‘Illiberal democracy’? The Orban-ization of Poland


The European Commission said on Monday it would examine the impact of laws pushed through by Poland’s new right-wing government amid growing concerns for democracy and the rule of law in the EU’s largest eastern member, Reuters reports:

Since winning an election last October, the Law and Justice party (PiS), which advocates higher state spending, conservative Catholic values and Euroscepticism, has moved to put Polish public TV and radio broadcasters under direct government control and to change the makeup of the constitutional court.

The court changes prompted public protests, rattled investors and drew accusations from rights activists that PiS is undermining democratic checks and balances in a country long seen as a bulwark of economic and political stability in Europe.

On December 31st parliament ignored a letter of concern from the European Union and passed an amendment to Poland’s media law that sacks the management of the public television and radio broadcasters, TVP and Polskie Radio, and empowers the treasury minister to appoint their successors, The Economist adds:

Meanwhile, as Poland moves closer to Hungarian-style illiberal democracy, the European Commission is warning that there may be consequences.

TVP’s directors resigned the night the law was passed, before it came into force. Poland’s Radio 1 has protested by playing the Polish national anthem every other hour since January 1st, alternating it with the EU’s anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. The country’s centrist and liberal media outlets condemned the new law, along with several other illiberal changes under the new government. The cover of the Polish edition of Newsweek featured a smashed eagle with the caption “The rape of Poland”.

The president of European Parliament, Martin Schulz, compares the recent developments in Poland to a “coup d’état.” The European Commission, in turn, is activating its “rule of law mechanism,” increasing scrutiny of recent policy changes in the country, analyst Dalibor Rohac writes for the American Enterprise Institute.

This time around, the concerns are not overblown, he adds. Even Leszek Balcerowicz, the eminent Polish economist and reformer, called the changes “the greatest test of supporters of freedom and rule of law in Poland since 1989.”

Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (above) speaks of the election of PiS as the first step in a spiritual renaissance that will remake the Polish state, The Economist adds.

In the quarter-century since communism fell, Poland has become central Europe’s most successful economy, proof that democracy and rule of law can take root in former

Poland is more than a beacon of reform. It occupies a sensitive strategic position bordering Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. That puts it on the front line of Europe’s new geopolitical divide, between members of Euro-Atlantic institutions and countries that Moscow is determined to keep in its sphere of influence.

Overall, even if the PiS’ first two months in office are not a “coup d’état,” they are hardly encouraging, Rohac adds:

Until recently, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary was the pariah of Central and Eastern Europe. Today, with Slovakia headed for a parliamentary election that might very well give a constitutional majority to its own strongman, Robert Fico, “illiberal democracy” is becoming the norm on the EU’s Eastern flank.

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