Nicholas Richardson


“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” So thought Charles de Montesquieu. While for George Bernard Shaw, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” Which is apposite when we consider the health of democracy in Poland as the new Law and Justice government enters its stride. Are the doomsayers correct, is democracy in Poland really under threat?

Well, leaving aside the media which have been predicting doom and gloom ever since it became apparent that Law and Justice would repeat in the general election its success in the presidential election, over half of Poles seem to believe that democracy is under threat. According to a poll undertaken by IBRiS for the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, 55 per cent of respondents said it was, with a third believing democracy to be in serious jeopardy, while some 35 per cent do not see any threat to democracy.

Which is interesting, not least because a greater (albeit only slightly) percentage of voters see democracy under threat than were actually prepared to exercise their democratic right to turn out and vote in the general election on 25th October (51 per cent). It seems, if one is of a gloomy persuasion, that both de Montesquieu and Shaw were right: apathy has given Poland a government no better than it deserves. Conversely, those of a more optimistic persuasion will be rejoicing that at time of international chaos and uncertainty, not wholly dissimilar from the 1930s, a strong government prepared to put a bit of stick about in Poland’s national interest is just what is needed.

But back to that poll – based on a sample of 1,100 adults on 28-29 November – which suggests that pessimism is more prevalent among urban dwellers, of whom 70 per cent fear for the future of democracy in Poland, compared to 55 per cent in rural areas. Young people appear to be the least worried, with 44 per cent fearing the worst, compared to 38 per cent who remain unworried.

The poll follows a series of swift decisions taken by the new government. The most controversial of which was last week’s vote in Parliament to annul the appointment of five members of the 15 member Constitutional Tribunal. It is perhaps worth pointing out that two of those judges were voted through by the former Civic Platform-led government, just before it lost power, replacing two judges whose nine-year terms still had a month to go before expiring. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but in this case it is hard for Civic Platform to cry foul.

Of course, this sort of change is nothing new in a country which does not have an apolitical civil service and where state-controlled companies form both an important part of the economy and an important source of lucrative jobs for friends and supporters of the government. All incoming governments engage in this type of behaviour and in politics, what’s sauce for the goose does have a habit of becoming sauce for the gander. Or, as Pope Leo X is alleged to have said on his election, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”.

Be that as it may, is this an attempt by Law and Justice at a Victor Orbań like constitutional coup, “an anti-democratic march in the direction of a dictatorship” as Adrzej Zoll, former chief judge of the Constitutional Tribunal warned or, as Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice’s founder and leader said on television, a move whose “goal is to make the Constitutional Tribunal more diverse”?

For what it’s worth, I think the fear that Poland is going to be another Hungary is overstated. The constitutional arrangements and political majorities are different, there is no recession in Poland, and Poles are not Hungarians. There is no room for complacency, but nor is there a need for blind panic. Less apathy and healthy scepticism wouldn’t go amiss for, as Demosthenes warns us, “There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against depots – suspicion.”

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