“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.” The words of Charles de Montesquieu. And, fourteen months after the election of the current Polish government on a turnout of little over half the electorate, some would say those words have never been truer.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that the law and Justice (PiS) government was the first in Poland’s post-Communist era to be elected with an absolute majority, and still remains well ahead of the opposition in the opinion polls; proof, its supporters would say, of the popularity of its mission to put a bit of stick about in the interests of Poland and to deal with the “wrong sort of Poles.” From rooting out former communists (please see Controlling the Past) to ensuring a Constitutional Tribunal whose composition is more reflective of the new order, to appointing right thinking folk to positions the public media and state controlled business, no stone has been left unturned.
Of course, one man’s stone turning is another man’s assault on democracy, hence the extraordinary scenes at the Sejm last Friday. When an opposition deputy raised the issue of new media rules during a parliamentary debate on Friday, the Speaker of the lower house excluded him from debate and took away his voting rights. Other opposition deputies reacted by storming the rostrum, blocking proceedings. After several hours of recess, deputies from PiS convened a session outside the main chamber and purported to pass next year’s budget. Opposition MPs have said that the vote, carried out by a raising of hands, was illegal, and should be repeated while PiS deputies insisted the ballot was in line with regulations.
This in turn led to protests outside the Sejm which was cordoned off by police to keep the protesters away and to allow hard-working PiS deputies to speed off into the night. Further demonstrations took place over the weekend and beyond, as the world looks on in amazement while opposition deputies have been staging a sit-in protest to demand that Friday’s vote be repeated and demonstrations take place outside the Sejm daily with supporters of opposition parties protesting about what they describe as undemocratic practices by PiS, a charge which is inevitably denied. The Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak has said that police will patrol the grounds of the parliament building “as long as there is a threat”. Dozens of police vehicles have been stationed in front of the parliament building, with officers setting up heavy barricades around the perimeter.
Amidst cries of democracy in danger and a general wailing and gnashing of teeth that the end is nigh, one man has taken a more sanguine view. Step forward Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and former prime minister of Poland. According to him, democracy on Poland is not at risk, but “it would be good if authorities take a step back.” Tusk said that “certain standards which Poles are very attached to have been violated and broken”. Which is certainly a diplomatic way of describing it.
On Wednesday PiS’s leader, at a press conference which include Prime Minister Beata Szydło and speaker of the lower house of parliament Marek Kuchciński, offered what he described as an “outstretched hand” to the opposition albeit warning that deputies staging the sit-in protest are engaged in “criminal” behaviour. In response, representatives of the Civic Platform (PO) and Nowoczesna parties said that they would not be calling off their protest, rejecting Kuchciński’s claim that the vote on the budget had been in line with regulations, and that “all measures were taken” to inform all MPs to participate in it. Both journalists and opposition members have disputed these claims, saying that Sejm security guards had prevented people from entering while the vote was taking place. Former Prime Minister and current PO MP Ewa Kopacz said that in the press conference “Kaczyński confused two words that start with ‘D’: “Democracy’ and ‘Dictatorship’.”
So there you have it, another week, another unnecessary departure from generally accepted standards. Why, one might ask, is this even necessary? It isn’t. Perhaps the charitable explanation is that when one has been fighting an enemy for so long – the occupation by Soviet communism – by the time victory comes, one’s only perception of power is of how the defeated enemy exercised it. The fight has become so ingrained that, fortified by soi disant moral superiority, one simply has to continue against the new enemy threatening one’s victory, whether that enemy be real or imagined.
Be that as it may, while democracy in Poland is not at terminal risk of death, it could certainly do with a pick-me-up and not what some less charitably inclined might perceive to be pound shop Putinism.
And, on the subject of charity, thank you for reading and commenting. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.