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Back to the 1930s: another dispatch from Poland

Liveryman Karol Szlichcinski watches the flow of radical new legislation with horrified fascination....

Spending most of my time in Poland, I have plenty of opportunity to watch developments on the national scene here.  As a foreigner I try to keep a measure of detachment, but since the Presidential and Parliamentary elections last year I find myself following events with the sort of horrified car-crash fascination that the Brexit referendum is evoking in visitors to Britain.

The Law and Justice party won both elections, the Parliamentary election with an absolute majority, but not a large one: it took about 38% of the vote overall, on a 51% turnout.  The party led a short-lived and unsuccessful coalition government from 2005, but had been in opposition ever since.  This time it was swept to power by disaffected voters, various groups who felt they had lost out in the major changes that the country has seen over the past 20 years.  Many voters were also attracted by the promise of 500 zloty (about £90) per month for the second and each subsequent child in the family.  As many full-time workers earn less than 2,000 zloty per month, an extra 500 zloty is a very attractive prospect. 

Now that it is in power, Law and Justice is attempting a radical reconstruction of the country in its own image.  Its approach harks back to the 1930’s: strongly nationalistic and Catholic, xenophobic and hostile to minorities, authoritarian.  Its parliamentary majority is too small to change the Constitution but, aware that many of its initiatives are likely to breach fundamental principles, it has engineered the paralysis of the Constitutional Tribunal, a body with a similar role to that of the Supreme Court in the United States but which usually acts promptly to determine the compliance of new legislation with the Constitution.

The new legislation passed by Law and Justice and its other initiatives are indeed worrying.  Poland still has a substantial number of state-owned enterprises, and the Chief Executives of these enterprises, some of them with long records of success, have been replaced by party stalwarts.  The same has happened with senior civil servants.  Formal criteria and competitions for senior posts have been abolished, to be replaced by ministerial appointments; the top 1500 civil servants were released from their posts 30 days after the passage of the relevant bill unless reappointed by the ministers of the new government.  Over 200 lost their jobs, and a further 300 were moved to more junior duties.

The justice system has also seen changes.  The formerly independent public prosecution service now reports to the Minister of Justice as Head Prosecutor.  The Minister of Justice has also given himself the right to publicise any aspects of criminal proceedings as he sees fit.  A new law permits extensive monitoring of citizens’ internet and telecommunications use.  Such monitoring can be carried out without evidence of a crime having been committed, as a “preventative” measure.  The foundations of a police state have been put in place.

Law and Justice is very concerned that the media and arts present an appropriate view of Poland, and of the current changes in particular.  The Boards and top management of the public broadcast TV and radio services (the equivalent of the BBC) have been replaced, and over 60 journalists were purged.  Previously the public broadcast services strove to be objective; they are now under direct political control of the ruling party, and are soon to be reconstructed as a “national broadcast service”.  The Ministry of Culture is encouraging film producers and directors to make films that present a suitably heroic view of Poland’s history, and the Minister has intervened personally to try to close theatre productions of which he disapproves.  It is ironic that Law and Justice is taking so many leaves from the playbook of the pre-1990 communist regime in Poland that it purports to despise.  Perhaps “Back to the 1950s” would have been a more suitable title for this piece.

The opposition in Parliament has been able to do little to prevent the flow of radical legislation, in particular as the government controls the parliamentary timetable and scheduled very little time for the debate of any of these measures.  In some cases second and third readings were timetabled for the same day.  However a wave of opposition in the country is growing, and a hastily-convened Committee for the Defence of Democracy has been effective in calling out large-scale demonstrations in many major cities.  The demonstrators have been denounced by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the Law and Justice party, as “the worst sort of Poles” and “communists and thieves”.

It is frightening to see how quickly the structures of a liberal democracy can be dismantled by a government that has no respect for them, and is willing to exploit grievances and divisions in the country to its own advantage.  Poland is not alone in facing these risks, but provides a warning example of what may follow.

Liveryman Karol Szlichcinski, Extraordinary Professor at the University of Silesia School of Management in Katowice, Poland










Liveryman Karol Szlichcinski