Friday, 18 December 2015

The Curse of Living in Interesting Times

If a week in politics is a long time in politics, a few months is a life time. Events are moving at such a pace in Poland at the moment that it is difficult to keep up with all that is happening. I shall be reactivating this blog in an attempt to provide updates on the news, relay discussions and debates (particularly those taking part on the left) and provide some analysis of what is occurring.

The story of the past couple of weeks has been recounted numerous times (I recommend this article in Social Europe as a decent summary of events in English although it is already somewhat out of date). In short, PiS became the first party at the parliamentary elections in October,  to win an overall majority in a parliamentary election over the past 25 years  (for my analysis of the election results see here). The Presidential and parliamentary election campaigns were led by some of the party’s most uncontroversial figures (including the current President Andrzej Duda and PM Beata Szydło), with an emphasis on introducing social reforms such as increasing child benefits and reducing the pension age. The party also plugged into the rising hostility to refugees, with the leader of PiS Jarosław Kaczyński warning that refugees could spread infections and arguing that Poland should not end up like Sweden, where he said Sharia law existed in some areas.  

Once in power some of the party’s most controversial and radical individuals were appointed into top ministerial positions. The President pardoned theformer head of the anticorruption agency (who before appeal faced three years in prison for abuses whilst in power), and then put him in charge of the police and intelligence agencies. The new Minister of Culture then called for a play in a theatre inWrocław be cancelled as it was ‘pornographic’ and a presenter on publictelevision was temporarily suspended after clashing with the Minister during an interview. 

 Most controversially, the government has questioned the legitimacy of the current Constitutional Tribunal. The President refused to administer the oath of 5 judges to the court appointed by the previous parliament; and then the new parliament elected 5 new judges to replace them, 4 of which were sworn in that night by President Duda. Formally this was carried out in response to a controversial decision by the former Citizens’ Platform (PO) government, which breached democratic practice by electing two new judges to the Constitutional Tribunal to replace those whose terms end during the current parliament. Consequently, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the appointment of these two judges was unconstitutional but that the three others (whose term started in the previous parliament) should remain and that the annulment by PiS was illegal. To date the government has refused to publish this ruling in the Journal of Laws, meaning that it has yet to come into effect. This leaves the country in a constitutional stalemate. Kaczyński has argued that the Consitutional Tribunal wishes to block the reform program of the new government; that it is acting against the law and that there should be a thorough reform of the institution. PiS have now put forward a new set of proposals to reform the Constitutional Tribunal, that include increasing the full line up of the Tribunal from 9 to 13; that most decisions will have to be made with a 2/3 majority; that judges will be sworn in by the speaker of the house and not the President and that the Tribunal can be moved out of Warsaw. As PiS do not command a large enough majority to change the constitution, their tactic seems to be to undermine neutralise an institution that it believes is politicised and hostile to it. (A decent summary of the whole crisis in English can be found here.)

Two large demonstrations were organised last weekend. On Saturday the newly formed Committee to Defend Democracy (KOD) led a demonstration of tens of thousands from the constitutional court to the parliament. This was made up of those protesting against the government’s decisions, and included representatives from the main liberal and left parties as well as from the previous ruling party PO. The day after, PiS organised their annual march on the anniversary of Martial Law, in a large show of support for the government. There has since been controversy about which demonstration was the largest (with the Police estimating the KOD march as being two times smaller than the Warsaw government had). What is clear is that both sides have managed to mobilise huge numbers of their supporters onto the streets.

Although PiS has lost some support sine the election, they continue to lead in most of the opinion polls. Poland is now divided in two. Some in the opposition are calling for the President to face a Tribunal for his actions and that there should be early elections. In turn PiS claim that the old corrupt elite are preventing the government from carrying out its democratic mandate. Controversially the leader of PiS said in an interview:  “In Poland, there is a horrible tradition of national treason, a habit of informing on Poland to foreign bodies. And that’s what it is. As if it’s in their genes, in the genes of Poles of the worst sort.”

The lines have been drawn. 

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