Friday, 29 January 2016

Polish Government and Opposition Back TTIP

An (un)likely new anti-democratic alliance has emerged in Polish politics, bringing together the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Nowoczesna (Modern). During a debate on foreign affairs in parliament, the Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski gave his support to the Transatlandtic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), joining the leader of the liberal Modern Party Ryszard Petru. 

The TTIP is a bi-lateral trade agreement between the EU and USA, which is being negotiated behind the backs of citizens. The deal aims to reduce regulatory barriers to trade for big business, in areas such as food safety law, environmental legislation, banking and nations' sovereign powers. It potentially opens up public services to privatisation, drives down labour standards and eases data protection laws (ACTA through the back door). 

The pretensions of PiS to be a patriotic party upholding the sovereignty of Poland; and of Nowoczesna to be a liberal party defending democracy are both exposed by their support for TTIP. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Taxpayers Paying for Catholic Teachings

Two recent moves by the government have shown how the Polish state will increase its support for the Catholic Church in Poland, including its most radical elements, and that the Catholic religion will become an increasingly central part of the education system. 

Firstly, a citizens' project to present a bill to parliament, on ending the state funding of religious education in public schools, has been negatively assessed by the government even before its first reading in parliament. This means that around 1bln złoty of taxpayers money will continue to be used to fund religious education in schools. These lessons are generally just the teachings of the Catholic Church. Religious Education lessons are run in 92% of schools in Poland, with just a handful providing religious lessons covering the faith of other religions. 

Secondly, the Parliamentary Financial Commission has passed an ammendment which will grant the private Catholic higher education institution of the controversial Father Tadeusz Rydzyk (College of Social and Media Culture)  20 million złoty in subsidies. The influential radio station of Rydzyk (Radio Maryja) backed PiS in the recent elections, with this decision seemingly rewarding him and his institutions for their support. Written into the ammendment is that the money for these subsidies will be found through cutting funding in other areas, such as for theatres. 

Government Plans Important Health Care Reform

The Polish Health minister, Konstanty Radziwiłł, has revealled plans to reform the health care system, that if carried out could be the most important and progressive changes to have occured in Polish health care over the past two decades. The two proposed changes are: 
- To significantly increase the level of public health care spending; 
- To fund the health care system directly from the central government budget. 

Poland has one of the lowest levels of public health care spending in the EU, with little more than 4% of GDP spent on health. The Health Minister has said that next year he hopes to inject billions of złoty into the health care system. The long term aim of the government is then to increase public health care spending to 6% of GDP. 

Secondly, the government plans to move away from a Bismarkian style health insurance system to a Beveridge state funded one, similar to that which exists in Britain. The major damage to the health care system occured in 1999, when the then right-wing administration introduced a reform that both reduced public health care spending and created a number of local health care funds. This fragmented the system and opened it up to more market competition. It had an immediate negative effect on the health care system, with for example the number of public hospitals declining from 702 to 501 between 2000 and 2010. This reform was partly reversed by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) government in 2003, which introduced a new central health care fund (NFZ). However, not only has this not solved the issue of funding but around 2.5m citizens remain without health care insurance coverage. This includes both the most socially excluded (such as the homeless) and also many contractual workers or self-employed that miss health insurance payments. 

The Polish constitution states that: Equal access to health care services, financed from public funds, shall be ensured by public authorities to citizens, irrespective of their material situation. As with many of the other social clauses in the constitution this has been broken by successive governments. In this case the government's proposals would actually be a case of meeting the obligations of the constitution rather than breaking them. Therefore, those in Poland defending the constitution should actually be supporting this proposal by the government and pressuring it to introduce it as quickly as possible. 

The other major health care proposal by PiS made during the election campaign was to provide pensioners with medicines free of charge. The government has now announced that there will be a list of certain medicines that pensioners will be allowed to get for free. The health ministry has said that it is still compiling this list and that there is a chance this bill will be introduced in the next two or three months. 

The government has not provided detailed plans for its proposed reforms and it is unclear both how they will be paid for and exactly when they will be introduced. However, they potentially tackle some of the largest deficiencies in the country's most important public service. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

Britain To Station Troops in Poland. At What Price?

The Polish Minister of Defence, Antoni Macierewicz, has announced that Britain will station 1,000 troops permanently on Polish soil from 2017. On Thursday Macierewicz said

'One of the decisions, which resulted from yesterday's talks (is) a permanent presence of the British forces on Polish territory, that is 1,000 soldiers, who will permanently station on Polish territory from next year. They will switch around, it will be a rotational, but permanent presence of 1,000 soldiers.'

