Poland - Rule of Law ??
A new political era began 12 November 2015 with the swearing in of a parliament dominated by a right-wing party, signaling a major power shift. For the first time since Poland threw off communism in 1989, the country had a parliament with no left-wing representation. In another first, a single party won enough votes for a parliamentary majority.
Outgoing prime minister Ewa Kopacz stood up, resigned and unleashed a string of accusations against the incoming ruling Law and Justice party, describing it as "delusional" and a threat to the democratic achievements of post-communist Poland. "I warn you not to destroy the foundations of the democratic state," Kopacz, of the centrist Civic Platform, told the party's lawmakers. "And if you destroy what Poles have built over the past quarter century we will do everything to stop you."
Poland's new Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz shared his hardline stance towards Moscow with the chief of the ruling Party for Law and Justice (PiS) Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Macierewicz eagerly spreads conspiracy theories about the plane crash in the Russian city of Smolensk five years ago that killed former President (and Jaroslaw's twin) Lech Kaczynski as well as a number of other high-ranking dignitaries.
Macierewicz defended 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' as true. In 2002, Macierewicz told Radio Maryja that he had read the 'Protocols' and reportedly said that 'experience shows that there are such groups in Jewish circles.' Macierewicz, a former member of Poland’s anti-communist opposition movement and deputy defense minister, is known for his efforts to purge the country’s military intelligence services of communist and Russian influence.
“What happened near Smolensk, was aimed at depriving Poland of its leadership, which was on a path of leading our nation to independence,” Macierewicz said 14 March 2016 carefully avoiding outright direct accusations aimed towards a particular country of a terrorist attack. “We [Poland] were the first victims of terrorism in the 1930s, and through Smolensk, we can say that we were also the first major victim of terrorism in modern conflict, which is unfolding before our eyes”.
The official Polish and Russian military reports on the causes of the tragedy, which happened in dense fog on approach to a military airfield lacking ground identification radar. The former report cited a catalogue of errors on the Polish side, while also pointing to errors made by Russian staff at the control tower of Smolensk Military Airport. The Russian report placed all the blame on the Poles.
By 17 March 2016 Opposition party Civic Platform appealed to the president and the government to end what it has described as 'a festival of nonsense' led by Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz. Siemoniak's remarks came in the wake of renewed claims by Macierewicz that the 2010 Smolensk air disaster was caused by sabotage. Siemoniak said that Macierewicz's conduct “discredits Poland, exposing us to ridicule in the international arena.” A poll carried out by Millward Brown on the fifth anniversary of the crash found that 22 percent believed in the foul play theory.
The days-old Polish government wasted no time in excercising power. Critics worried that their mandate had been stretched too far. Most of these measures were part of a long and elaborate scheme dubbed the "Program for the Renewal of the Republic," which bears the handwriting of the ideological head of the PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
The new secret service coordinator, Mariusz Kaminski, was former head of Poland's Central Anti-Corruption Bureau. Kaminski was convicted for abuse of office in March 2015 with a three-year prison sentence - barring him as well from public office. The new prime minister was not bothered and has brought him into the government too. Immediately thereafter the president issued him a pardon.
State television and radio channels, as well as the Polish press agency PAP, would be cast as "national cultural institutions." Their current boards would be swiftly replaced with people who in turn could be dismissed at any time. Public media in Poland has been strongly polarized for years, made evident by the election campaign. The question was only whether the boards will be politically varied in their representation or replaced only with functionaries close to the government.
The new government led by the eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) followed its landslide of October 2015 by appointing five replacement judges without awaiting legal appeals, saying the move would rebalance power in the 15-member panel. The country's highest court found 09 December 2015 that three of the five appointments were illegal, as were several amendments to the new law that would have allowed PiS to appoint a new court president. The crisis began in October when the Civic Platform party appointed five judges before losing power to PiS in elections. Three of those appointments were deemed valid by the court.
An opinion poll conducted for public television showed that just over half of Poles believe democracy was under threat. An estimated 50,000 Poles protested on 12 December 2015 in Warsaw against the new conservative government's bid to appoint loyal judges to Poland's constitutional court. Similar marches were held in other Polish cities.
The European Commission said 13 January 2016 it was starting a probe into whether controversial laws pushed through by Poland's new Law and Justice (PiS) government violate EU standards. The move by the European Union, which surprised many observers, followed a slew of international criticism over changes to the judiciary and media in Poland. The first use of the EU executive's new Rule of Law Framework could in principle eventually lead to sanctions such as the suspension of Poland's voting rights.
In November 2015, the Commission became aware of an ongoing dispute in Poland concerning the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal, as well as the shortening of the mandates of its current President and Vice-President. Events in Poland concerning in particular the Constitutional Court led the European Commission to open a dialogue with the Polish Government in order to ensure the full respect of the rule of law. The Commission considered it necessary that Poland's Constitutional Tribunal is able to fully ensure an effective constitutional review of legislative acts.
