Endangered Democracy in Poland

polflagThe political world has seen a lot of changes and scandals during last months. One of the most resounding ones is Constitutional Court Crisis in Poland which has sparked international debate on the  condition of democracy in Poland as well as anti- and pro-government rallies.

It all started in October 2015 with the appointment of five Constitutional Tribunal judges by the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska,PO) party. After the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) party won the parliamentary election, it made its own appointments to the court, arguing that the previous appointments of the five judges by PO were unconstitutional. On 3 December 2015 the Constitutional Court ruled that the October election by PO of three judges was valid, while the appointment of the other two, breached the law. However, President Duda refused to swear any of these judges into office explaining that the number of Constitutional judges would then be unconstitutional.

In December, PiS changed the court’s decision-making power by prescribing a two-third majority vote and mandatory participation of at least 13 of the 15 judges on the Constitutional Tribunal.
The bill was approved by the Polish Senate on 24 December 2015  and signed by President Duda on 28 December 2015 resulting in the decision-making capacity of the court being called “paralyzed”.
On 9 March 2016 the Constitutional Court ruled the amendments non-compliant with the Polish constitution however the government regards this verdict as not binding as it was not based on the rules introduced by the amendment and refused to publish the verdict, a binding condition of the legal validity.

This crisis led to the establishment of The Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a civic organization opposing to the actions taken by PiS. As the disagreements between the governing party and the Constitutional Court continued, KOD called for protests against what it perceives as a breach of the Constitution. There have been a few demonstrations so far with the biggest one being estimated to include 50,000 demonstrators according to “Der Spiegel” and “Le Monde” or between 17,000 and 20,000 people according to the police; it took place in front of the headquarters of the Constitutional Court in Warsaw on December 12, 2015 and the other one with 70,000 people held in Warsaw on 27 February; it was called “We, the People”. These protests met with the response of PiS supporters who organized their own manifestations.

In an open letter published on 25 April 2016, the former Presidents of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Bronislaw Komorowski called the Polish public for the defense of democracy and warned that “Law and Justice plans to continue their actions, which destroy the constitutional order, paralyze the proceedings of the Constitutional Tribunal and the entire judicial system.”The same week Poland’s Supreme Court announced that it regards the verdicts of the Constitutional Tribunal as binding even though these decisions were not published by the Government, as technically required by the Polish Constitution.

The whole scandal got a lot of attention from world politicians who expressed their concern about the crisis. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament described the political situation in Poland as dramatic with the latest actions of the Polish government having “characteristics of a coup”.
The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, who had been asked for an opinion by the Polish government in December 2015, assessed the amendments as paralyzing the Court’s effectiveness and undermining democracy, human rights and the rule of law. On 13 April 2016 the European Parliament  passed a resolution declaring that the Parliament “is seriously concerned that the effective paralysis of the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland endangers democracy, human rights and the rule of law”.
What’s more, US Senators John McCain, Ben Cardin andRichard J. Durbin  wrote a letter to Beata Szydło, Polish Prime Minister protesting against the amendments which would “threaten the independence of state media and the country’s highest court and undermine Poland’s role as a democratic model for other countries in the region still going through difficult transitions” and could “serve to diminish democratic norms, including the rule of law and independence of the judiciary”.

The conflict has been lasting for nearly a  year now and the verdict still hasn’t been published. Nearly every week there are new issues connected to it. People are slowly getting tired of it since most of Poles don’t even really know what Constitutional Tribunal is or what its responsibilities are. They want the politicians to focus on ‘more  serious issues’ rather than argue about something that seems so unreal and incomprehensible for them. The crisis could have been solved very quickly if the government respected the opinion of the Constitutional Court and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.

By Wiktoria B.