In the six months since Poland’s new right-wing government, PiS, has taken power, they’ve managed to endanger the rule of law, disregard freedom of the press, and ban abortion.
Even in a socially conservative, majority Catholic country, this has managed to spark a massive protest movement in a short amount of time.
What are the issues?
- Disregarding freedom of the press.
- The government has enacted a law allowing the national media council, which is tied to the ruling party, the power to appoint and dismiss top executives of public media organizations. Now, the government is able to influence Polish Radio and TVP, which is estimated to reach 90% of the polish population in any given week.
- Endangering the rule of law, weakening checks and balances.
- Just after the ruling party came to power, they attempted to reduce the powers of the country’s top court, the Constitutional Tribunal, by appointing several new judges and then passing a law to change how the court functions. With a weaker court that cannot stop the party’s right-wing agenda, there is a greater chance for them to consolidate power and make Poland less democratic. The court has ruled that the legislation passed was unconstitutional, and that only three of the judges could be legitimately seated; however, the government has ignored the court, as well as the subsequent warnings of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament.
- Imposing socially conservative values by law.
- The new ruling party was elected on a conservative platform and is clear about ties to the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. But, they have begun imposing these conservative values on citizens by taking away people’s rights. Poland is now the only country in the EU to completely ban abortion due to a new law passed in the last few weeks, which has sparked protests in major cities across the country. The party is also openly critical of IVF and same-sex marriage.
The Law and Justice Party (PiS in Polish)
Since their election victory on October 25th, the PiS has begun to follow a similar path to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister. The nationalist, highly Catholic party has taken steps to gain power over neutral institutions like the court and the national media, and make Poland more socially conservative. PiS won the election on a platform of moderate change, but they’ve brought an illiberal revolution upon Poland.
Behind the President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, is one man, PiS party founder and leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Kaczynski is a troubling figure for Europe, due to his anti-German foreign policy, skepticism of the EU, and his calls for a retraction of the previous government’s promise to accept Syrian refugees. During his stint as Prime Minister while his brother was president, he had conflict with the European Commision over environmental concerns and called for Germany to give Poland extra EU votes because of the Poles murdered during WWII. The “Orbanisation” of Poland threatens to weaken the institutions and economic growth Poland has been building since 1989, but the strong pro-European middle class is fighting back.
The Protest Movement
The people began opposing the new government’s actions almost immediately, many of whom joined the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), a non-parliamentary opposition movement which was formed in November. Just after Kaczynski weakened the country’s top court in December, Mateusz Kijowski, the leader of the KOD, formed a Facebook group which tens of thousands of people quickly flocked to. People are taking to the streets against Kaczynski en masse, and chanting KOD’s slogan “We The People.”
“We want a free and open Poland … a Poland where there is room for everyone.” – Mateusz Kijowski
Demonstrations and protests have been happening in major cities for months. In February, just three months after PiS was elected, an estimated 80,000 people gathered on the streets of Warsaw. This month, there have been two major waves of protests in reaction to the anti-abortion law in Warsaw and other Polish cities.
Just this week, the government has come under serious criticism with an open letter published on the cover of Gazeta, Poland’s leading newspaper. Written by opposition activists and politicians, as well as three former presidents (including Wałęsa) and some former foreign ministers, this letter called for the Polish people to defend democracy against their government and oppose the new “draconian laws.”
“The freedom of the press is in jeopardy,” he said, “and with it, democracy as a whole.” – Mateusz Kijowski
The European Union’s Position
The EU and NATO’s relationship with Poland is important. It is the EU’s 6th largest economy, and a symbol of successful ex-communist integration. Poland shares a key border with Russia, and will be hosting the NATO summit in July. By ignoring the European Parliament’s resolution regarding the protection of the power of the country’s top court, Poland is putting a strain on this relationship, which is meant to be a union of shared values with democracy at its core. Unfortunately, the Polish government is choosing nationalist, Catholic values over the rule of law. Not much can be done by Brussels, even though the resolution was passed by a vote of 513 to 142. Any further measures by the EU, like taking away Poland’s voting rights, could put too much pressure on Kaczynski and backfire, leading to Polish isolation or anti-European sentiment.