“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” “We the people are the masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” The words, of course, of Abraham Lincoln, talking about the US constitution, but words which are no less relevant today, and no less relevant in Poland, which on Wednesday celebrated Constitution Day, a national holiday.
The holiday marks the anniversary of the signing of the Polish constitution in 1791, the first such document in Europe, coming a few years after the signing of the US constitution in 1787. This constitution was not universally welcome by Poland’s neighbours and the war that followed – which sadly set Pole against Pole – resulted in the second partition of Poland in 1793 with Prussia and Russia helping themselves helping themselves to large swathes of Polish territory. Following a final partition in 1795, Poland became independent again following the First Word War and 3rd May became a public holiday until banned by the Communist government after the Second World War, to be restored as public holiday in 1990.
In a speech from the Royal Castle, President Andrzej Duda said that the nation should decide whether to introduce changes to the current constitution, and proposed that a referendum be held on the matter next year, the hundredth anniversary of Poland’s independence. “It’s time for a serious constitutional debate, not just with politicians but with the whole nation.” ”Poles have a right to say whether the constitution, which has been in force for 20 years, should be changed,” he said. Twenty years is not long in the life of a constitution.
Poles themselves should be able to decide on the direction of the country’s development. “which civil rights, which freedoms must be more strongly highlighted,” he said. Poland “should be a country where everyone is absolutely equal before the law.” “Where there are no unfounded privileges, where there are no better castes of citizens, were all citizens are united. This is a task which, in my opinion as president, must be fulfilled,” he continued.
Admirable sentiments and, funnily enough, the situation which most folk seemed to have thought was the case up until the shenanigans over the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Tribunal following the formation of the PiS government after the elections in October 2015. How wrong they were, and it took the president sitting late into the night making judicial appointments, and swift action in the Polish parliament to sort it out.
Some of these changes were themselves ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Tribunal, and the government took the unusual step of not publishing the rulings of Tribunal which had the effect of preventing them legally coming into force. This led the EU Commission, and the Venice Commission 9which has been invited by the government to do so) to begin investigations into the rule of law in Poland, with the former threatening, but not yet applying, sanctions under EU treaties.
Under the current constitution, changes to the constitution require to be approved a two-thirds majority in parliament, a majority which the government does not have. It is not clear to which particular parts of the constitution the government takes exception other than, presumably, those which in any way restrict the ability of the government to overcome all opposition. After all, if, as some argue, the current constitution is being breached, why bother with a new one? Of course, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the accrual of power for its own sake becomes tempting, especially if one casts envious glances towards Hungary and Turkey. Add to this the heady mixture of the enemy without, the “wrong sort” of Pole within and lots of paramilitary type marching with flags and banners and one is on a slippery slope.
But this, of course, is idle speculation. No doubt, if asked, the majority of Poles – assuming the low turn outs that greeted the 2015 election are not repeated – would prefer constitutional arrangements that guarantee the liberal democracy that has served Poland so well over the last quarter century. If history has taught us anything, it is that partisan political tampering with the constitution seldom ends well, least of all for this in whose name it is done.