This goes against previous statements made by the Ministry of Defence in London, that the troops would be sent for temporary exercises only. If true it would mean that NATO troops would have a permanent base in Poland, thus potentially violating the 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia. 

As well as further adding to the volatility in the region, it raises the question at what price the British government has agreed to station troops in Poland. After all, earlier this month the Polish Foreign Minister said in an interview for Reuters that Warsaw might be prepared to soften its position on David Cameron's proposal to curb in-work benefits for EU migrants if ' Britain could support our expectations related to an allied military presence on Polish territory.'

The Deputy Foreign Ministers of Poland and Russia met in Moscow last week for talks. No breakthrough was reported on any of the issues dividing the countries, such as the possible return of the Smoleńsk plane wreckage from Russia. It has been common practice recently to speculate that the current right-wing administration in Warsaw would like to move Poland closer politically to Russia and Putin. However, at least in the arena of foreign policy, this seems extremely unlikely, with the stationing of permanent NATO troops in Poland certain to worsen relations between the two countries even further.  

Sunday, 24 January 2016

SLD Elect New Leader - New Beginning or The End?

After failing to enter parliament for the first time in its history the Democratic Left Alliance has chosen a new leader to replace Leszek Miller: Włodzimierz Czarzasty. Below I publish two contrasting opinions from inside the SLD (translated from the website Trybuna)
Grzegorz Pietruczuk, Councillor for the  Mazowiecki Regional Assembly and ex-leader of the Federation of Young Social Democrats):
As the SLD we have lost touch with reality. I heard the speach by Włoczimierz Czrzasy today and I did not find anything about the future in Poland, about social democracy, about the changes and what kind of Poland we would like to propose. I heard about the headquarters, premises and funds, which  are completely not of interest to me. 2% support in the opinion polls should make us think, but it does not seem to be happening. This is whyhwy I am not supprised about this election, because the party for years the party has become fosillised inside and does not take into account what is happening outside. The electorate are also aware of this, which accounts for the terrible results in recent years.  
Sebastian Wierzbicki, Deputy leader of the SLD in Warsaw and a member of the National Council of the SLD. 
Today ended the epoch of the SLD under the leadership of Leszek Miller. A new chapter has opened in the activity of hte party. Włodzimierz Czarzasty won with a large majority, gaining 130 more votes than Jerzy Wenderlich.  Moreover he offered his opponent the deputy leadership of the SLD, which he has accepted. vote
The new deputy leader has said that this is the end of the divisions in the SLD and that we must unite in order to resit the right-wing and its ideas. He gave a very good speech, and has ideas for the party and at how the SLD and the left should function and react to the ideas and activity of the SLD. We await the complete leadership team to be proposed by the leader. I hope that it will include many young people and therefore change and make younger the face of the party.
Włodzimierz Czarzasty is a person with a strong character and  without a doubt he is able to lead the SLD and open discussions with all the different parts of the left in order to build a strong alternative to Citizens' Platform and Modern and of course the Law and Justice Party.  

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Ikonowicz Taken to Court in Handcuffs

The leader of the Office for Social Justice (KSS), and well known left-wing activist and former MP, Piotr Ikonowicz, has been taken to court in handcuffs to face charges of insulting Prof. Chazan, the Director of a hospital in Warsaw. Apparently, Ikonowicz had failed to show up to the previous case in court as he was taking part in blocking someone being evicted from their home. However, quite why he was brought to court by the police in handcuffs is unclear as he had neither resisted arrest nor been aggressive. 

Prof. Chazan had refused an abortion in the hospital to a woman whose child was subsequently born with severe birth defects. Ikonowicz criticised Chazan in a text, writing: 

Bogdan Chazan is a man without a conscience. Does his religion tells him to hurt people? In pursuing his own sadistic tendencies he finds refuge in God. The hospital and taxpayers will pay the cost, not Chazan (...) However, the worst thing is that this degenerate dons the clothes of the defender of morality. The terrible ancient rulers were able to show mercy to their their enemies in a quick and painless death. However, such a mercy was not given to this unfortunate creature, which Chazan ruled a woman must risk life and limb to give birth to. This is what happens when the ordinary human compassion of love thy neighbour is replaced by fanaticism. When the religious lunatics get a piece of power. At the end of the day the hospital is public and we maintain it, as we do Chazan himself. And in such a public place human rights operate, not God. 

 Poland currently has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in parliament and the current PiS government plans to tighten them even further, possibly outlawing abortion even in cases when a pregnancy is the result of rape or when the health of a woman is at risk. 

The case is currently ongoing..

