Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party backed away from controversial press reforms on Tuesday after several nights of street demonstrations in the capital Warsaw.
The concession is a rare victory for the liberal-minded opposition, which has otherwise been unable to stop Law and Justice from reversing the last twenty years of Poland’s democratization and liberalization.
Last week, the nationalist-conservative party proposed a law that would ban all recordings of parliamentary sessions except by a select few broadcasters. It also called for a limit on the number of journalists who are allowed in the building at all.
The bill became a focal point of protest against Law and Justice’s illiberal agenda, prompting even Lech Wałęsa to speak out.
“On the road to autocracy”
The anti-communist hero, who served as Poland’s first president after the Cold War, accused Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński — who rules from behind the scenes — of violating the constitution and the separation of powers.
“He’s dangerous and irresponsible,” Wałęsa told Politico. “It’s going to turn out badly.”
The outgoing president of Poland’s constitutional court, Andrzej Rzepliński, similarly told The Guardian his country is “on the road to autocracy”.
Wałęsa went so far as to suggest the European Union may need to throw Poland out if Law and Justice doesn’t back down.
Battle over the court
That is unlikely. The EU has tried to steer Poland’s government away from judicial reforms that would chip away at the power of Rzepliński’s court — to no avail.
Kaczyński’s nationalists have instead condemned Brussels for interfering in what they consider to be a purely domestic affair.
After coming to power last year, the right overturned the appointment of three justices made by their liberal predecessors and required the tribunal to take cases in chronological order rather than at its own discretion. The court ruled those reforms illegitimate, but the government refused to accept its decision.
Kaczyński — like elected strongmen everywhere — argues that the will of the people, as expressed in his party’s electoral victory, must prevail.
“If we are to have a democratic state of law, no state authority, including the Constitutional Tribunal, can disregard legislation,” he said.
Indifference to political norms and the rule of law have been hallmarks of the Law and Justice administration.
As recently as Friday, it strangely enacted a budget bill — the year’s single most important piece of legislation — in a side chamber of parliament without recording the necessary quorum, technically making the vote illegal.
Instead of voting on amendments in turn, the session rolled all amendments into one, in defiance of parliament’s own rules.
Law and Justice sees itself as part of the same reactionary wave that brought populists like Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump to power in Hungary and the United States, respectively, and is committed to undoing what it calls a leftist project to homogenize Western countries according to progressive ideology.
A school reform it has introduced would downplay climate change and evolution theory and set aside more hours instead for “patriotic” history lessons.
The government has tapped a contraceptives opponent who falsely argues that condom use increases the risk of cancer in women to rewrite sexual education courses.
It has pulled support for solar and wind farms and defunded public assistance for in-vitro fertilization treatments.
Since a purge of critical journalists, the national broadcaster has turned into what opponents describe as a propaganda machine. It recently televised the conspiracy theory that vaccinations are a danger to children’s health.
Defying advice from the EU and the International Monetary Fund, Law and Justice has also lowered the pension age and raised taxes on banks and supermarkets, industries which are dominated by foreign holdings.
Growth forecasts have fallen as a result. Credit rating agencies have switched Poland’s outlook to negative. Yet Law and Justice remains faraway the most popular party. Surveys give it around 33 percent support, down from 38 percent in the last election.
The Civic Platform, which ruled between 2007 and 2015, has been eclipsed by a new liberal party called Modern. The two would divide up another third of the votes.
Left-wing parties would only get a combined 15 percent support. The remainder goes to small parties on the (far) right.