Poland Promises to Purge Old Guard by Revamping Election Rules

  • Law & Justice seeks to impose term limits before 2018 ballots
  • Draft bill criticized as move to consolidate party’s dominance

Poland’s ruling party is seeking to overhaul the law on local elections, imposing term limits on sitting officials in a move the opposition argues will give more power to a group that has drawn criticism from U.S. officials and the European Union for backsliding on democracy.

The Law & Justice party will set a two-term cap on local authorities as soon as this year, which can prevent those who currently hold office from running in local elections in the fall of 2018, Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said Monday on TVN24 on Tuesday. Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he backed the idea on Monday, adding that it has long been the party’s aim.

“The program of Law & Justice assumes a clear cap to two terms,” Blaszczak said. “The question remains whether it will be applied in the next election. In my opinion, the change should be passed this year.”

The bill could obliterate a regional political landscape populated by figures who have held office for more than a decade, including the mayor of Poland’s second largest city, Wroclaw. The law would affect governors as well as 66 of the country’s 107 mayors, who would need to step down after the next election. It would also provide a boost for Law & Justice, which holds only three of the municipal posts, according to calculations by newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

“The current regulations lead to local cliques and mayors create living royal courts,” Morawiecki said on TVN24. “Enough of those.”

Consolidating Power

Opposition figures said the move adds to a string of measures they argue Law & Justice has used to consolidate power and prevent political rivals to regain their footing after the party, run by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, swept to power in a 2015 election.

The EU and U.S. officials have censured the conservative group for overhauling the Constitutional Court, ignoring its rulings, and transforming public media into a vocal supporter of its policies, among other measures. Concerns that the party was unraveling the system of checks and balances triggered the first ever probe into the state of rule of law in an EU country, as well as Poland’s first-ever downgrade from S&P Global Ratings.

Wojciech Wilk, a lawmaker for the opposition Civic Platform who has worked for more than two decades in local governments in the southern city of Lublin, said that by forbidding officials who have served two terms from running, Law & Justice would limit them to “negative two” terms in a new political landscape.

‘Terrifying’ Proposals

“The Law & Justice proposals today are terrifying,” he said. “It’s simply about politics. Law & Justice has never won in cities, and it’s also unhappy with the number of representatives in rural areas. Changing the law appears for them the main way into it.”

The current proposal not be legal if it were to impact people currently in office rather than starting the countdown at the next election, according to Jaroslaw Szymanek, a law professor at Warsaw University.

“This clearly breaches the principle of retroactivity in law,” he said.

Last week, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said her administration will punish opposition politicians if it determines they broke laws while staging a nearly four-week protest in parliament. While lawmakers enjoy immunity against prosecution, Szydlo and her boss, Kaczynski, have vowed to pursue charges if they can.

Support for Law & Justice has soared since last year, rising to 38 percent in January, up eight percentage points since November, according to a opinion survey published by the pollster IBRiS. The opposition Civic Platform rose five points to 19 percent, while the Nowoczesna party saw its support fall eight points to 11 percent, according to poll of 1,100 people conducted Jan. 19-20.