Saturday, 16 January 2016

S&P Ratings Cut Undermines Democracy in Poland

The credit rating agency Standard and Poor's (S&P) has cut its rating for Poland from A minius to tripple BBB plus, citing that another cut could be made in the future. This is the first such downgrade that has been made for Poland since 2007 and immediately instigated a fall in the value of its currency. 

S&P's justification for this move is purely political and not based on a judgement of the country's economy. It states that 

The downgrade reflects our view that Poland’s system of institutional checks and balances has been eroded significantly..Poland’s new government has initiated various legislative measures that we consider weaken the independence and effectiveness of key institutions, as reflected in our institutional assessment...These measures  go beyond what we had anticipated regarding policy changes from the general election

The current PiS government is introducing policies that are moving the country in a more authoritarian direction. However, they have not dismantled the democratic system - there has been no coup d'etat and they can still be voted out of power. These policies should not be the concern of international financial institutions and banks. This decision is openly political and a direct attack on the soverignty of the country. 

The outcome of the downgrade will be to worsen the living standards of sections of the population. It immediately sent the currency into a downward spiral, reaching its lowest level in relation to the Euro for over four years. This will  hit the country's struggling middle class the hardest, who are more likely to travel abroad on holiday, buy imported foreign products and who often hold credits in foreign currencies such as Swiss Francs and Euros. It will also place considerable pressure on the government's budget and the new government's ability to service its debt. 

As the justification for S&P's decision was purely political, then one can only assume that they hope it will also have a political impact in the country and undermine the present government. It will further fuel the atmosphere of division and conflict in the country. The country's burgeoning middle class, many of whom are opposed to the PiS government, will see this as further proof of the failings of the present administration. This social class and its liberal representatives in parliament are now some of the most radical opponents of PiS and as their standards of living fall so this radicalism and anger will increase. 

On the other hand, PiS will use the decision of S&P to further its nationalist rhetoric. It will be able to show how international banks and financial institutions are plotting to overthrow the Polish government and block the democratic will of the nation. This will not help strengthen democracy in Poland but will rather rachet up nationalist rhetoric and widen political divisions and may well in fact strengthen the position of the government. 

We should also remember that S&P has its own dubious record. It has regularly been accussed of irregularities and last year had to pay almost $1.4bln to settle a lawsuit from the US justice department that claimed S&P had defauded investors by issuing inflated ratings in the years leading up to the global financial crisis.  Those in glass houses....

Those opposing the authoritarian policies of the present government should also state their opposition to this undemocratic intervention by the rating agency. Any moves that drive down the standard of living of the population (as EU sanctions would for example) will not help the political situation in Poland. Unfortunately, the leader of the main liberal opposition in parliament, Ryszard Petru, has predictably come out in support of this act. He has stated in a tweet that as the present government has broken the constitution and the democratic rules of the game, then other rules may no longer apply - hence the downgrade. 

The common principle that 'two wrongs do not make a right' is unfortunately being too often forgotton in Polish politics at the moment. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Petru's Anti Democratic Proposals.

The recent news in Poland has, quite rightly, been dominated by the legislation being passed by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), that is moving the country in a more authoritarian direction. Simultaneously, the focus has been on the opposition movement that has risen against this conservative right government, and the large pro-democracy demonstrations around the country. 

However, whilst this opposition movement is broad and encompasses a range of social groups and opinions, the formal opposition inside the parliament is being led mainly by the neo-liberal party: Nowoczesna (Modern). The leader of this party is the former advisor of Leszek Balcerowicz and financial expert Ryszard Petru. The party has recently set out three pieces of legislation that it intends to put to parliament. One of them is to remove law that forbids parties campaigning the day before and election is held. Quite why this is considered to be an important issue by Nowoczesna is unclear and there are good arguments in favour and against this proposal. However, the other two proposals would directly restrict democracy in Poland and reduce pluralism in public life. These are: 

Restricting the 'privilleges' of trade unions. During the election campaign Petru said that he wished to see the state funding of trade unions removed. This amounts to a new attack on the trade unions in Poland that have been marginalised over the past two decades, with trade union membership density reaching just 12% nowadays. Petru has often presented himself as one of the leaders of the new opposition movement in Poland, which claims the tradition of the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. He should therefore recall that Solidarity was an independent trade union and that there would have been no mass pro-democracy movement in the country without this mass organisation of working people. Also, as the current pro-democracy movement is supposed defend the current constitution, then it is worth remembering the clause in this constitution that guarantees the rights of trade unions. A clause that in practice, particularly in the private sector, is regularly breached. Anybody that wishes to see a strong democratic Poland should support the growth and strengthening of trade unions in the country. 

