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Behind the Polish strongman’s drive for legislative changes lie issues that need to be addressed.by Martin Ehl 31 July 2017
If you haven’t noticed by now, new Polish legislative proposals targeting the judiciary system have created a domestic and international backlash of previously unseen proportions since the 2015 electoral victory of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. Numerous protests broke out across the country, with a surprisingly high participation from young people; Polish families discussed over Sunday lunch the nuances of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court; and many wondered who would be the next target of the governing party – NGOs or the privately owned media?
All this started because PiS head Jaroslaw Kaczynski wants to remake the Polish state according to his visions – and wishes.
The unexpected conflict with President Andrzej Duda, the PiS ally who decided to veto two of three justice reform bills put forward by the ruling party, will only slow down this effort – likely to start again in the autumn after two months of parliamentary recess.
“We should build a statue to Jaroslaw Kaczynski for such a civic awakening,” Polish sociologist Michal Wenzel told me, with an ironic tone, as he commented on the recent developments.
But why not look at the Polish troubles from a different perspective: What if Kaczynski is actually right in his assertions of a badly functioning state needing improvement (even if his methods need some work)?
Let's start with judicial reform. It is not a uniquely Polish, but a general post-communist blemish to have judicial systems that work slowly and inefficiently. (My wife is a defense lawyer, so I have a couple of personal stories to back up that claim, at least here in the Czech Republic. One of them is about a dispute with an insurer over a relatively small amount, a case that started before our wedding and ended after our second child entered kindergarten, while the lawyer of the other party had three children in the meantime).
The Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, and Czech governments have not made any serious attempts to improve the performance of this part of the state apparatus. That is, until Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power in 2010 and, along with a new constitution, offered a “solution” consisting of greater control from his party and the government over the judiciary; that plan came with lip service about better functioning courts.
People across the region, including in Poland, heard that someone was at least doing something. And that movement took place during a time when the EU has not been putting sufficient pressure on member states – even when citizens continually complain to EU courts that their cases were taking too long to handle, and that verdicts were sometimes biased (Slovaks can tell a lot about that). The field was thus open for a populist solution.
Orban has also clearly inspired Kaczynski with his successful attempts to centralize economic power and reduce the outflow of money by introducing taxes in the banking and utility sectors, as well as concentrating the ownership of banks into domestic (state) hands. That was an easy way to show voters, depressed by the financial crisis, that their countrymen would take care of them – at the expense of foreigners.
With that convenient target, Kaczynski and Orban have also started a discussion about whether post-communist countries are cheap-labor colonies of their Western partners, a situation that could lead to the citizens of the Visegrad countries being stuck in the middle-income trap. Voters can, after all, easily see that their prosperity is not as close to Western levels as promised. Now even some Western politicians (especially French President Emannuel Macron) are talking about reducing access to the common labor market. Once again, the West is providing a nice opportunity for populists and nationalists to offer their own specific solutions.
It also doesn’t help when Western organizations play favorites. Take the public media. There was always nice talk about the BBC being a role model, but after 1989 no post-communist country’s public media have reached similar levels of trust, independence, and professionalism. Politicians have always considered public TV and radio “their own,” and it was only thanks to the courage of individual executives and editors that their work was as professional as possible.
Perhaps a weary realization that not much could be done was one of the reasons for the lack of response when about 100 right-wing journalists were purged from Polish public radio and television in 2007 after Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform won the parliamentary elections over PiS. But when the conservatives did the same in 2015, it was a European issue.
Admittedly, the PiS takeover of the media was vengeful, brutal, and more sweeping, leading to legislative changes. Yes, Jaroslaw Kaczynski aims to concentrate as much power in his hands as possible. Yes, some Polish and Hungarian laws go against the principles of EU law and liberal democracy. But there’s a danger of not recognizing the existing flaws in these systems and the one-sided blame game from the West, whether it’s the European Commission, the heads of some of the older member states, or some influential Western media.
By ignoring those factors, one will only provide a helping hand to populist and nationalistic politicians and their voters in their intention to create an alternative to the order that post-communist countries have been building over the past 27 years.
The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.
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It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.