Poland’s 1989 lead­ers ques­tion demo­cratic suc­cess

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ISAAC STAN­LEY-BECKER isaac.stan­ley­becker@wash­post.com Klau­dia Kocim­ska and Mag­dalena Forem­ska in War­saw and Michael Birn­baum in Brus­sels con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The Pol­ish Par­lia­ment’s move on Satur­day to sub­vert ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence has opened a sear­ing de­bate about whether a na­tion once held up as a paragon of post­com­mu­nist democ­racy has slid back into a darker era.

The Se­nate’s 55-to-23 vote on the mea­sure, which is widely ex­pected to be signed into law by Pres­i­dent An­drzej Duda, capped a 20-month pro­ces­sion by the right-wing rul­ing Law and Jus­tice party to bring Poland’s in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions un­der its con­trol. The swift of­fen­sive has left lead­ers who top­pled com­mu­nist rule in 1989 to ques­tion whether they suc­ceeded in em­bed­ding demo­cratic norms in a state that was un­der Soviet dom­i­na­tion for decades.

Lech Walesa, a for­mer Pol­ish pres­i­dent and leader of Sol­i­dar­ity, the la­bor union that helped pre­cip­i­tate com­mu­nism’s fall across Europe, called Satur­day for a mass ef­fort to reen­gage ci­ti­zens about the im­por­tance of the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers.

“Our gen­er­a­tion man­aged, in the most im­prob­a­ble sit­u­a­tion, to lead Poland to free­dom,” he told a crowd gath­ered in Gdansk’s Sol­i­dar­ity Square. “You can­not let any­one in­ter­rupt this vic­tory, es­pe­cially you young peo­ple.”

The ero­sion of the rule of law also raises dif­fi­cult ques­tions for the Euro­pean Union, which once saw Pol­ish democ­racy and pros­per­ity as its big­gest suc­cess af­ter the 2004 ex­pan­sion that en­com­passed much of East­ern Europe.

Now, E.U. lead­ers are threat­en­ing to suspend Poland’s vot­ing rights in de­ci­sions made by the bloc, though they may be thwarted by the veto of Hun­gary’s leader, Vik­tor Or­ban, an­other post-com­mu­nist prime min­is­ter who has cen­tral­ized power in de­fi­ance of demo­cratic norms.

Poland’s dis­re­gard for the E.U.’s warn­ings — and the op­po­si­tion of tens of thou­sands of pro­test­ers who have taken to the streets in re­cent days — comes amid a global wave of na­tion­al­ism that crested last year with Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion to leave the E.U. and the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump in the United States. Satur­day’s vote, which un­folded soon af­ter Trump vis­ited War­saw and praised its pop­ulist lead­ers, may be an­other mea­sure of the transat­lantic echoes of the Amer­i­can elec­tion.

The U.S. State De­part­ment sounded an alarm about the mea­sure, which would cast out all cur­rent jus­tices of the Supreme Court, ex­cept those hand­picked by the gov­ern­ing party’s jus­tice min­is­ter.

But Trump’s visit was tacit sup­port for Law and Jus­tice lead­ers, said Michal Ko­bosko, direc­tor of the At­lantic Coun­cil’s War­saw Global Fo­rum, and “en­cour­aged them to move for­ward with their of­fen­sive against the courts.” An­other mea­sure would dis­solve the in­de­pen­dent body that se­lects judges. And the Con­sti­tu­tional Tri­bunal, the au­thor­ity ca­pa­ble of in­val­i­dat­ing the leg­is­la­tion, has been filled with gov­ern­ment loy­al­ists.

Be­hind the mon­u­ment to the War­saw Up­ris­ing of 1944, the back­drop for Trump’s speech, sits the Supreme Court. Its top judge, Mal­go­rzata Gers­dorf, said she will prob­a­bly lose her job as a re­sult of the changes. She is sched­uled to meet Mon­day with Duda, the pres­i­dent, and a for­mer Law and Jus­tice mem­ber of Par­lia­ment. He is a close ally of Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski, the ar­chi­tect of the ef­fort to bring the courts to heel.

