“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.” The words of Albert Camus. And while the motivations of those who took part in what have become regular marches in Warsaw, across Poland, and even abroad, may not have been quite so poetically expressed, there was this time a nostalgia for the recent past when the direction of travel to freedom and democracy seemed more certain.
Saturday’s march in Warsaw (and elsewhere in Poland and abroad) commemorating the anniversary of Poland’s first partially free elections on 4th June 1989 which led to democracy and a free-market economy after decades of communist rule, was held under the slogan “Everyone for Freedom”. Organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), which opposes the reforms of governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, it was attended by former presidents Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Bronisław Komorowski. In addition, a number communist-era activists also took part, alongside former Civic Platform Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and the head of the Nowoczesna (Modern) opposition party, Ryszard Petru.
“To those who were born after 4 June 1989 freedom is like the air we breathe − we’ve become used to it and take it for granted until it is under threat,” the head of KOD, Mateusz Kijowski, told the crowds. “We have come here today to demonstrate how important liberty is to us all.” This was the latest in a series of protests staged by KOD against changes carried out by Poland’s government. The reforms to the operation of the Constitutional Tribunal, public media, the civil service, and new surveillance laws have led to charges that democratic values and principles are being violated, charges the government denies.
“This is a beautiful rebellion,” former president Bronisław Komorowski said in his address, alluding to a comment by Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, speaking at a congress of PiS’s local branch on Saturday, referred to opposition to the government’s reforms as “a rebellion”. Of course, one man’s rebellion (actually one man in this case) is another man’s legitimate protest and the good-natured marches, seem more an expression of concern by worried citizens than the pre-cursor to revolution on the streets.
As ever on these occasions, numbers seem to have been an issue. Police put the number of protesters who turned up at the starting point of the march, Plac Bankowy, at 10,000, whereas Warsaw City Hall, said that 50,000 had attended. Perhaps one day somebody who knows about these things will offer an accurate estimate based on the time lapse footage helpfully posted on the internet.
Be that as it may, the protesters have a point, with the tussle over the Constitutional Tribunal showing no sign of early resolution. This has prompted the EU Commission to take the unprecedented step of issuing an opinion on the rule of law in Poland. Vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, said that despite the Commission’s “best efforts” no solution regarding Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal stalemate had been found.
The government now has a choice: gradually to appoint to the Tribunal those judges who were appointed by the previous parliament but not sworn in, and to publish the recent rulings the Tribunal, but only after adopting the Constitutional Tribunal Act amendment, or to prolong the Tribunal negotiations and to seek to gain greater influence over the body once the term of office of the current Tribunal head Andrzej Rzeplinski expires.
A new bill proposed by PiS deputies, which would require theTribunal to pass verdicts with a simple majority or, in complicated issues adjudicated by a panel of at least 11 judges, by a two-thirds majority, has not found favour with the opposition. Head of the Civic Platform caucus, Sławomir Neumann, said that if parliament approves this new bill his party would file a complaint with the Constitutional Tribunal.
The Commission’s opinion on the rule of law in Poland is “one-sided” and “does not take into account the Polish narrative” Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told RMF FM on Monday. Minister Waszczykowski said he had had a “brief” look at it, but “it is of no interest to me as it does not concern my ministry.”
And quite right too. With the upcoming NATO and EU-USA summits in Warsaw, and the World Youth Day in Krakow, he has plenty on his plate. After all, it is a sad day for a country when a government cannot pursue its programme in the way it sees fit without a lot of ill-informed criticism and interference from the EU, opposition-inspired foreign commentators, and the “wrong sort of Poles”.