On the weekend of 23 and 24 January, thousands of Poles took to the streets to protest new digital surveillance laws. Demonstrators shouted ‘democracy’ in defiance of yet another contentious piece of legislation, hot on the tails of controversial laws on the constitutional court and the press. With the EU having enacted its “rule of law framework” to address developments in Poland, here are five things to know about the democracy crisis in Poland:
1. The government’s ‘revolutionary’ approach will make this a long crisis.
Members of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party consider themselves revolutionaries tearing down the rotten establishment and rebuilding it from scratch. Its talk of ‘lustration’ or purification echo similar language in Ukraine. But there was no revolution in Poland. The party won an ordinary election with 38% of the vote and 51% turnout. The outgoing government peacefully conceded defeat, as any democratic European party would do. Undeterred by these facts, PiS revolutionary zeal is likely to result in ongoing friction with the EU, which is premised on respect for the democratic order and the rule of law of its members.
2. The ruling party’s antagonistic stance weakens the political centre.
PiS’ agenda is a mix of left and right ideas. The “SWP”:http://www.swp-berlin.org/’s Advisor Kai-Olaf Lang described it having an “antagonistic, majoritarian culture”. In line with its revolutionary self-image, the party has never provided a constructive opposition or sought to build consensus – its rise to power was predicated on polarisation. Its divisive approach will increase division in Poland and weaken the political centre. Feeding on crisis, the party will not look for resolution to crisis.
3. Civil society engagement is strong, but this is really about institutions.
Many observers assume that Poland’s strong civil society will keep developments in check, but this may be too optimistic. PiS has a strong institutional position, leaving little room for civil society to manoeuvre. It won an absolute majority of seats in the lower house, something no other party has achieved in Poland’s post-communist era. The President is also from PiS. The focus should therefore remain on institutional checks and balances beyond the embattled Constitutional Tribunal, such as the judiciary, local self-government and private media.
4. PiS rides on democratic disillusionment and will deepen it.
The current Government accuses its predecessors of copying and pasting Western democracy, promising a Polish model of social order and governance in its place. It tapped into political fatigue following the Civic Platform’s eight years in government and capitalised on the wider democratic malaise spreading throughout Europe. Its ‘solution’ needs to be exposed for what it is: concentrating power, undermining the rule of law and curtailing democratic competition – it is at the opposite end of other parties that grew from disillusionment, such as Spain’s Podemos.
5. The EU should focus on democratic principles, not on policies.
PiS has every right to implement a conservative agenda, thanks to its political mandate. But no majority – no matter how large – gives any party the right to change the rules of the game and undermine checks and balances on power. The recent attacks on the role of the “Constitutional Tribunal contravene European and international law”:http://democracy-reporting.org/publications/country-reports/eu/briefing-paper-61-january-2016.html. The EU was right therefore to challenge this with its “‘rule of law'”:http://democracy-reporting.org/publications/country-reports/eu/briefing-paper-49-june-2014.html framework and should only intervene to safeguard democratic rights, not for political differences. The EU and other European bodies, such as the Council of Europe, need to be prepared for a long struggle in defending the pluralistic space in Poland.
The crisis within Poland and between the EU and Poland is likely to go on for a long time. The EU and its member states should address it as a struggle for democratic institutions and respect of the law, rather than a political conflict between right and left.
DRI organised a Panel Debate on Polish Democracy on 22 January, 2016. The conclusions of the debate can be found here.