As published on 01 June 2016, the concerns of the European Commission relate to the following issues:
- the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Tribunal and the implementation of the judgments of the Constitutional Tribunal of 3 and 9 December 2015 relating to these matters;
- the Law of 22 December 2015 amending the Law on the Constitutional Tribunal, the judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal of 9 March 2016 relating to this law, and the respect of the judgments rendered by the Constitutional Tribunal since 9 March 2016;
- the effectiveness of the Constitutional review of new legislation which has been adopted and enacted in 2016.
The rule of law is one of the fundamental values upon which the European Union is founded. The Commission, beyond its task to ensure the respect of EU law, is also responsible, together with the European Parliament, the Member States and the Council, for guaranteeing the fundamental values of the Union. Recent events in Poland, in particular the political and legal dispute concerning the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal, and the non-publication of judgments rendered by the Constitutional Tribunal, e gave rise to concerns regarding the respect of the rule of law.
On 07 June 2016 Europe's leading human rights body, the Council of Europe, prepared an expert opinion on the so-called “big media bill,” recommending a set of improvements to the draft legislation. “The expert opinion assesses the compatibility of the Package with Council of Europe standards relating to freedom of expression and public service media,” the institution said in a statement.
The human rights body pointed to the need of transparency in appointing members of the National Media Council. The opinion stated that “a number of provisions in the new legislation affect media content and may result in reduced pluralism and editorial independence”. The Council of Europe called to abandon “the current proposal for collective dismissal of middle management employees”. It was also recommended to clarify planned reforms on the licence fee system.
Matters came to a head when opposition MP Michal Szczerba raised the issue of new media rules during a parliamentary debate on 16 December 2016. The Speaker of the lower house, Marek Kuchcinski, excluded him from debate and took away his voting rights. Opposition MPs then stormed the rostrum, blocking proceedings. Opposition legislators seized the parliament's main chamber to protest new measures restricting the ability of news media to cover the lawmakers. Deputies from the ruling Law and Justice party convened in an ancillary hall and passed next year’s budget. Opposition MPs said that the vote, carried out by a raising of hands, was illegal, and should be repeated.
Polish President Andrzej Duda met with opposition party leaders 18 December 2016 to try to resolve a political crisis that brought thousands of people into the streets and led to a sitdown strike in parliament. Anti-government protests in support of the legislators were continuing. Poland's president said 19 December 2016 he had received a pledge from leaders of the populist ruling party that they won't introduce restrictions on media access in parliament.
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said 19 December 2016, referring to those and earlier protests: “This wave of hate which is pouring out, the omnipresent aggression, quarrels provoked one after the other, this is simply an attempt to overthrow the government and reverse the outcome of the election” of late 2015, in which PiS swept to power.
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) had been in a state of turmoil ever since President Andrzej Duda vetoed two judicial reform bills at the end of July 2017. It was the first internal resistance to PiS Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the party's 20 months in power. Education Minister Jaroslaw Gowin has sided with Duda, while Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro has harshly criticized him, as well as other parliamentarians looking to ingratiate themselves with Kaczynski.
The PiS Party announced 07 December 2017 that Poland's finance minister Mateusz Morawiecki would replace Prime Minister Beata Szydlo following reports of infighting within the party. The outgoing prime minister said that she would continue to fight for the government's conservative program in another government position. Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Dziedziczak said she will take over as deputy prime minister. Morawiecki, a former international banker, is believed to be close to PiS's influential leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Before his nomination, he had also been serving as deputy prime minister.
In December 2017, Brussels triggered the so-called Article 7 procedure over judicial reforms in Poland which critics describe as muzzling the country's judges. The procedure, which had never been invoked before, could lead to Poland's voting rights being suspended. This is only possible if all other EU members vote in favor of it, however, and Hungary's Viktor Orban had already announced he would not endorse the measure.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa, who famously headed the country's anti-communist Solidarity reform movement during the 1980s, has largely retired from politics. But he could not help speaking out against the country's controversial judicial reforms. The 75-year-old Walesa, like many of his compatriots, was outraged that Poland's governing Law and Justice party (PiS) was gradually overhauling the country's judicial system, despite fierce criticism from the European Union.
The EU's top executive body, the European Commission, announced on 14 August 2018 that Poland now has one month to amend its controversial law that would retire 27 Supreme Court judges. If the demands were not met, the EU Commission is likely to sue Poland before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg. In July 2018, Poland's ruling "Law and Justice" (PiS) party affirmed that judges would be required to retire at 65 instead of 70 years of age. The move would affect 27 of 76 Supreme Court judges, cutting short their six-year-terms, and retire the rebellious Chief Justice Malgorzata Gersdorf. The PiS says the changes are necessary to jolt the justice system, but Gersdorf and other judges describe the move as a "purge" and refuse to step down.
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