Poland Pulls Back from the Authoritarian Brink after Protests and EU Condemnation

Poland, once the poster child of the post-1989 democratic wave against communism in Europe, has been going through rough political times. Thousands of Poles have flooded city streets to protest the government’s continued effort to limit the independence of the country’s judiciary. Detractors say the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) is trying to move towards an autocratic model of governance that evokes Putin or Erdoğan.

The anti-government protesters have been joined by the European Union in their condemnation. EU officials had hinted that, if the Polish government went ahead with its proposed legislation, Brussels could invoke Article 7, which would sanction Poland and suspend its voting rights within the 28-member bloc.

In a dramatic twist, Poland’s nominally apolitical president stepped in and vetoed one of the three parts of legislation that would have seen the PiS have effective control over the country’s judicial system. Andrzej Duda, a main target for the protesters, is a proponent of PiS’s agenda and it is difficult to be certain about the intentions behind this u-turn.

Duda’s decision may show that the government is backing down or tactically retreating. He explained that the bills, “would not strengthen the sense of justice in society”. Christian Davies, a foreign policy commentator based in Warsaw, made the following good point: “PiS may be hoping it can take the wind out of the protesters’ sails, portraying itself as the reasonable party to the dispute and the protesters as acting in bad faith when they inevitably reject the government’s ‘generous’ concessions.”

No matter his motives, it is clear that the large demonstrations and EU pressure affected the government’s thinking. While Duda’s decision will offer hope to the protesters, the threat to the judiciary still remains.

The power of the people in Poland has been successful before. Most famous, of course, was the 1980s grassroots Solidarity movement, which used nation-wide strikes and demonstrations, and played an important role in bringing an end to Soviet-backed communist rule in the country. More recently, last year large demonstrations forced PiS to block a proposed blanket ban on abortion.

Ironically, the founder and chairman of the Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, is a former member of the Solidarity movement. While holding no government office, the staunch anti-communist nationalist is widely seen as dictating matters from behind the scenes. And so, the boundary between Party and State has become blurred – reminding us of the old extreme political project of Europe.

Critics say the nationalist government in Warsaw, in power since 2015, has been emboldened after a recent state visit by US president Donald Trump, who failed to even remotely mention the government’s assault on democratic checks and balances. Poland is seen by NATO as one of the most assertive bulwarks against Russian aggression in Europe.

Poland’s ruling party is ideologically similar to the conservatism, nationalism and anti-globalism of the (mostly) elected authoritarian leaders we see in Russia, Turkey, India and the United States. In an interview with a German tabloid, Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said the PiS-led government “only wants to cure our country of a few illnesses”. These ‘illnesses’ include, “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion […] What moves most Poles [is] tradition, historical awareness, love of country, faith in God and normal family life between a woman and a man.”

This article first appeared in Issue 17, 2017.
Posted 11:16am Sunday 30th July 2017 by George Elliott.