Citizens Push Back Against Polish Ruling Party’s Abuse of Power

When a ruling party consolidates control, it’s legitimate cause for anxiety. This is what’s happening right now in Poland, where the one-month-old government is taking steps to override democratic practices.

The elections on November 16 swept the national conservative Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) into power with an absolute majority. It’s the first time since 1989 that one party has held a majority in the parliament. The president—who also holds legislative powers—is a PiS affiliate as well.

A few weeks into their mandate, the PiS replaced five judges on the Constitutional Tribunal, the judicial body that assesses whether proposed and existing laws adhere to the Polish constitution. All five of those judges had been appointed by the previous parliament. PiS not only questioned the legality of those appointments, but also changed the rules for appointing new judges. The vote that enabled this was taken in parliament in the middle of the night with practically no debate, and effectively disrupted the Constitutional Tribunal’s ability to function.

A court ruled shortly thereafter that the PiS’s actions might be unconstitutional, a ruling that the president promptly disregarded on the grounds that too few of the court’s judges weighed in. By controlling the constitutional court, the government blocked the only remaining way to oppose unconstitutional laws. In an unprecedented assault on Poland’s democratic system, the ruling party effectively wiped out any semblance of checks and balances, in essence declaring itself above the law.

This troubling development sparked the mobilization of a group of concerned citizens. A couple hundred of us protested outside the parliament on December 2—a demonstration that ultimately grew into a sustained, nonpartisan grassroots effort to monitor government actions. The most recent protest, organized on December 12 by a coalition of civic groups and parliamentary opposition in response to the president’s decision to disregard the aforementioned ruling of the court, drew as many as 50,000 people.

This movement is made up of many civic groups formed by people active in NGOs—people with long records of defending human rights and the rule of law. We think of ourselves as angry citizens, without political or organizational affiliation. We don’t even have a logo or formal name—online we use #WeAreWatchingYou (#PatrzymyNaWas) as our hashtag. We are not against PiS, or in favor of any other party. Our agenda is one that advances the rights of all Polish citizens. We call for respect for democratic standards, human rights, and the rule of law.

To date, the actions of the ruling party ignore democratic standards and procedures. Not only did they speed up procedures to the extent that they were able to pass a law in one day, they also shut down political debate.

On the day when the new Constitutional Tribunal judges were appointed, citizens who only wanted to watch the vote were barred from parliament. By pushing legislation through in a form of parliamentary drafts—instead of ministerial initiatives, as is customary in Poland—PiS left no room for public consultation, a mandatory step in initiating a law. Even more worrying, the ruling party refuses to see any problem in excluding civil society from public debate on such drastic changes in the legal landscape. As the head of PiS’s executive committee, Joachim Brudziński, put it: “Citizens can protest all they want, but it will not divert the party from its set course.”

Worrying trends have already emerged in a number of other governmental announcements. For example, plans are afoot to nationalize all media and focus their role on promoting national values. This may result in purging from the existing public broadcaster anyone who disagrees with official positions. PiS is also planning major changes in education, including rolling back school reforms.

Another worrying announcement involved the establishment of a new intelligence service responsible for electronic surveillance. It seems that PiS not only wants to maintain full political control over existing surveillance powers (the heads of intelligence services have already been replaced) but also seeks new ones, which will be vested in the Polish equivalent of the United States’ NSA. Taking into account the security paradigm and style of governing already exhibited by PiS, new powers such as these may not be counterbalanced with adequate legal safeguards.

Together, these pervasive and systemic changes affect many areas of public and private life—changes that limit citizens’ rights and undermine the rule of law. Under these circumstances, we feel that the mobilization and reorganization of Polish civil society is now more important than ever. We are determined to continue exercising our right to scrutinize our elected representatives, call for greater transparency, and “watch” the actions of our government.

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Many thanks, Kasia, for alerting the wider international public to these very worrying developments in Poland. All European supporters of the rule of law will stand behind you!

I don't know Polish law, but is it possible that if too few of the judges ruled, then it is a minority opinion and the president is right? In any case, if it is a majority opinion, then they should have stopped the president, so its their own fault.

restore constitutional regularity

PiS is over-extending it's legal mandate and doing unconstitutional things which must be stopped.

PiS is doing a fine job of -(finally), after years of oppression of hidden but still communist government. After well staged'fall' of communism in Poland, the monstrous mass remained at the wheel by allowing their families, mates, relatives and members of their dark circle to carry on with the show. Finally Poland is becoming a country that's truly free, a country of Christ, a land of God and His faithful children. Country where faith, love and family still has a meaning. A country, which will now raise from ashes of darkness, greed, and slimy hands of also Mr Soros and his beloved Rockelfeller mates. The truth will always come out, Mr Soros. Darkness cannot overcome light-be afraid of the truth that is emerging into daylight! Allelujah! God Bless you All xx

For last 26 years every winning party was doing exactly the same what PiS is doing right now so I wonder why all these left wing politicaly correct voices of concern were silent before. More than for polish democracy I'm worried about Western Europe which is dying for political correctness.

In follow-up to my previous comment which has yet(!) to be posted.
Dear Mr Soros and all,
Poland is no longer a mass of half-wits how you would like us to see. In spite of our intelligence exterminated in both wars, then by Soviets and especially remember Katyn, now also Smolensk. New generations have been born, order re-stored and thus, time to end this pitiful show of 'fallen Communism with hero, Walesa on its white horse'.
Polish citizens can see now what has happened to our country, their eyes opened and result, majority voted for PiS. Majority government has won its place by the vote of its people. And this victory came in spite of the fact that PO made every attempt they could to falsify the votes, this victory came in spite that PO owned ALL media in their slimy grasp: tabloids, TV, radio, Internet space etc. and even with all that, they could not save their seat. Polish citizens had enough of them, so they decided to see them go-regardless of all their dirty tricks and tactics.
Polish citizens are intelligent, proud of their European and Christian roots and forever faithful to God and by God we are and will be protected. And since we are protected by God, no one and nothing will overcome us.
This is the moment Poland have been waiting for us and it has finally come.
Mr Soros-you may have blinded many on your monstrous journey to wealth and power, but you will not get your dirty hands on Poland. We are in hand of Jesus and Him you cannot overcome. Not everyone and everything can be bought for your repulsive money. Learn that Poland is not for sale, even if you have managed to buy services of Miss Szymelewicz-this is the end of your road with us. God Bless you All and may it open your eyes before is too late xx

On the question of who exactly is protecting Poland, and what that means for its political choices, the Financial Times' Philip Stephens makes a relevant and interesting point:

"Mr Kaczynski sees Moscow as a serious threat. He is pressing Nato to set up permanent bases in Poland to deter Mr Putin’s revanchism. The irony here apparently goes unnoticed: the Atlantic alliance was established as the guardian of the liberal brand of democracy Mr Kaczynski now professes to disdain."

"It’s the first time since 1989 that one party has held a majority in the parliament."

This is not true. Example: the pro-EU, anti-Polish, liberal (and much hated) Civic Platform. People hated it, and overwhelmingly chose more conservative, EU-skeptic and pro-Poland right-wing option which is Law and Justice.

And Mr. Soros, plesae do not call (as you did today in Davos) by the name of "regime" a democratically chosen government. It seems to me you are trying to seed the seeds of a terror...

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