Poland: A Pause on the March to Autocracy

The Western Star - - Editorial - 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 un­der-state­ment – 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 per­cent of Poles see EU mem­ber­ship as a vi­tal counter-balance 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.

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