“Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.” The words of Aristotle, which although from a time when democratic involvement was much more immediate than today, are still relevant. Of course, no body is suggesting, at least not yet, that Poland has degenerated, or is in immediate danger of degenerating, into despotism, but there are some potential signs of wear and tear and some are none too keen on the direction of travel.
Thus Freedom House, a human rights organisation from the United States, has said in a report on democratic freedoms that Poland has fallen four points over a year, a year in which “democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades.” The report said that democratic freedoms such as minority rights, freedom of the press and the principle of the rule of law improved in 35 countries but worsened in 71.
According to the report, 39 per cent of the global population enjoyed democratic freedoms, 37 per cent did not and 24 per cent enjoyed only partial democratic freedom. Poland was classified as “free”, receiving a score of 85 points out of a possible 100, although the report said that in Poland “populist leaders continued to consolidate power by uprooting democratic institutions and intimidating critics in civil society”.
In the view of Freedom House, “smears of the opposition appeared in public media….and [Poland] passed laws designed to curb the activities on non-governmental organizations.” It added that ”Poland’s ruling parry also pressed ahead with an effort to assert political control over the judiciary, advancing laws that will affect the Supreme Court, the local courts, and a council responsible for judicial appointments”.
One man’s step on the road to despotism is another man’s necessary corrective action and for a different view look no further than the interview with George Friedman, the founder and former head of US-based geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor, in Monday’s conservative weekly Sieci. He said that the EU is targeting Poland because it wishes to retain control over the internal policies of member states. For him, one of the hallmarks of a rising power is that waning powers direct their heaviest guns against it. Poland has been targeted because it is an important country, Friedman argued. This is why the United Kingdom, which he said was leaving the EU because of interference from Brussels, had concluded a defence treaty with Poland, Friedman was quoted as having said.
He added that Poland is currently the leader of a bloc of countries that oppose the European liberal elites’ concept of what the European Union should be. He said that in 2015 Poles elected the PiS government which is doing what it promised to do. Those eurocrats who dream of a single European identity do not understand Poles, he continued, and the more they come under pressure, the more they remember their loss of their sovereignty in the past and the more stubborn they become. For good measure, he added that Germany was the “last country” that should teach others about human rights.
While no doubt more in tune with the government’s own view of its actions than that of Freedom House, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Reforms are needed in the Polish judicial system and, at the same time, the EU and others are right to remind the government of the importance of adhering to democratic values, especially when, given the turmoil of the last century, those values have still to re-establish the deep roots that are taken for granted – and more’s the pity – elsewhere. This process might be helped if the liberal elites were as quick to deal with voters’ legitimate concerns as they are to castigate them as knuckle dragging Neanderthals for having the temerity to vote in a way in which they disapprove.
And talking of voting, on Tuesday president Duda signed into law changes to the electoral law and rules on local government. The new rules change the way in which members of the State Election Commission (PKW), which conducts and oversees elections, are selected. After parliamentary elections scheduled in 2019, seven of the commission’s nine members will be elected by the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, in which PiS has a majority. Hitherto, the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Administrative Court each delegated three judges to work in the commission. The new law also limits to two the number of terms that can be served by local government officials such as mayors as of this year’s local government elections. PiS say the changes will make voting more transparent and provide stronger guarantees of fair elections, but Mariusz Witczak, a deputy for the opposition Civic Platform party, said Duda would go down in history as a president who had sounded the death knell for free elections.
Be that as it may, the president of the European Commission said in the European Parliament on Wednesday: “We are not at war with Poland. We have a dispute with the Polish government”. Jean-Claude Juncker added that he was in “constructive dialogue” with the country, after he met Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last week. Juncker also urged folk to stop suggesting that Poland will be subject to sanction “come what may,” after the Commission triggered Article 7 proceedings last December. It seems this battle is far from over.