Conclusions of Panel Debate on 22 January 2016, Berlin
Berlin, 22 January 2016 – The drastic reform measures by Poland’s newly-elected Law and Justice Party (PiS) risk politicising and paralysing the Constitutional Tribunal and are therefore a danger to democratic institutions in Poland. This was the main conclusion of a panel debate on Polish democracy organised in Berlin today by Democracy Reporting International and the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform.
The debate followed the decision of the European Commission on 15 January to launch a rule-of-law probe into Poland’s compliance with the EU’s democracy standards and heated debates in the European Parliament.
The panelists did not question that PiS had legitimately won a majority in the October 2015 parliament elections, and that many Polish voters agreed with the party’s line that Poland needs fundamental reforms in the social, economic and political field. However, many speakers expressed concern that the party was over-reaching, trying to effect a complete ‘regime change’ away from democracy, although it won the elections within this democratic system. The panel expressed particular concern that PiS seemed to disrespect the rule of law, one of the fundamental values of the European Union.
Prof. Gesine Schwan, a political scientist and key figure in German-Polish relations for decades, noted that the gains of PiS should be seen as part of a wider malaise with democracy in Europe – a sense that voters in many countries had too little to say in the face of pressures of globalisation and strong EU member states, notably Germany. She however rejected PiS’ response to focus on nationalism and to concentrate power.
Prof. Tomasz Pietrzykowsky from the law chair at Katowice University noted that some of the recent reforms raised serious concerns, in particular in relation to the Constitutional Tribunal and the public prosecutors. He nevertheless judged that overall there were still strong checks and balances in the Polish system, in particular an independent judiciary, private media and local self-government.
Dr. Kai-Olaf Lang, expert on Poland at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, stressed that PiS should be seen as a party of conviction that represents the beliefs of a considerable part of the Polish electorate. He described the party’s culture as ‘antagonistic majoritarianism’ and warned that Poland risked loosing the political center.
Constitutional expert Michael Meyer-Resende from Democracy Reporting International indicated that Europe should draw a clear line between legitimate implementation of political programmes on the one hand and unacceptable changing of the rules of the game of democratic competition. He welcomed the launching of the EU’s rule-of-law framework as the right signal. He argued that the government change in Poland showed that democracy works and underlined that it should remain that way.
For more information, please see DRI’s briefing paper Reform of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal.