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Poland’s Growing Authoritarianism

On Facing the Implications of Recent Events

For the last two years, since the landslide victory of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, its critics in Poland have been going through a growing “deer in the headlights” phase. When back in the winter months of 2016, the PiS government introduced new members of the Constitutional Tribunal without paying much attention to the law, some argued that the previous, Civic Platform-led (PO) government hadn’t been much better. This was not entirely untrue, since PO had illegally appointed additional members of the Constitutional Tribunal to “safeguard” the country’s supreme judicial body from the extreme right-wing PiS. As it turned out, PO could not have done a worse job, as its arrogance provided a precedent, which allowed PiS to quickly begin dismantling the rule of law, since “the previous government had done the same.” That was not quite accurate, but it didn’t matter anymore, since in the popular imagination of PiS voters, in 2015 power was recaptured by the righteous true-1980 Solidarity have-nots from the illegitimate — post-Communist, Jewish, German, EU-dependent, crooked, you name it — haves.

In order to restore real justice, unlike the EU-enforced one, there are no holds barred; and just because something is written in law doesn’t mean it’s just. It doesn’t even matter that some of these laws were created during the previous 2005-2007 PiS-led government or that they were signed by president Lech Kaczyński — the twin brother of the party’s leader, Jarosław — who died in a plane crash near Smoleńsk in 2010. Today, Lech Kaczyński simply serves as an empty symbol to be filled with his brother’s personal vendetta. This revenge entails ignoring laws in a push for authoritarian power, or the “tyranny of the majority”, as the Polish historian of ideas Marcin Król named it recently. This also means that going against Poland’s Constitution is a necessary step in the right direction if this goal is to be achieved. Politicizing the judiciary, too, is essential, if the party-labeled traitors and murders are to be persecuted according to justice — à la PiS. What’s more, it comes in handy when transforming the imperfect Polish democracy into an even less perfect clientelistic kleptocracy. These attempts can already be noticed in the growing numbers of absurdly unqualified individuals receiving appointments as judges and members of boards of state-owned companies.

In this very context, this week president Duda decided to sign two clearly unconstitutional bills, which politicize the Supreme Court and the National Judiciary Council, key institutions supposed to secure the balance of power. It was a direct answer to the European Commission’s decision to trigger Article 7 of the EU treaty, which can potentially take away Poland’s voting rights. Duda’s decision may look outrageous for people who believe in the rule of law (“Can PiS really be doing this?”). However, for those who believe in PiS, it is yet another logical step in providing true justice that goes beyond cold, blind, and historically unjust rules, which caused people to feel left behind as a result of the 1989 democratic transition. If this justice — à la PiS is intrinsically inconsistent, allowing a Communist prosecutor to be a well-regarded PiS MP, or idolizing Lech Kaczyński while ignoring his respect towards the rule of law, it is an unimportant detail compared to the true justice for the people that the party promises.

So far, PiS has been undeterred by criticisms coming from the EU or even from the US Department of State, which issued a letter of concern about the bills on the judiciary President Duda promised to sign. In the recent weeks, the only time the party took a step back was when TVN 24, a major Polish private news channel received a mammoth fine, issued by the National Broadcasting Council for “promoting” illegal behavior. In reality, the television channel reported on the massive demonstrations held for days in front of the parliament, where people protested against government-introduced bills undermining the rule of law. What made the PiS-filled Council reconsider was the fact that TVN 24 is owned by an American company. Now there is a chance the fine will be annulled, for even autocracies need good business to survive. But we should suspend our disbelief, this really is happening and authoritarian rule in Poland is around the corner.

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Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer

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