Gers­dorf said the ju­di­ciary is the last in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tion pro­tect­ing ci­ti­zens from an au­thor­i­tar­ian state whose aim, she said, is re­mov­ing le­gal ob­sta­cles to in­ter­fer­ence in elec­tions. The gov­ern­ment has al­ready clamped down on pub­lic me­dia and re­stricted demo­cratic assem­bly.

“The last bar­rier is the Supreme Court,” she said in an in­ter­view. “This change would undo our demo­cratic sys­tem based on the in­de­pen­dence of the courts. Each cit­i­zen has to know that a judge won’t fall in front of po­lit­i­cal power.”

Ac­cord­ing to Law and Jus­tice, how­ever, the courts are rid­dled with cor­rup­tion, a prod­uct of lin­ger­ing com­mu­nist in­flu­ence.

That charge, said Jan Gross, a Pol­ish-born pro­fes­sor of East­ern Euro­pean his­tory at Prince­ton University, is “to­tal non­sense.” He called the pro­posed changes “an in­dige­nous as­sault on democ­racy and de­cency.”

Law and Jus­tice calls them democ­racy in ac­tion. “A pro­fes­sional and hon­est sys­tem of jus­tice is a dream of many Poles,” said the rul­ing party’s jus­tice min­is­ter, Zbig­niew Zio­bro. “Poles chose our pro­gram. This is democ­racy.”

Polling sug­gests that a ma­jor­ity of the coun­try wants Duda to veto the leg­is­la­tion. At the same time, there is strong sup­port for Law and Jus­tice, which leads its clos­est com­peti­tor, the cen­ter­right Civic Plat­form, by dou­ble dig­its.

Zyg­munt Poziomka, a for­mer coal miner who stood wrapped in a Pol­ish flag out­side the Se­nate build­ing Fri­day, said Law and Jus­tice is re­turn­ing con­trol of the courts to peo­ple ill-served by ne­go­ti­a­tions in 1989 over Poland’s post-com­mu­nist fu­ture.

“The com­mu­nists are still there — just the sons in­stead of their fa­thers,” said Poziomka, 58. “It’s been 72 years since World War II, and they still won’t let Poland have a chance. Fi­nally Trump let the world see that War­saw had an up­ris­ing, that we fought and had a vi­sion.”

Kaczyn­ski, the leader of Law and Jus­tice, is the son of a vet­eran of the up­ris­ing, and his po­lit­i­cal vi­sion is defined by na­tional vic­tim­hood, not just in World War II but in the decades since, Gross said. The most pow­er­ful politi­cian in Poland, Kaczyn­ski con­tin­ues to in­sist that a 2010 plane crash that killed his brother, Lech Kaczyn­ski, then the na­tion’s pres­i­dent, was or­ches­trated by the Rus­sians, with the help of Civic Plat­form and its leader at the time, Don­ald Tusk, who is now pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Coun­cil.

“This is the un­der­ly­ing dis­pute that de­fines Pol­ish pol­i­tics right now,” said the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Ko­bosko.

Con­spir­acy the­o­ries, as well as the gov­ern­ment’s broad­side against the courts, have found sup­port among peo­ple “left out by the tran­si­tion from com­mu­nism,” said Rafal Trza­skowski, a Civic Plat­form mem­ber of Par­lia­ment. “These are peo­ple who don’t travel or use the in­fra­struc­ture that came with in­te­gra­tion, and we failed to com­mu­ni­cate with them.”

Law and Jus­tice, he said, uses that re­sent­ment to deny the le­git­i­macy of ne­go­ti­a­tions in 1989 that brought a peace­ful end to com­mu­nism — talks in which Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski and his brother played a mi­nor role and later dis­missed as the col­lu­sion of elites.

“This is the be­gin­ning of the end of a democ­racy,” Trza­skowski said, lament­ing that op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers can do lit­tle be­yond join­ing the demon­stra­tions.

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