Poland’s Democracy Is Under Threat: The EU Must Strike A Balanced Response

Poland’s integration into the political and economic mainstream of liberal, democratic Europe since the collapse of Soviet rule in 1989 can be accurately regarded as one of the European Union’s greatest ever success stories.

Having been reduced to rubble at the end of the 30 years of fighting that ravaged the continent in the first half of the 20 century and systematically oppressed by an unelected socialist government for more than four decades, Poland now stands as the sixth-largest economy in the EU. It also ranks as one of the safest countries in the world in which to live, possesses the fastest growing and most varied GDP in the state’s history, and is home to a young, highly-educated workforce who enjoy a rapidly increasing standard of living.

In short, Poland has grown to become a paradigm for the way in which a free, democratic, post-Soviet state can flourish at the heart of a politically and economically interdependent Europe. The fact that the country suffered so severely at the center of an ideologically polarized continent over the last 100 years makes its central position in the European project a powerful symbol of the continent’s post-war transformation.

However, this development has come under serious threat since the socially conservative, mildly Eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS in Polish) were elected as Poland’s first-ever single-party government last October.

In just over two months in office, PiS have already passed legislation designed to dilute the power of the civil service, the judiciary, and the media, all crucial social institutions built-up over the last 25 years in order to safeguard the constitution and maintain checks and balances on executive power.

Crisis first flared when, on December 4, 2015, PiS fired five judges in the country’s highest court and replaced them with party loyalists. Since then, the government has passed legislation enabling it to purge the civil service of bureaucrats perceived to be loyal to the previous Civic Platform (PO in Polish) administration and unilaterally appoint new heads of public TV and radio stations.

The moves have prompted outrage among opposition leaders, and a recent TVP (Polish state television) poll found that 56 percent of Poles believe that their democracy is in danger. Law and Justice campaigned on a platform of reform, not revolution, and tens of thousands marched in protest against the government in Warsaw on December 12 as a consequence.

Many commentators have compared the manner in which PiS have abused their democratic mandate in order to run roughshod over the constitution to the policies enacted by the hard-line, nationalist government led by Viktor Orban in Hungary. It was telling that when Orban visited Warsaw in an unofficial capacity last Wednesday, he met with both Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło and Law and Justice Party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Although Szydło and President Andrzej Duda (a PiS member) were officially elected to power, it seems clear that Jarosław Kaczyński (the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczyński) is the one pulling the strings. The Guardian’s Remi Adekoya persuasively argued that the 66-year-old is determined to use his position to complete what he sees as the unfinished anti-communist revolution of 1989.

“Kaczyński holds no formal position in government but few in Poland doubt it is the veteran politician, in firm control of his party, who is issuing orders to Duda and the Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, both loyal protégés,” Adekoya said.

“Kaczyński believes post-communist Poland was, at the onset, appropriated by cliques of unpatriotic and amoral cynics who sold the country to the highest bidder and placed their friends in key institutions to ensure the lion’s share of benefits from the country’s economic transformation were shared among a privileged elite. Wresting the state back from these unpatriotic forces, in Kaczyński’s view, will require revolutionary determination.”

Whatever about the veracity of Kaczyński’s history, his attempt to reshape Poland’s political system in his own interest is a betrayal of everything that the Solidarność movement stood for and poses an existential threat to Polish democracy. The EU Commission today meets to debate its response to Law and Justice’s assault on the Polish constitution, and it is imperative that Brussels draws strength from the closeness of its historical relationship with Poland and its 86 percent approval rating among the Polish electorate and takes a strong stance on PiS’ abuse of power.

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Orban has already said that Hungary will veto any move to strip Poland of its EU voting rights, which would be the most severe reprimand the Commission could administer. However, to isolate Poland alongside an EU member state as peripheral Hungary would powerfully illustrate the danger of the direction in which Law and Justice are leading its people.

Both Poland and the EU work best when they work together, and the Commission cannot afford to allow Kaczyński undo more of their accomplishments.

[Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]