“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” The words of Abraham Lincoln. He was, of course, describing the constitution of the United States, but the principle still holds good unless one is unfortunate enough to be living in a country whose constitutional arrangements pay lip service to the safeguarding of individual rights, whatever its constitution might provide. Be that as it may, interfering (or tinkering) with the constitution is something politicians can’t help themselves from time to time proposing and Poland, it will come as little surprise, is no exception.
President Duda has proposed that a referendum to change the constitution be held on 10-11thNovember, which date marks the centenary of Poland regaining independence. On 11 November, 1918, Polish statesman Józef Piłsudski arrived in Warsaw after being held prisoner in Germany during World War I, announcing Polish independence the day that the armistice to end war was signed, enabling Poland to return to the map of Europe after more than 120 years of partitions and foreign rule. The proposal has been sent to the senate which will decide whether the referendum should go ahead.
The president is proposing that ten questions be asked, starting with whether folk are in favour of adopting a new constitution, changes to the current constitution (which dates from 1997), or leaving it unchanged. Further questions go into specific detail asking, for example, whether voters are in favour of: a presidential system, and the strengthening of the constitutional position and competence of a president chosen by the electorate; a cabinet system, and strengthening the constitutional position and competence of cabinet, but choosing president by a national assembly;or maintaining the current arrangements.
Other questions ask about the election of members of parliament, local government, whether the constitution should emphasise the significance of the Christian roots of the Polish state and of the culture and identity of the Polish Nation, whether the constitution should guarantee protection of the family (including acquired rights such as the 500+ plus programme), the retirement age, and membership of the EU and NATO respecting the principles of the sovereignty of the state and the supremacy of the constitution of the Republic of Poland.
The result of the referendum would not, apparently, decide the future constitution but would serve as an indication of the sort of changes Poles might like to see. Cynics would no doubt contend that the change Poles would most like to see is a constitution which is actually respected and upheld by the president, but such lèse-majesté is doubtless to fail to enter into the spirit of the debate, although for folk who don’t do irony they do seem rather good at it.
Besides, Poland would not be the first country to amend its constitution. To take but two, the United States constitution has 27 amendments (the first ten constituting the Bill of Rights) of which 25 are still in force, and France is already into its fifth republic. For Poland to clock up a fourth would hardly be earth-shattering. But the real question is the motivation behind the changes.
The governing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party has long regarded the current third republic as a post-communist creation, the very foundations of which must be changed to create a truly democratic state free of its past. Although in this connection, as cynics might also note, just as there seems to be the wrong sort of Pole, there also appears to be the right sort of communist, but that’s another story. That aside, there is always the danger of the cure being worse than the disease, if indeed disease there be.
When the constitution is contained in a single document there is always the danger of somebody coming along and tearing it up, always outwardly for noble reasons, often with ignoble results. In this regard, the constitution of the United Kingdom is perhaps unique. Not being set down in a single document, but a being a combination of statute, convention, practice and tradition, it is at once flexible and durable. It serves the nation well, although, having evolved over centuries, it is not a model that is easily adopted elsewhere.
But back to Poland. By all means make changes to the constitution if that guarantees the rule of law, democracy and individual freedom. But if these values are not genuinely at the heart of the new constitution, if the changes do not guarantee to protect these values against all who seek to undermine them, then the whole exercise is pointless.