Poles See Risks to 26-Year Democracy as Kaczynski Assumes Power

  • Survey shows 55% of Poles think democratic order is threatened
  • Ruling party rushes to instal new constitutional court judges

A majority of Poles believe their country’s democracy is being weakened as the ruling Law & Justice party seeks to consolidate power after winning this year’s elections.

That’s the view of 55 percent of 1,100 adults surveyed Nov. 27-28 by polling company IBRiS. Only 35 percent believe the nation’s post-1989 democratic order isn’t being eroded after Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party swept into power in presidential and parliamentary elections this year, according to the poll published by Rzeczpospolita daily on Monday.

Since taking power Nov. 16 after winning October general elections, Law & Justice has passed legislation that creates a legal quagmire surrounding the country’s top court, rejecting criticism from constitutional lawyers. The new administration has also forced out the head of the country’s anti-corruption agency, limited the opposition’s oversight of secret services, and discussed the appointment of allies to senior posts in the central bank and public media.

“This is a serious misstep by Law & Justice,” said Olgierd Annusewicz, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “If their label as an assassin of democracy sticks, their support will gradually erode.”

Law & Justice, which seeks to accelerate economic growth and take Poland out of the “European mainstream,” controls the government, a majority in both houses of parliament and has an allied head of state -- a unprecedented concentration of power in Poland since the end of communist-party rule in 1989. Elzbieta Witek, the government’s spokeswoman, didn’t answer phone calls requesting comment on Monday.

‘Style’ Points

In her policy speech to parliament this month, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told lawmakers of her plans to “overhaul” public television and radio to ensure they “become objective” in their reporting. Her aide Henryk Kowalczyk earlier said his party will favor candidates seeking interest-rate cuts when choosing the next central bank Monetary Policy Council as panelists’ terms end during the next four months. The comments sparked criticism that Law & Justice seeks to erode the regulator’s independence.

During a sitting in parliament last week that ran past midnight, Law & Justice lawmakers approved a contested motion to scrap the previous parliament’s appointments for the constitutional tribunal and moved to nominate its own judges at a session starting on Wednesday. Critics say Kaczynski has created a legal minefield where it’s not clear who should rule on behalf of the top court, which will make it easier for his party to pass constitutionally-contentious legislation.

Law & Justice officials say they are righting a wrong made by the last parliament and that critics are over-reacting to perceived democratic threats. The party’s actions sparked small protests in Warsaw last week, while newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza printed a copy of the nation’s constitution to oppose what it calls an attempt to “dismantle liberal democracy in Poland.”

Political scientist Annusewicz said winning elections in Poland is often about “style,” and Law & Justice successfully ran a campaign pointing out the failures of the previous government, which it branded as “elitist.” That doesn’t square with President Andrzej Duda’s pardoning of senior Law & Justice lawmaker Mariusz Kaminski, who a court sentenced to three years in prison for abuse of power for his actions as the nation’s anti-corruption chief last decade, he said.

With the pardon, Kaminski became the government’s chief coordinator of secret services.

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