Poles take to the streets after a ‘sledgehammer blow for democracy’

Poles take to the streets after a 'sledgehammer blow for democracy'
Polish President Duda earlier this week agreed to set up a commission that critics say could sideline political opponents of the government.

NOS News

  • Charlotte Wires

    Central European Correspondent

  • Charlotte Wires

    Central European Correspondent

In memory of Polish democracy, there is certainly no party atmosphere everywhere in the country today. In Warsaw, 34 years after the elections that heralded the fall of Communism, Poles took to the streets to demonstrate. They believe that their government is now increasingly undermining democracy.

With elections looming, President Duda earlier this week agreed to set up a commission that critics say could sideline political opponents of the government. Opposition members are preparing for a heated electoral battle.

Officially, the commission intended to deal with public figures who had damaged Polish interests “under Russian influence”. They can receive not only fines, but also, for example, a ten-year ban from political office.

But critics say the commission is unconstitutional and not good at all. “In reality, the goal is only to eliminate key opposition figures in the election campaign and prevent them from taking public office,” said Radoslav Markusi, a political science professor at SWPS University in Warsaw. Prime Minister Morawiecki denies this.

Extensive means

Parliament, where the coalition surrounding the largest ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, holds a majority, will nominate members of the committee. They may then use far-reaching means to investigate, charge and convict people. Without a judge to hear the matter, as well as appeal is virtually impossible. It is not clear what falls under the “Russian influence”.

European Commissioner Reynders noted earlier this week that the European Commission is very concerned about the Polish commission, which “may deny citizens the right to stand for public office”. The Polish government was engaged in a long battle with Brussels over the Polish rule of law, and introduced changes that gave the government influence over the judiciary.

According to Markovsky, the committee represented a blow to democracy of a whole new category. “So far, Law and Justice has dismantled the judiciary. This law only aims to manipulate the democratic process itself.”

‘witch hunt’

The Polish opposition strongly denounced the commission. Opposition leader Donald Tusk can be expected to be one of the main targets of the investigation. He was Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014 and the current government accuses him of, among other things, making gas deals that made Poland too dependent on Russia. Tusk is also the one who called for this afternoon’s demonstration.

Even if someone is ultimately not convicted, the commission could make it difficult for politicians in the run-up to elections next fall. “Even without conviction, deliberately selected politicians will be labeled ‘pro-Russian’ or worse,” Markovsky said.

Meanwhile, the persecution of journalists is also threatening. Reporters Without Borders, an international journalism organization, fears a “witch hunt” for journalists who criticize the government in the run-up to the elections.

Last Friday, President Duda announced amendments to the commission. For example, it will no longer be given the power to deprive people of office for ten years. Alternatively, it could issue a statement that a person who is found to have acted under Russian influence can no longer act in the public interest.

Don’t worry worry

But the announced changes have not yet calmed fears. In its response, Reporters Without Borders journalists indicated that the commission had already entered into force, and that Duda’s proposals alone were not sufficient to change it again.

Professor Markovsky does not rule out that the commission will backfire, and that it will turn out that the Law and Justice party itself has served Russian interests. Shortly before Russia attacked Ukraine, both party chief Kaczynski and Prime Minister Morawiecki met regularly with Le Pen, Salvini, Orbán and other radical right-wing European politicians who were financially dependent on Moscow or, like the Kremlin, were trying to break up the European Union and collapse. Western solidarity.

At the same time, he sees in this another test of Polish society “whether it accepts this most radical attack on Polish democracy.” Today’s demonstration in Warsaw will be an important indication of that. Organizers hope hundreds of thousands of demonstrators will attend.

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