The road to au­toc­racy

Pres­i­dent halts a re­gres­sive law, but for how long?

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - GWYNNE DYER Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

Zofia Ro­maszewska, now in her 80s, was jailed dur­ing the years of mar­tial law in Poland in the early 1980s. She is a na­tional hero for her hu­man rights ac­tiv­i­ties in the 1980s and is now one of Pres­i­dent An­drzej Duda’s ad­vis­ers. Last week she per­suaded him to veto the govern­ment’s new laws on the courts.

She told him: “Mr. Pres­i­dent, I lived in a state (un­der Com­mu­nist rule) where the pros­e­cu­tor gen­eral had an un­be­liev­ably pow­er­ful po­si­tion and could prac­ti­cally do any­thing. I would not like to go back to such a state.” And Pres­i­dent Duda ac­tu­ally lis­tened to her.

This came as a com­plete sur­prise, be­cause Duda was a mem­ber of the rul­ing Law and Jus­tice Party and is widely seen as a pup­pet of its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski. On Mon­day, how­ever, he re­jected new laws giv­ing the jus­tice min­is­ter the power to fire judges he doesn’t like — in­clud­ing, po­ten­tially, the en­tire Supreme Court — and choose the new judges who take their places.

“As pres­i­dent I don’t feel this law would strengthen a sense of jus­tice,” Duda said in a state­ment — or rather, an un­der­state­ment — on na­tional tele­vi­sion. His ac­tion has greatly en­cour­aged the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple who have been demon­strat­ing in cities all over Poland against the new laws, but there are still many who doubt his sin­cer­ity.

Poland is sharply di­vided be­tween the pop­ulists, so­cially con­ser­va­tive, deeply Catholic, and ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist, who form the present govern­ment, and the op­po­si­tion whom they la­bel “the sys­tem” or “the elite.” This sys­tem al­legedly in­cludes both the lib­er­als who led Sol­i­dar­ity’s re­sis­tance to Com­mu­nist rule, and the crypto-Com­mu­nists who sup­pos­edly still ex­ist and are now in league with the lib­er­als.

The whole thing is a para­noid fan­tasy, but it has a firm hold on many peo­ple’s minds in a na­tional cul­ture that wal­lows in vic­tim­hood and self-pity. The Law and Jus­tice govern­ment, elected in late 2015 with an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment, de­nounces the op­po­si­tion par­ties as cor­rupt traitors un­der for­eign in­flu­ence, and they in turn mis­trust ev­ery­thing the govern­ment says and does — in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Duda’s change of heart.

He’s just play­ing for time, they think. He’ll get the de­mon­stra­tors to go home and then he’ll sign some slightly al­tered ver­sion of the laws strip­ping the judges of their in­de­pen­dence. And maybe they are right. No­body will know for sure un­til they see the govern­ment’s re­sponse to his veto.

This is not just about Poland. It is about whether the EU will tol­er­ate an un­demo­cratic govern­ment in its midst, and the ev­i­dence isn’t in yet.

The EU is prob­a­bly the only rea­son that the for­mer Com­mu­nist-ruled states of East­ern Europe al­most all be­came democ­ra­cies. They des­per­ately wanted to be mem­bers of the EU as a safe­guard against re­newed Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in their af­fairs — and the EU in­sists that all its mem­bers be demo­cratic.

Not only that, but it care­fully de­fines how demo­cratic states should be­have, and a ba­sic prin­ci­ple is the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers: the courts must not be un­der govern­ment con­trol. When the Law and Jus­tice Party in­tro­duced laws started tak­ing away the judges’ in­de­pen­dence, it ran head-on into the EU’s rules for mem­ber­ship.

Se­nior EU of­fi­cials were openly talk­ing about strip­ping Poland of its vot­ing rights in the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters (the clos­est thing to an EU govern­ment) un­til Duda said he would veto the new laws. If it turns out that he is only play­ing for time and will soon sign quite sim­i­lar laws, the con­fronta­tion will re­sume — and the EU might even re­sort to fi­nan­cial mea­sures against Poland.

The Pol­ish govern­ment can­not plau­si­bly threaten to quit the Euro­pean Union: 75 per cent of Poles see EU mem­ber­ship as a vi­tal coun­ter­bal­ance to the loom­ing pres­ence of Rus­sia to their east. The EU holds all the best cards in this game, if it chooses to play them. But will it? That is not clear. The EU is not fa­mous for its will­ing­ness to take bold ac­tion. But the EU’s own co­he­sion would suf­fer if it did not de­fend its fun­da­men­tal val­ues, so if Duda is only fool­ing there may be a real show­down in a month or two.

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