Restricting state funding of political parties: The second proposal of Nowoczesna is to restrict the state funding of political parties. In practice this would mean that those parties that have strong private funding  and wealthy financial backers would futher dominate the political scene. The trade unions in Poland are too weak and divided to fund a party of their own, such as happens in Britain through the Labour Party. In practice therefore political pluralism would be restricted and the dominance of private financial interests in politics increased. 

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Kaczyński and Orban Discuss Strategy.

The headline news around the meeting between Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orban, in Poland yesterday, has been that Orban did not meet either with the President or Prime Minister of Poland but with  the leader of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). This has helped to confirm suspiscions that the real power in Poland rests in the hands of Kaczyński and not with President Duda nor PM Szydło. 

Secondly, many in the media have suggested that the two leaders discussed how to reform the state and public institutions such as the media, with Orban passing on his experience from Hungary. However, PiS seem to be progressing with their reforms without the advice of their Hungarian collegues and the situation is very different in Poland as they do not possess a two-thirds majority to change the constitution as Orban's party has had in Hungary. 

Rather, as suggested on the Hungarian Spectrum website, it is likely that the two leaders were discussing regional and European issues that affect the two countries. These could include: 

Refugees: Both parties have adopted a hostile attitude to taking in refugees. However, the PiS government has unexpectedly agreed to accept the 4,500 quota agreed by the previous government with the EU. Although this will be spread out over two years, accepting only 150 at a time, it partly breaks from the consensus sought by Orban in the visegrad4 countries.

Russia: Kaczyński and Orban had previously disagreed on relations towards Russia, with the former criticising Orban for having a too friendly attitude towards Russia. 

Cameron's Proposals: It is likely also that they discussed the attitude towards the UK's proposal to curb EU migrants' right to claim social welfare benefits. Whilst it would be expected that the two countries would adopt a hostile attitude towards the UK proposal, recently the Polish Foreign Minister has suggested that Poland would be willing to accept such a policy if London would support the proposal to station permanent NATO bases in Poland. 

However, there has been no official confirmation of what Kaczyński and Orban talked about during their six hour meeting. It is to be seen to what extent the alliance betweent the conservative-right administrations in Hungary and Poland will be strengthened and in what direction this will lead. 

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Marxist Vegetarian Cyclists

Polish Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said in an interview in the German newspaper Bild: 

We just want to heal our country of certain diseases. The previous government applied a left-wing concept. As if the world, according to the Marxist model, must move in only one direction, towards a mixture of cultures and a world of cyclists and vegetarians, which stands only for renewable energy and combating all forms of religion. This has nothing in common with traditional Polish values.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Petition Against Proposed New Internet Laws

The PiS government has proposed a new Internet Law that will allow the authorities to freely monitor online activity. A petition has been launched against this, that in its first day has already been signed by nearly 7,000 people. An English  language version of this petition is published below. For the Polish version see here. 

The Authorities Wish to Scrutinise Our Lives and Computers

For the fourth time, during the middle of winter, the government is trying to take the Internet under its control. It was the same in 2010, in 2011 with RSUiN and also in 2012 with ACTA.... 

PiS and its allies want so the police and other secret services can monitor everything that we do on the Internet. They would like it that every police officer or secret service agent can at any moment go on to our account or look inside our computers, tablets or smartphones. They want to know which sites we visit and what we download. Without any restrictions.   

According to the new law a police-officer or secret agent will not need  the agreement of the prosecutor's office nor court, in order to check our online activity.  They will be able to freely obtain 'information on the scope of every usage of services provided by electronic means.' This means that the only thing restricting a police-officer will be his or her own whim. Internet operators will be obliged to pass on data whenever it is demanded and they themselves will have to cover the costs of this.

According to experts a wider interpretation of this bill could allow the authorities to legally install 'trojans' on our hard drives!

This is an attack on freedom and a betrayal of millions of Internet users, including those who supported and were engaged in helping the ruling party get into office. This party is currently violating their privacy and scrutinising their morals and opinions. It wants to know what everyone writes about them and to whom they are writing. In other words, it wants us to stop discussing with each other about everything apart from the weather!

However, the authorities are the authorities and money is money. Primarily, the new government wants to operate hand in hand with large coorporations, which lobby for a great purge of our computers. For a long time corporations have wanted to track our alleged 'stealing of content'. And now the police will be able to help in this without being restricted by the law, whilst being able to boast about their increased efficiency in fighting 'crime'...

We urge all - from the right, left and centre - to defend freedom and people's private lives against the lust for power and greed!

Agata Czarnacka, publicist

Władysław Majewski, publicist, member of the Internet Society Polska

Tomasz Piątek, writer and publicist