczynski’s aspirations, as when there’s a functioning constitutional court there can never be unlimited power.

Luckily, the new government found their path laid out for them. The previous PO-PSL coalition, far from perfect itself, had overstepped their boundaries when electing five new Tribunal justices to replace the ones who were to step down in the following months.

PiS used PO’s transgressions as an excuse to nominate their own five instead, despite a pending court case to determine the legitimacy of PO’s controversial bill.

To further assert their control over the Tribunal, PiS has introduced amendments and laws that on the one hand would let president Duda nominate a new president and vice-president of the Tribunal, and on the other would reorganise its work, paralysing the court altogether. One safeguard of democracy has therefore been removed, clearing a path for Kaczynski to implement his “good change” without any legal restrictions whatsoever.

While the amendments to the Tribunal were to give PiS more power on top of the institutional chain of command, PiS amended the civil service bill, replacing all open competition recruitment procedures for higher posts with direct appointment by the corresponding minister.

Some 1600 government officials’ employment contracts were to be automatically terminated within 30 days, unless renewed by their superiors. For some reason, the new law has also removed the requirement for candidates not to be members of a political party in the five years preceding their appointment.

The media

The Fourth Estate, as the media are often referred to, is the one power that is hardest to control in a democratic system. Naturally, something had to be done about it. Admittedly, it is true that some of Poland’s biggest private broadcasters are foreign-owned and can sometimes be accused of a liberal bias, same as the country’s leading newspaper, founded by oppositionists back in ’89. But when it came to the state-owned media there has never been any ground for accusations.

Modern and unbiased, the public broadcasters were a reliable source of information ever since the fall of Communism. Their management used to be chosen, for the most part, by the National Broadcasting Council (a democratically elected body), while maintaining transparent procedures and taking into account the candidates’ merit and experience. Similar procedures are common in the EU Member States, including - interestingly enough - Hungary.

With two new bills, PiS has managed to take full control of state-owned media, calling them “national media” since. Their management is now appointed directly by the minister of treasury, so in practice by Chairman Kaczynski. The minister can now dismiss a broadcaster’s director, his deputy or any member of the board, merely if they have decided not to follow the chairman’s orders.

As was expected, the broadcasters’ directors were replaced. Die-hard PiS politician Jacek Kurski has been named the new, more “independent” director of the TVP (Polish Television). TVP1, the main channel, is now controlled by a journalist from the nationalist and PiS-supporting TV Republika. TVP Kultura (the culture channel) is now headed by a representative of the ultraconservative catholic Fronda news organisation.

Following those nominations numerous journalists were sacked and replaced by counterparts from Kaczynski-faithful nationalist media. This “freeing of political influence” and “making the media more objective”, as PiS describes it, prompted the Polish Radio, in the last days before they were “freed”, to air every half an hour the Polish national anthem and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy alternately, with listeners all over Poland tuning in just like they had done to Radio Free Europe before 1989.

The people

Having power over the government and media was clearly not enough, as people still retained their freedoms and fundamental rights. A regime built to last needs to make sure that the people can’t act against it. To do so, the PiS government has introduced a bill, the so-called “surveillance law”, giving authorities powers comparable to those in police states, currently known, for example, in Belarus or Putin’s Russia.

With the enactment of the new law, any government agency was permitted to conduct surveillance on any citizen (including journalists), gather any data, spy on Internet activities or check phone bills, all without the court’s consent.

These surveillance rights are not limited to investigating citizens suspected of terrorism or any serious crime either, as the government would have us believe by claiming that the reason for these harsh measures is national safety following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

What now?

It seems Jaroslaw Kaczynski does not concern himself with the principles of democracy. PiS dismisses any accusations of undemocratic rule by twisting the very idea of democracy, claiming it was the rule of the many, without concern for the few.

The parliament’s senior marshal and government supporter Kornel Morawiecki said openly that the good of the Polish people stands above the law. But the good of the people as defined by whom? By one man, supported by 37.5% out of the 51% of Poles that cared enough to vote? In practice that would mean, at best, 19% of the adult population forcing their views down the throats of the other 81%. The exact opposite of democracy.

It is important to know that Poles have always been a nation driven by hope. The same hope that had kept them going through the harsh years of Communism, made them believe in a new, reformed PiS.

For the duration of their campaign, Chairman Kaczynski and his old companions were nowhere to be seen. But when the curtains fell, there we saw once again the old new Minister of Defence, Antoni Macierewicz, the national conspiracy theorist who believes that the Smolensk plane crash (which killed 96) was an assassination orchestrated by Putin and Tusk.

Zbigniew Ziobro, a highly controversial former justice minister, convicted of defamation and accused of abuse of power on more than one occasion, was reinstated into his former post - soon to be merged with that of public prosecutor general, giving him direct political supervision of the country’s prosecutors.

Then there is Mariusz Kaminski, sentenced to three years in prison for abuse of power, named head of the secret service - an appointment possible only thanks to president Duda’s pardon in violation of the Constitution.

All this clear abuse of the people’s trust had to prompt a reaction. The party’s and the president’s ratings dropped. Tens of thousands manifested their concern and anger in the streets of Poland and abroad, under the common banner of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a grassroots movement aimed at defending democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

With bit after bit of democracy and freedom being chipped away, more and more cities have joined the mass protests, reaching forty in late January. While Europe is nearly unanimously concerned with the country sailing away, KOD is struggling to set Poland back on its European course.

A poll taken in February, after four rounds of protests, showed 46% support for KOD, compared to 42% in favour of the regime. 52% of the population have a negative opinion of the new government’s first 100 days in power, according to two polls taken in February, compared to only between 36% and 39% in favour, depending on the poll.

No one knows what Chairman Kaczynski has in store for his playground next, but one thing is clear - Poles will not stand by while their freedom is in danger. In forming the Solidarity movement (Solidarnosc), they showed the path towards democracy to the peoples of the former Soviet bloc.

Now, they will light the path back to democracy for their fellow countrymen with the help of KOD - the Committee for the Defence of Democracy. For in the Polish hearts, hope never dies.

Martin Mycielski is KOD's international coordinator, based in Brussels

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