Poland appears to be dismantling its own hard-won democracy

A group of protesters holding a flag with the Solidarity trade union logo shout slogans outside the Senate building during a debate on a bill that gives politicians influence on the nation’s top court, in Warsaw, Friday. (Alik Keplicz/AP)

A bill now in Poland’s Parliament would destroy the judicial system’s independence and authority — and it’s likely to become law. In 2015, the far-right populist Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party won both the presidential and parliamentary elections. Since then — despite public protests and international pressure — PiS’s party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has steadily passed laws that have eroded Poland’s democratic system of government. The bill now being considered would eliminate the judicial branch’s role in the system of checks and balances — and would at last consolidate political power in the executive and legislative branches.

How is it that one man, who is neither president nor prime minister, has so much control?

Kaczyński’s rise to power

Jarosław Kaczyński and his twin brother Lech Kaczyński founded PiS in 2001. The party promised to crack down on corruption and crime. Its close collaboration with powerful Catholic fundamentalists quickly gave the party a broad and stable base of electoral support.

In 2003, Jarosław Kaczyński took over the party chairmanship; in 2005 Lech Kaczyński won the Polish presidency. A plane crash in 2010 claimed the lives of several prominent PiS members, including Lech Kaczyński. The loss of the party’s top leadership in the crash gave Jarosław Kaczyński tremendous power; quickly, he expelled possible competitors and prevented any challenges.

Officially, Jarosław Kaczyński now serves as a lawmaker in the Polish lower house of Parliament, the Sejm. He holds no ministerial position in the government. But in practice he single-handedly controls the government. He dominates the current prime minister, Beata Szydło, and the president, Andrzej Duda, neither of whom were strong PiS leaders before taking over the country’s two most important positions.

Kaczyński’s hold on power

PiS holds a majority of the seats in the Sejm, even though it won only 37.6 percent of the popular vote. It also controls the Senate. PiS’s parliamentary domination means its leadership can have individual lawmakers submit bills, which can be passed more quickly and with less scrutiny than bills sponsored by the government. The rules governing the legislative process require that before parliamentary debate can begin on a government-proposed bill, opinions from various groups need to be submitted. This is not the case of bills proposed by individual lawmakers.

Kaczyński has succeeded in having Parliament pass nearly all the bills proposed by PiS and its members. He stepped back only once, when thousands of Polish women flooded the streets to protest further restrictions on the already extremely limited access to legal abortion. All other bills, including those dismantling the foundations of constitutional democracy, were quickly passed by the Parliament and signed into law by Duda.

This successful record is possible only because of PiS lawmakers’ extremely high levels of voting unity. For example, when PiS was in the opposition during the 2007-2011 parliamentary term, its lawmakers, on average, voted along with their party 99 percent of the time. Toeing the party line is the norm.

Furthermore, the Polish party system’s stability reinforces high party discipline. In the first decade of Poland’s transition to democracy, the party system was evolving. Entrepreneurial politicians could leave their parties and start new ones. But since 2001, these attempts have been unsuccessful — an indication that the party system has matured. Lawmakers who refuse to vote with the party can be expelled from their parliamentary faction, likely ending their political careers.

Finally, when the economy is strong, the public tends to support the government. PiS was fortunate to take over at a time of economic upturn; its leadership has overseen steady economic growth, with ordinary Poles’ incomes increasing.

PiS has also dramatically expanded the welfare state, introducing generous family benefits that have especially helped poorer families with several children.

Apparently, those improved personal finances are outweighing any concerns about PiS eroding Polish democracy. If another election were held today, according to poll results from early July, PiS would win with a comfortable lead at 38 percent of the vote, while the largest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO), would yield only 22 percent. Backed by such strong poll numbers, PiS lawmakers have little motivation to oppose the mighty party chair.

But if the Polish opposition were united as a block instead of separate parties, it might be able to attract more support than PiS. Kaczyński knows this. And this may be why he is so keen on getting a firm grip on the institutions responsible for election oversight.

What comes next?

PiS will almost certainly pass the proposed reform of the Supreme Court, abolishing the Polish judiciary’s independence and putting the courts under the government’s control. The law would permit the government to remove judges and their replacements would be selected by the National Council on the Judiciary (NCJ). A separate bill proposes changes in the composition of the NCJ which effectively gives the ruling party majority control of the NCJ. This would allow PiS to select Supreme Court judges indirectly through the NJC, resulting in government control of the Supreme Court. That will enable the government to pass laws and policies that suppress and persecute the political opposition, no longer be blocked by the courts.

One of the biggest worries is election fraud. Courts controlled by a single party can influence the electoral process to ensure the governing party wins. The Supreme Court adjudicates election related challenges and complaints. In the future, if complaints are filed alleging electoral manipulation, suppression of the opposition, or restrictions on voting rights, a court aligned with the government is likely to rule in its favor.

PiS has already acquired a reputation for violating the constitution and intimidating its political opponents. For instance, it has already restricted public gatherings and ordered raids on an anti-racism organization’s office. As a result, many expect the government to take harsh actions against political opponents or even manipulate the results of the next election.

Regional elections, planned for November 2018, will be an early test of whether Poland can still hold free and fair elections. Will Poland still be a democracy when the next parliamentary election is held in 2019?

Kamil Marcinkiewicz is a lecturer in political science and research methods at the University of Hamburg in Germany. His research focuses on voting behavior, elections and parliaments in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
Mary Stegmaier is an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on voting behavior, elections, forecasting and political representation in the United States and abroad.

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