Piotr Popeda explains reforms introduced by Poland’s new government and questions whether Western criticism is warranted
On the 25th of October 2015, Poland held parliamentary elections. After 8 years of uninterrupted government of the Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL), the conservative party, Law and Justice (PIS) with its frontman, Jarosław Kaczyński and Beata Szydlo as Prime Minister, yielded almost 38%, and absolute majority in the Sejm and the Senate.  A few months later, the whole world is watching. This is the story that Western European journals cannot tell.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party, PIS, is a right-wing party, loudly expressing allegiance to the Christian faith, the family, and policy intervention in the economy. PIS is also considered a pro-US party, supported by a senior group in society. On the other hand, the Civic Platform of Donald Tusk and Ewa Kopacz (both former Prime Ministers), stood for liberalism and a free-market economy, but moved to the center-left since its creation, becoming firmly pro-German and pro-EU. Both Tusk and Kopacz ruled for 8 years alongside a small coalition partner.
Differences between the 2 major parties in Poland – PIS (Law and Justice) and PO (Civic Platform)
|Party views on:||
Law and Justice (PIS)
|Civic Platform (PO)|
|Electorate||mostly elderly, concentrated in rural areas and smaller urban centers||better educated social strata from large urban areas, clerks|
|Foreign policy||USA, UK and Israel||Germany and European Union|
|Taxation system||progressive, supporting increase in taxation||progressive, supporting increase in taxation|
|Economic interventionism||significant, focused on national capital||insignificant, focused on foreign privatisation|
|Social reforms (lower retirement age, benefits for children, etc.)||Pro-social reform||Anti-social reform|
|Army and national defence||significant increase in military spending, protection of borders and creation of civil combat formations, efforts to acquire nuclear weapons||systematic increase in military spending and defence|
|Migrants and refugees||Admission of one round of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, agreement on a steady flow of immigrants from Ukraine (circa 1 milion)||Admission of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, agreement on a steady flow of immigrants from Ukraine (circa 1 million)|
|Law-making||preparation of many reforms, with the growing number of officials||rather maintaining the status quo with the growing number of officials|
|Social affairs (abortion, minorities’ rights)||Utilitarian views||Left-wing views|
The 2015 parliamentary elections in October confirmed several political changes in Poland: a definitive victory for right-wing groups, leaving left-wing parties with no seats in the Sejm. In Parliament, a major victory marked the rise of the liberal, free-market party Nowoczesna (Modern Party) and anti-system group Kukiz ’15, governed by a famous Polish singer. Earlier in the year, Poland witnessed the spectacular victory of Andrzej Duda, a young and well-educated Law and Justice candidate, despite the fact that the media and the public expected PO’s candidate, Bronislaw Komorowski’s to win.
After several weeks of PIS governance and the introduction of a set of controversial bills, international opinion is shocked by the new Polish authorities. European and American newspapers accuse the new government of infringing the law, democractic values and freedom.
Are they right in doing so? Let us consider the facts.
- Constitutional Court Law
The main subject of the dispute is the controversial law passed by the Constitutional Court. This is an institution examining the law’s compatibility with the provisions of the 1997 Polish Constitution. The Polish Constitutional Court consists of 15 judges, elected through simple majority by Parliament, for a 9-year term. The duty of commissioning an investigation rests with the president (before the enactment of the act), alongside other institutions: the deputies, the governors of public bodies, marshals (after the adoption of the act). In practice, the Constitutional Court has sufficient executive power, to declare the act unconstitutional and to block the procedure from being implemented.
The roots of the dispute should be considered in this context. In May 2015, after the setback related to Bronislaw Komorowski in presidential elections, Civic Platform decided to introduce controversial amendments to the Constitutional Court ruling: instead of exchanging 3 judges (PO was legally entitled to do it), it appointed 5 judges ( more than the legal allowance). In short, the term of office of the original 3 judges ended on the 6th of November (during PO’s office) and in turn, 2 judges ended their terms of office on the 2nd and 8th of November respectively (during PIS’s office). PO effectively misused the law, in “accelerating” the selection of 2 judges in order to appoint a greater amount of judges. In turn, Civic Platform was shocked by its defeat in the presidential election and targeted the rule of new president, Andrzej Duda. This was an extremely difficult process within the Constitutional Court, an institution already filled with judges appointed by the Sejm, and ruled by the PO. Similarly, Ewa Kopacz’s Party did not expect to lose in parliamentary elections. Hence PIS gained full access to power and took advantage of PO’s intervention.
