Venice

“Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” So thought Plato, and he certainly did plenty of thinking. Unlike, perhaps, those politicians who seek our votes and who seem, more often than not, to be free of thought. Thus, the new Polish question: has the current Polish Government under the Law and Justice party (PiS) brought about reforms which will lead to Poland moving from democracy, via illiberal democracy, to dictatorship?

Many think so, many do not. As ever in Poland, if not outside Poland, opinion is divided. According to a recent survey by CBOS, while 46 per cent expressed support for the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, organizer of a series of protests against recent legislative changes, 42 per cent said they support the changes. Only one per cent of respondents said that they had taken part in any of the pro- or anti-government demonstrations.

Be that as it may, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, whose role is to provide legal advice to its member states (47 Council of Europe member states plus 13 others, including the USA) and to help states wishing to bring their legal and institutional structures into line with European standards and international experience in the fields of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, has begun to assess the state of democracy in Poland.

Gianni Buquicchio, the president of the Venice Commission, met Polish President Andrzej Duda to discuss the election of new members to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, a spokesman for the presidential office, Marek Magierkowski describing it afterwards as “a very good, substantive meeting between two lawyers,” (as a lawyer that’s hardly reassuring). Magierkowski said that the conversation was informal and had been initiated by President Duda, with Buquicchio being very interested in the president’s opinion (not a detached observer you might think) on the discussion and debate which has been going on in the country for several months. No doubt he was.

For his part, Buquicchio praised the decision of the Polish Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, who had invited representatives of the Commission to Poland, Magierkowski helpfully adding that the findings of the Commission are not binding. Over their two-day trip to Poland the members of the Commission will meet officials from the Polish Justice Ministry, the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court, the National Council of the Judiciary, and various members of parliament.

Last month the European Commission launched an inquiry into whether Poland is upholding the principle of the rule of law and whether legislation adopted by the PiS government violates EU standards. Brussels has said that it will work closely with the Venice Commission, which includes experts in constitutional and international law, in assessing developments in Poland. Of particular concern is the law by which five new judges were appointed to the Constitutional Tribunal in place of those appointed under the previous government. A report by Poland’s Attorney General later said that three amendments to the law relating to the Constitutional Tribunal introduced by PiS were unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the legislative programme continues with a new law giving the police extra powers to gain access to the telephone and internet traffic of suspected criminals. Following protests outside the presidential palace on Saturday, President Duda met some of the protestors. The head of Amnesty International Poland, Draginja Nadażdin, told the PAP news agency that the president said he had signed the new law quickly because it had to come into force by 7th February and that he was aware that it is not a perfect law. It’s not the knowledge but what you do with it that really counts.

Is democracy dying, is Poland heading towards dictatorship? Probably not. Despite the indecent haste with which the more controversial legislation has been adopted, despite the looking longingly in some quarters at the path taken by Hungary, the simple fact is that PiS is implementing the programme – albeit with a few surprises – on which it won the election. Poland has too much at stake to take a seriously wrong turn and, behind the rhetoric, in due course wiser counsel will prevail. As ever, complacency and stupidity could yet triumph, and it is as well, especially considering the relatively poor turnout in the election, to remember the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

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