“Machiavelli’s teaching would hardly have stood the test of parliamentary government, for public discussion demands at the least the profession of good faith.” The words of Lord Acton, best known perhaps for the epithet: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, words with which we may probably all agree. And it was perhaps a feeling that the government lacked good faith in its commitment to parliamentary democracy that caused some opposition politicians to boycott a special national assembly held in Warsaw on Friday.
The occasion was celebrations to mark 550 years since the establishment of the first Polish parliament. President Duda, the prime minister, and the speakers of both houses of parliament attended Mass in St. John’s Cathedral followed a special joint meeting of both houses at the Royal Castle. This meeting was boycotted by Civic Platform, the largest opposition party, which said it would hold its own celebrations instead. Senator Barabara Zdrojewska said that since the governing Law and Justice party “governs alone, let them celebrate alone,” which seems rather to miss point of parliamentary opposition.
Members of parliament from the Modern and Polish People’s Party groupings managed at least to get to the event, then walking out before the president began his address. “We cannot be with those who break the law,” Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna said at the joint celebration held with the Modern party. The walk out was reportedly called “childish” by the deputy speaker of the Sejm, Stanisław Tyszka, from the Kukiz 15 party. Members of that party remained at the national assembly because, according to Tyszka, “we will not ever be offended at our country”, although “we strongly disagree with Law and Justice’s policies”.
And protests were not confined to within the castle. During the national assembly the Committee for the Defence of Democracy held an anti-government protest in the square outside, to oppose changes to Poland’s judiciary which the EU Commission has said undermine the independence of the Polish judiciary. For his part, during his address, the president said, “I deeply believe that we, Poles, a great and wise civic nation, will know how to draw inspiration from 550 years of parliamentary heritage”. Well, let’s hope so.
For it was on 13thJuly, 1468, according to recent research, that a meeting of Polish notables during the First Republic (1454 -1795) decided that a new bicameral parliament would hold its first session in November of that year. This, according to the speaker of the lower house, Marek Kuchciński, makes Poland’s parliamentary tradition one of the oldest in the world. Other notably old parliaments include the Tynwald on the Isle of Man, which claims over 1,000 years of continuous functioning, and the mother of Parliaments, the United Kingdom, whose first meeting as a parliament is reckoned to have been called in 1254, albeit with earlier references, not least in Magna Carta in 1215, and a tradition stretching back to the Anglo-Saxon witan.
Coincidentally, apart from 550 years of parliamentary tradition, 2018 marks the centenary of Polish independence. For it was on 11th November 1918, that Polish statesman Józef Piłsudski arrived in Warsaw after being held prisoner in Germany during World War I, to announce Polish independence on the same day that the armistice to end the Great War was signed. This event enabled Poland to return to the map of Europe after more than 120 years of partitions and foreign rule.
Of course, Polish parliamentary history has always been somewhat fractious. The combination of the liberum veto and an aristocracy lacking much sense of national interest certainly did the Polish Commonwealth few favours as the eighteenth century progressed, when foreign powers bribed Sejm members to paralyze its proceedings, hastening the Commonwealth’s eventual destruction.
Be that as it may, this is the 21stcentury, and parliamentary democracy is under threat as never before in the recent past. In these circumstances, all parties must rally to the cause. And, tempting as it may be to boycott parliament, that does little in the longer term either to safeguard democracy or to enhance the standing of the institution. Sometimes it is necessary to draw a distinction between the institution or the office, and those who at present occupy either. One should never mistake the failings of the latter for defects in the former. Being there may change little immediately, but not being there changes nothing, for ever.