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Opinion: Poland's reckoning with populist misrule

January 22, 2024 6:25 PM 5 min read
Sławomir Sierakowski
Sławomir Sierakowski
Senior Fellow at Mercator
Mateusz Morawiecki (L) and Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (C) participate in a protest in front of the Polish Parliament building in Warsaw, Poland, on Jan. 11, 2024 (Andrzej Iwanczuk/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
This audio is created with AI assistance

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It has been a month since Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government took office, and the task now is to rebuild Polish democracy after eight years of corrupt misrule under Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party. No country in Europe has ever faced a political transition quite like this one.

After all, Poland’s veto-wielding president, Andrzej Duda, remains loyal to the ousted populist government, and Tusk’s coalition government lacks the votes to remove him from office despite Duda’s myriad unconstitutional actions. With another 15 months left on his term, Duda will have many opportunities to plunge Poland into chaos at Kaczynski’s behest.

Most of the damage PiS has caused to Polish institutions also remains. For example, when the party came to power in 2015, it combined the offices of prosecutor-general and minister of justice, and handed that role to Zbigniew Ziobro, a far-right partisan who immediately began “reforming” the courts. The National Council of the Judiciary, which nominates judges, was duly purged and then stacked with PiS cronies. Soon enough, the PiS government had illegally politicized and seized control of the Constitutional Court, followed eventually by the Supreme Court.

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As a result, Poland now has two parallel legal orders, only one of which is constitutional and legitimate. Across the judiciary, there are more than 2,000 PiS-aligned “neo-judges” who were appointed by the refashioned Council. Because Ziobro drew from this compromised pool when selecting directors of the common courts, thousands of verdicts can now be challenged.

The previous PiS government also politicized public media by illegally packing the National Media Council with party acolytes for six-year terms. Independent-minded journalists were then expelled from public media outlets and replaced with propagandists.

Something similar happened with state-owned companies, cultural institutions, and the central bank. Virtually every institution that could be seized was seized. Now, Tusk needs to wrest back the key levers of government that remain in PiS hands.

To depoliticize the public media, Tusk appointed the formidable Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz as minister of culture (probably only temporarily to carry out this mission). Sienkiewicz has already bypassed the National Media Council to remove executives at state media companies, as well as secretly negotiating an agreement with technical staff to stop broadcasting the public news station TVP Info. Although PiS members responded by trying to occupy the TVP building, the station’s news and current-affairs programming has already been overhauled. Free of PiS propaganda, it has a decidedly more pluralistic character.

Duda participated in PiS’s lawlessness from the beginning, and now he is doing everything to protect that regime. For example, in 2015, he illegally pardoned two prominent PiS politicians, Mariusz Kaminski and Maciej Wasik, who had been convicted of serious crimes a decade earlier. Kaczynski then put them in charge of special services in the new PiS government.

After the recent elections, Kaminski and Wasik faced a second trial, which concluded this month with both men sentenced to prison for two years and banned from public office for five. Despite PiS protests, Speaker of the Sejm Szymon Holownia revoked their mandates as MPs after consulting the Supreme Court (specifically its Labor Chamber, which was legally elected). When the two men were arrested this month, Duda not only announced that he would pardon them again, but also tried to give them sanctuary in the presidential palace.

But Duda has reinitiated the pardon procedure, effectively admitting that his previous pardon made no sense. Rather than pursuing an immediate pardon, he has taken the longer route, whereby the courts and the prosecutor-general will weigh in first. In the meantime, PiS intends to make martyrs out of Kamiński and Wasik.

Before the elections, PiS, fearing that it would lose power, delegated the authority to dismiss the national prosecutor, Dariusz Barski, to the president. As a result, Adam Bodnar, a former ombudsman who now holds the roles of minister of justice and prosecutor-general, would have no influence or authority over his main subordinate and other prosecutors. But this legal absurdity was based on laws that were no longer in force. Bodnar was thus able to choose a new national prosecutor and unblock the prosecutor’s office. Tusk also announced plans to separate the functions of the prosecutor-general and the minister of justice, so as to make the prosecutor’s office independent of politicians.

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PiS politicians are openly talking about their plans to sow chaos and tarnish the Tusk government’s image in Poland and abroad. The goal is to create the impression that Tusk is acting radically, pursuing revenge rather than compromise. The new government has been in power only a month, they will say, and PiS members are already being locked up. Never mind that Wasik and Kaminski were convicted by a court, not by Tusk, and based on evidence proving that they falsified documents and signatures to smear their political opponents during the first PiS government in 2005-07.

For now, Poles trust the new government. Several recent polls show that PiS’s support is declining as the ruling coalition’s approval rises.

In the end, Duda, having openly gone to war with Tusk, may be the biggest loser. If he follows through on blocking a forthcoming budget bill by sending it to the Constitutional Court, parliament will have to be dissolved. But judging by the latest polls, new elections could deliver the Tusk-led coalition the supermajority it needs to overturn a presidential veto. If that were to happen, the fortress of corruption that PiS built would become entirely defenseless.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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