The Polish drift: from Europeanization to Autocracy

Image: Czarek Sokolowski.

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4 June 1989. On the defining day for European history, Poles vote 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 presidential one, 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!

What went wrong?

For Poland, the last 25 years have been a period of political power being hastily grabbed by everyone from left to right, and just as quickly slipping through their fingers. Everyone wanted a piece of the cake – a country on the fast lane to becoming a major player in the regional arena. Having joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004, Poland became a beacon of hope during the global financial crisis as the EU’s only state with a GDP growth. In 2009, former PM Jerzy Buzek was named President of the European Parliament. In 2011, Poland stood proudly at EU’s helm, executing an expertly planned EU Council Presidency. In 2014, once again a lot of trust was placed in Polish hands, with PM Donald Tusk being appointed EU Council President – perhaps not the position of real power within the Union, but referred to as “EU President” nonetheless.


Donald Tusk. Source: Wikipedia.

It’s late 2015. The same Donald Tusk is commonly branded a traitor who ought to face the State Tribunal, according to Secretary of State Adam Lipiński. The EU Presidency and Jerzy Buzek have long been forgotten, thrown inside a sealed sack with all other instances of the Great Nation of Poland bowing to Western powers, embodied by the Union and by Chancellor Merkel in particular. The economic forecast is worrying, to say the least: the country’s credit rating is downgraded- for the first time – by Standard & Poor’s, being joined by Moody’s negative outlook two weeks later. Poland joins ranks with Hungary and becomes an outsider within the EU. The weird kid on the block no one wants to play with. While following this “path to Budapest” – a fact the government is proud of – it left the Western world wondering: How could this have happened? What went wrong?

The underlying reality

So, what went wrong? From the European perspective, the last eight years have been a time of stable, if predictable, rule of the Christian democrat Civic Platform party (PO). But for Poles struggling with everyday life, these “warm tap water” politics, as the mediadubbed 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 scandals. Combine that with the growing threat of Muslim extremism, which right-wing politicians throughout the Western world skilfully (and somewhat ironically) forged into the fear of refugees, and the relatively liberal, pro-European Civic Platform was doomed.

Jarosław Kaczyński. Source: Wikipedia.

Jarosław Kaczyński. Source: Wikipedia.

The PO faced defeat just as painful, as their – likewise stable and predictable – president, Bronisław Komorowski, had suffered defeat to a big-league novice, Andrzej Duda, a few months earlier (albeit for somewhat different reasons, overconfidence being one). Their opponents, the right-wing conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), led with an iron fist by Jarosław Kaczyński (twin to late president Lech), won a landslide victory, securing the majority in both chambers of parliament. Having won control of the legislative and executive branches by popular vote, PiS believed their governing powers should now be virtually unlimited. They claimed to possess 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.

Controlling the institutions

It’s important to note that the Law and Justice’s victory, while formidable, did not grant them constitutional majority in the parliament’s lower chamber, the Sejm. Unable to outright change 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 bounds when electing five new Tribunal justices to replace the ones who were to step down in the following months. As the Tribunal itself was to rule later on, the PO could have lawfully named only three out of those five (as only those three’s terms of office expired during the previous parliamentary term). 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. The night before the court’s ruling PiS had passed their own resolution, invalidating PO’s nomination, and appointed their own replacements. They were then immediately sworn in by President Duda, who had earlier refused to swear in the previous ones and in doing so violated the Constitution.

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 reorganize its work, paralysing the court altogether. One safeguard of democracy has therefore been removed, clearing a path for Kaczyński 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, another new law, often dismissed as less “media friendly”, gave them control closer to the ground. 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.

Polish Parliament. Source: imgur.

Polish Parliament. Source: imgur.

Paving the media landscape

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. 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 managementused to be chosen, for the most part, by the National Broadcasting Council (a democratically elected body), while maintaining transparent proceduresand 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. Until now, any dismissal was restricted to special cases, like conviction of a crime or acting against the company’s interest, and the board members served a fixed term. With the new law, the fixed terms have been removed, and the minister can now dismiss a broadcaster’s director, his deputy or any member of the board, just in case they decided not to follow the Chairman’s orders.

As was expected, immediately after enacting the new law 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 (culture channel) is now headed by a representative of the ultraconservative catholic Fronda. Just to name a few. 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 their last days before being “freed”, to air every half an hour the Polish national anthem and the Ode to Joy alternately, with listeners all over Poland tuning in just like they had done to Radio Free Europe before 1989.

Controlling 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 e.g. in Belarus orPutin’s Russia. With the enactment of the new law, any government agency was permitted to conduct surveillance of 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, claiming that the reason for these harsh measures is national safety following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Will this have any implications?

It seems Jarosław Kaczyński 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’s 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.

Image: Alik Keplicz

Image: Alik Keplicz

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 – a modern conservative party, with new faces like PM Beata Szydło and President Duda, promising them nothing short of free cash (PLN 500 for every child to be precise, an unfeasible pledge they’re now trying to erase from existence). 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 believing that the Smolensk plane crash (killing 96) was an assassination orchestrated by Putin and Tusk. Zbigniew Ziobro, a highly controversial former Justice Minister, convicted for defamation and accused of abuse of power on more than one occasion, was reinstated in 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 Kamiński, 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. Interestingly, not entitled to do so in this case, Duda violated the Constitution, something he has done twice since then (another instance mentioned earlier) – a fact pointed out by the President’s former law professor and PhD supervisor.

Related: Polish presidential aircraft crash in Smolensk, cause and effect

Civil society reacts

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 a common banner of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a grassroots movement aimed at defending democracy, freedom and the rule of law. A poll taken following the weekend of rallies organized by both sides showed 40% support for KOD, compared to 25% in favour of the regime. With every next 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.

No one knows what Chairman Kaczyński 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 (Solidarność), they showed the path towards democracy to the peoples of the 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.

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  1. Pingback: La deriva de Polonia: de la Europeización a la Autocracia – United Explanations