Polish politics: a conservative revolution or post-democracy? – Marek Górka

Since 2015, legislative power in Poland has been held by Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS – Law and Justice), a conservative political party. The political environment led by Jarosław Kaczyński has set its sights on reforming the State thoroughly, being at the same time the absolute opposite of its greatest rival – Platforma Obywatelska (PO – Civic Platform), a liberal political party. It is worth mentioning that both of the political parties stem from the same place – Solidarity movement of 1980s. However, disagreements between those two political powers have been determining Polish politics since 2005.

After eight years of coalition between the liberals and the populars (2007-2011 and 2011-2015), PiS finally got the ruling majority in Parliament by winning both the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015. On the one hand, by winning the elections in 2015, the ruling party has been empowered to make changes, but on the other, PiS politicians have been using democratic institutions and procedures as mere tools for implementing their ideas. Many of their actions (major staffing changes in Polish Radio and Polish Television, public institutions, State-owned companies) have caused concern and raised public opinion’s objection. PiS’s political opponents and some of the journalists have nicknamed this phenomenon “assault on authority”.

The end-of-year Constitutional Court crisis in 2015 proved to be an important event in Poland. The Constitutional Tribunal is a judicial body which resolves disputes on the constitutionality of the activities of state institutions and it supervises the compliance of statutory law with the 1997’s Constitution of the Republic of Poland. Changes which PiS introduced to the status of Constitutional Tribunal judges have been recognized as limiting civil rights and anti-democratic. The crisis also led to establishing Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD – Komitet Obrony Demokracji) protest movement. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and The Helsinki Committee in Poland released a common statement concerning the bill on Constitutional Tribunal. They called it “betrayal  of the trias politica model” and stated that it led to “consitutionless, ruling majority dictatorship”.

Current events concerning judiciary reform in Poland were another milestone which marked protest movements’ activity. Discussing changes in Poland also provokes reflection on how much truth and how much demagogy there is in the existing dispute.

PiS’s attention has focused on the Supreme Court, which is the most important court in Poland. It operates differently than courts of general jurisdiction, i.e. district courts, regional courts and appeals courts. In the Supreme Court, the citizens may only request decisions to be revoked (criminal law) or appeal against sentences (civil law, economic law, labor law), excluding cases relevant to Supreme Administrative Court of Poland. The Supreme Court does not examine the cases substantially – it deals with the procedures only. Therefore, if a general jurisdiction judge has misinterpreted some law, the Supreme Court may revoke the sentence. But if some facts were established improperly, the Supreme Court would not try to revise them. Thus, the Supreme Courts is often referred to as “The Court of Law”. Another important role which the Supreme Court plays is passing resolutions which unify the judicature of courts of general jurisdiction. This prevents two separate courts in two different cities from understanding the same law differently.

It is worth reviewing the most important changes introduced by PiS, which many people in Poland find outraging. The regulations dealing with appointing judges have been formulated in such way that it aids the lawmakers and the executive greatly in staffing the Supreme Court.

The process of entering Krajowa Rada Sądownictwa (KRS – National Council of the Judiciary of Poland) has also been changed. Up until now, new judges were appointed by judges of KRS; now it is the Parliament’s duty. Many organizations, including The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, point out that there might be a risk of politicization of the Council.

Term of office of the current First President of the Supreme Court is going to be shortened. Constitution, however, clearly states that the President of the Supreme Court holds office for the period of six years.

Moreover, the Supreme Court will lose its right to issue rulings in cases.  Until recently, during legislative works, political parties very often asked the Supreme Court for advice. In ¾ of cases the amendments made by the Supreme Court were introduced while passing the bills.

The Supreme Court serves many public purposes. The most important is deciding whether parliamentary and presidential elections are legally valid. Thus, the opposition has serious doubts as to the future of democratic procedures in Poland.

Current situation in Poland is the result of many socio-political processes which are intertwined with each other. It turns out that no government, between 2007 and 2015, made any significant law changes and that is why, supposedly, PiS has the mandate to introduce changes in its favor – all this in the name of modernization of the State. Despite great protest all over the country, the ruling party is going strong. This, undoubtedly, is aided by the welfare initiatives introduced by PiS (“500+” which is a benefit program supporting families, who have two or more children, with 500 zlotys monthly). Therefore, many social groups, who benefit from the above, distance themselves from the introduced changes. On the opposite side there are groups of people who emphasize democratic and cosmopolitan values more. These are mostly those who benefited from European integration and socio-economic transformation in Poland.

Protests against changes in judicial system became an opportunity for new socio-political leaders of the opposition to arise. Demonstrations welcomed many young people, who (apart from their political ambitions) voiced their sympathies towards democratic freedoms that are (according to them) endangered. Summing up, the attitude of Polish society towards current events illustrates the division into those who use great words connected with democracy and freedom, and those who are fond of everyday life and more trivial problems.

Mediatization of protests, and emotions which are clearly present in the process, might blur the true nature of those events. Many of the protesters appeal to the symbolic and legendary Solidarity movement of 1980s of the communist era, as well as to Euromaidan, which took place in Ukraine in 2013-2014. It is also very easy to become biased which leads to stigmatization of the government environment and idealization of the opposition. Unfortunately, the opposition currently does not have any political program, apart from attacking the government. Current situation serves as a mere background in which the political opposition might build their popularity and refresh their public image.

Therefore, has Poland lived up to democracy? Are statism and socialism enough a compensation for the price of losing such privileges as citizen responsibilities? The upcoming scenario of those dynamic processes in Poland will tell. The opposition’s political slogans of resistance may turn out to be a mistake, because the instruments of political rivalry not always match the public safety. Ill-considered, emotional statements may lead to losing control over crowds of people. That is why the opposition has a great task: to be responsible for their followers’ safety.

PhD Marek Górka, Faculty of Humanities, University of Technology, Koszalin