What’s at stake in Poland’s democracy



Poland’s right-wing government has the chance to explain itself to its European Union peers on Tuesday for the second time in three months amid concern over changes to the judiciary that the EU fears could undermine its courts’ independence, Reuters reports:

Poland’s Minister for European Affairs Konrad Szymanski said he would defend changes brought by the eurosceptic, nationalist minded PiS government at a hearing in Brussels before EU ministers – part of the bloc’s procedure to establish if Warsaw is in breach of EU principle on the rule of law.

What is expected to be a tense session comes a day after Poland was suspended from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ), which decided the Polish council is no longer independent because it is now appointed by politicians, rather than judges as before.

The European Network of Councils for the Judiciary suspended Poland due to concerns over political control of the judicial nomination process, Foreign Policy adds.

Since taking power in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party has made reshaping the courts the center of its nationalist agenda, and it has gradually accomplished many of its goals, The New York Times adds:

  • First, the government moved on the Constitutional Tribunal — which decides whether laws passed by Parliament violate the Constitution — forcing out its president, who had been critical of changes, along with several other judges and replacing them with loyalists.
  • Next, it exerted control over the lower courts by giving the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, the right to dismiss judges. The country’s prosecutors were also placed under his control.
  • The party then gained control over the National Judiciary Council, which selects judges, before it took its final step: purging and recasting the Supreme Court.
  • The government also created a new disciplinary chamber that critics fear could be used to punish wayward judges and a new panel that will have oversight over elections.

“The Supreme Court is Poland’s guarantee of freedom that will now become totally politicized,” said Judge Krystian Markiewicz, the head of the Polish judges’ association, Iustitia. “The two chambers that have been created will serve as tools of oppression,” he said. “The first chamber will decide about the validity of elections. The second will have the power to take disciplinary action against judges, prosecutors and lawyers, which will include immediate suspension or dismissal.”

Law and Justice has embraced a new set of ideas, not just xenophobic and deeply suspicious of the rest of Europe but also openly authoritarian, notes Anne Applebaum, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

It took over the state public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska; fired popular presenters; and began running unabashed propaganda, sprinkled with easily disprovable lies, at taxpayers’ expense. The government earned international notoriety when it adopted a law curtailing public debate about the Holocaust. … Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. 


‘US Has a Stake in Poland’s Democracy’

“[I]t falls to members of Congress, many of whom support centralizing human rights and the rule of law in US foreign policy, to step up and call out the Polish president on his government’s troubling anti-democratic moves,” according to Human Rights Watch analysts Lydia Gall and Sarah Margon. “This is appropriate to their role as advocates of a robust bilateral relationship built on shared democratic values and would reinforce their longstanding commitment to ensure the promotion of basic rights,” they suggest.

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