Further Protests in Poland as Opposition Declares “Solidarity” in Face Off with Government That Appoints Former Communists in Bid to Control Courts

In Warsaw, in Kraków, in Wrocław, in Szczecin – thousands of Poles took to the streets of major cities on July 16 to hold peaceful demonstrations in protests against the government. State-controlled media responded by claiming that the opposition – who one minister has already called to be prosecuted for protesting – was attempting a coup. What the “on message” TV news failed to report, though, was that Poland’s government brazenly appoints former communists to key posts while trashing the Constitution and seeking to usurp the nation as the ultimate power…

poland_news_protest july 16 2Last week, Poland’s parliament passed a law to remove all members of the National Judicial Council and replace them with government-approved candidates. Within 12 hours – in fact, in the dead of night – the government had introduced a second bill to sack all Supreme Court judges, again to replace them with officials of its own choosing.

In an interview with the BBC, Supreme Court judge Włodzimierz Wróbel said this would be end for Poland’s independent judiciary, and it was in fact what sparked the nationwide protests this weekend. Yet the bid to strip the judiciary of its independence and bring it firmly under the heel of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party was only the latest in a series of moves that have raised fears – in Poland and abroad – about democracy, the rule of law, and ultimately individual freedoms in the country.

Since winning a parliamentary majority, the party has already taken control of the Constitutional Tribunal – the only body in Poland with the right to restrain any government that oversteps its powers. Before appointing a party favourite as head of the Tribunal, the PiS government refused to publish a ruling that it could not alter the court’s personnel in such a manner. The Constitution, however, requires that the Tribunal’s word on such matters is final.

The party also appointed justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro to the post of prosecutor general – another illegal move, as ministers are constitutionally barred from serving as prosecutors at the same time. Under the new rules announced last week, Mr Ziobro will have absolute and ultimate power over judges and the administration of justice in Poland, and like all MPs in the employ of party chairman Jarosław Kaczyńśki must exercise that power according to the PiS party line.

And Mr Kaczyński is in a position of power without authority. As a backbench MP, he has very little clout in the formal mechanisms of the Polish state. Yet, as architect of the PiS government, he holds the career of every one of the party’s MPs in his hands. Although his moves regarding the judiciary are clearly illegal – the constitution requires the independence of the courts and their separation from such a level of government control – he shows no signs of backing down. He said ahead of the protests that the judiciary had needed reform since the communist era. This ended in 1989, some three decades ago, before which successive Moscow-controlled governments banished judges who were not party-friendly, and appointed their supporters in order to neutralise potential political opponents.

It was under this system that then Communist Party member Stanisław Piotrowicz operated as a state-appointed prosecutor and signed an indictment against Solidarity activist Antoni Pikul, a 28-year-old arrested for distributing banned literature. Mr Piotrowicz now holds a post on the current Polish government’s Commission for Justice and Human Rights. Professor Henryk Cioch, one the PiS government’s appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal, was also a member of the Communist Party.

It was against this background that the governments opponents gathered on July 16 in Poland’s major cities to protest.

In Kraków, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, demonstrators waving Polish and EU flags sang the Polish national anthem. Meanwhile, in Warsaw, opposition party leaders appeared together on a stage to drive home their message of the need to set aside differences and show solidarity against the government.

Standing alongside Ryszard Petru of Nowoczesna, Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of Civic Platform (PO), said: “Today we know that a great fight has begun and we know we must be together, we know we must fight against them together”.

Leszek Balcerowicz, the economist who thrust Poland from a debt-ridden post-communist state after the country regained independence in 1989, warned that Mr Kaczyński’s path was back in the direction of a socialist dictatorship.

And the day before the protests, Nowoczesna wrote to the United Nations, to the European Commission, and to human rights watchdogs, urging them to visit Poland during the closing sessions of parliament before summer break. The letter warned that Poland risked not only ceasing to be a liberal democracy, but a democracy at all. It added: “Poland’s parliamentary opposition is determined to defend the country’s rule of law and its constitution”.

As the protests continued, independent and respected observers such as the Brian Porter-Szucs blog and Notes from Poland raised concerns about government-controlled media coverage of events. They highlighted TVP reports that stated “The opposition attempts to organise a coup against the democratically elected government”, and “Shocking announcement by opposition militants”. These reports were chillingly close to the words of Wojciech Jaruzelski as he announced martial law in Poland – “Acts of terrorism, of threats, of mob trials and also of direct coercion abound. The wave of impudent crimes, of assaults and break-ins is sweeping the country”.

Mr Jaruzelski was, of course, referring to the ordinary Poles who were protesting against an authoritarian government that controlled the media and the courts, and held no truck with the notion of the nation as top dog or a constitution that could rein in either legislature or executive…