Following the seizure of power, PIS was aware that only the Constitutional Court can, de facto, block flagship ideas of this group. These include a payment of 500 PLN for the second and every subsequent child per household, lowering the retirement age and introducing a bank tax. Therefore, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party introduced a new amendment to the law of the Constitutional Court. The amendment changed the appointment of 5 judges at the Constitutional Court (as appointed by PO a few months before) and liquidated the majority vote in exchange for a vote ratio of two thirds of the votes, and a few other minor changes. PIS made the same mistake on purpose – it had the right to appoint 2 judges (due to the expiry of their office during the PIS being in office), but instead it appointed 5 (including 3 legally elected by the PO). At this point, out of the 15 judges of the Constitutional Court, 9 were selected by a coalition of PO and 6 by the new authority – Law and Justice (1 additional judge was elected in the past).
An assessment of the situation reveals the following. Firstly, both the Civic Platform and Law and Justice acted dishonestly, by attempting to retain party power and influence in court. Each of these parties aimed to appoint as many representative judges in Court, as possible. Both PO and PiS exercised majority powers through parliament, the president and public institutions. This makes it difficult for the Constitutional Court elected by the Sejm to fulfill its role as legal executive. The public appointment of judges should grant them independence. In this scenario, the political impact of the judge is equivalent to institutional lack of independence. Why then, did international public opinion not question PO’s infringement of the Polish constitution?
- Public television changes (TVP)
PIS voters should be happy with the pace of reforms. While many laws cannot be changed in the space of a few months, Law and Justice has already interfered in public television. Why is the European elite surprised? Mainly, because Jarosław Kaczyński introduced a new chairman of public television, Jacek Kurski, who was a politician of PIS, previously elected to the Sejm or European Parliament. Kurski, known for his tough stance and consistent action, exchanged several well-known journalists for new ones, who were inclined to favour the new government. The vast majority of public media and the largest privately-owned media favoured the outgoing government of Civic Platform.
I cannot recall a different scenario in past elections. The victorious party has traditionally carried out a “cleansing” process in public television. The president of TVP has constantly been renamed, for the past couple of years.This goes to show that Polish politicians treat public television as a private good, a toolkit for promoting their ideas.
Jarosław Kaczyński, President of Law and Justice (www.tvn24.pl)
- Fighting banks and corporations
One of the PIS targets is to diminish the influence of banks and international corporations. PIS opposes VAT phishing schemes, for which it theoretically deserves great applause, as it is an area over which the Polish budget wastes a considerable amount of financial resources. PIS also introduced an asset tax on all financial institutions (including banks) amounting to 0.44% and a tax on surface supermarkets. Free marketeers have the right to criticize this type of project, but the concept itself is worth considering, given that most businesses pay less taxation than they should. The next leitmotif is the conversion of Swiss francs credits borrowed by Poles into zlotys (the national currency), which became virtually impossible to repay, given the appreciation of the franc. Even at this stage of discussion and implementation of the new tax law, banks already raised margins on loans and on the cost of servicing accounts. The złoty is losing value against the euro, the dollar, the pound and the WIG20 – the stock index of the largest companies on the Warsaw. This means one of the largest Stock Exchanges in Europe is in decline. PIS’s main challenge is to maintain the country’s financial stability, in one of the the world’s fastest emerging markets.
The new government in Poland is clearly introducing reforms that do not match the politics of the European Union. Beyond the criticism of the European Union and German politicians, it is hardly mentioned that these changes were started by Civic Platform. Why the government of Ewa Kopacz has not been questioned yet also remains unanswered. Panic reactions throughout international media, mainly in Brussels and Berlin, do not speak of PIS’s receipt of overwhelming support from the public during presidential and parliamentary elections. The European Union is engaged in more complex problems concerning the immigration crisis, the eurozone and the potential Brexit. In Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Beata Szydlo have only been ruling for a few months and need a sufficient time warrant to submit all their proposals. If they do cross a red line, the Polish nation, beyond disgruntled supporters of the old system, will loudly oppose them.
- The Polish government asked the Venice Commission for legal opinion on the Constitutional Court.
- Beata Szydlo, Prime Minister from Law on Justice showed up in the European Parliament at the invitation of MEPs and answered all queries.
- Jarosław Kaczyński suggested that, in order to avoid a stalemate legislation, a new solution can be introduced, whereby 7 judges would be elected by the government, and 8 by the opposition.