Is Poland drifting towards totalitarianism?

In Depth: Polish judicial reforms are latest step towards authoritarian rule


The European Union is considering unprecedented disciplinary measures against Poland over its judicial reforms - specifically, the adoption of 13 new laws that allow the Polish government to meddle in legal matters and threaten the independence of the judiciary.

Poland has been given three months to either address the EU’s concerns or face sanctions under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty.

In defiance of the EU move, Polish President Andrzej Duda yesterday signed into law two bills reforming the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, the BBC reports.

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Duda defended Poland in a television interview on Wednesday night, accusing the EU of “hypocrisy”, and claiming that some of its leaders are “lying” about Poland’s disregard for basic European values, AP reports.

How did the EU and Poland get to this crisis point?

The battle for the courts has been “one of the biggest political stand-offs in Poland since communism fell in 1989”, according to Bloomberg.

After being elected into power in October 2015, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) wasted no time in taking on the judiciary.

First, politicians refused to swear in five new constitutional court judges appointed by the outgoing government and put forward five nominees of their own, initiating a conflict with the constitutional court now known as the Constitutional Crisis of 2015.

Since then, the PiS-controlled parliament has passed legislation linked to the functioning of the constitutional tribunal that critics claim was “designed to minimise the ability of the court to hold the government to account”, The Guardian reported in December 2016.

The European Commission warned the Polish government that the legislation posed a “systemic risk to the rule of law” - but that didn’t slow down the PiS.

The ruling party has framed its reforms as a purifying mission, saying it will root out endemic corruption, speed up sluggish court proceedings and make the judiciary more accountable.

Duda has passionately defended Poland’s right to make changes to its laws, arguing that “putting courts and judges under greater political control will make them more accountable to regular Poles, ending an unaccountable oligarchy of judges”, AP reports.

But critics, led in Poland by a vocal grass-roots movement called Committee for the Defence of Democracy, have called the changes a brazen attempt to compromise the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

Thousands of Poles have taken to the streets to demonstrate against what they see as the undermining of the Constitution and the dismantling of checks on the government’s power. Crowds waving candles and singing the national anthem have gathered outside the presidential palace throughout the year.

“When somebody dies, you bring a light to the cemetery,” one demonstrator told CNN. “This law means the death of independent judiciary.”

An attack on Poland’s institutions

While much media attention has centred on the judicial reforms, they are just the latest step in the government’s multipronged attack on Poland’s institutions, The Economist has reported.

Since 2015, the PiS has “reduced the public broadcaster to a propaganda organ, packed the civil service with loyalists and purged much of the army’s leadership”.

The party’s ideology has pushed Poland further away from the EU, which the PiS sees as an unwanted imposer of liberal values and multiculturalism.

Widespread mistrust of the PiS judicial reforms should not be construed as opposition to the government itself, however.

Poland’s government remains “highly popular” at home, Reuters says, as a result of low unemployment, a generous welfare system and an emphasis on Catholic values.

“Many Poles are also wary of further integration, membership of the euro currency and any plans to enforce the relocation of refugees from the Middle East to EU states.”

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