University of California, Los Angeles

The Unraveling of the Polish Courts, Another Potential Step Towards Democratic Backsliding by Benjamin Lee @ University of California, Los Angeles

On January 15, 2018, Dariusz Zawistowski, the president of Poland’s National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body in charge of maintaining the impartiality of Polish courts, resigned from his position “as a sign of protest” in response to the Law and Justice (PiS) Party’s court reforms that would make KRS appointments subject to the approval of the PiS-controlled Sejm, the lower house of Parliament. This move is the latest step in the Law and Justice Party’s self-proclaimed campaign to stamp out traces of communism and corruption that have supposedly plagued the Polish government. However, this move seems to be more in line with the PiS’ campaign to further cement their rule and disallow the potential for opposition.

Since the Law and Justice Party have won a majority in both houses of Parliament in 2015, they have been able to pass laws that have allowed the treasury minister to choose the Polish broadcasting chiefs, allowing for state media to be controlled by the PiS, weakened checks and balances by replacing the army’s leadership with PiS loyalists, and hampered the Constitutional Tribunal’s ability to rule on bills that may violate Poland’s constitution. The Law and Justice Party have outright ignored the threat of removal of voting rights from the European Union (EU) as such a removal would require a unanimous vote. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has already stated that his delegation would vote against the removal of Poland’s voting rights, likely because of his Hungarian Civic Alliance’s ideological alignment with the PiS.

It is clear that the actions taken by Poland’s Law and Justice Party are precursors to democratic backsliding. By first weakening an unbiased judiciary or at least getting rid of its ability to remain unbiased, the PiS have been able to consolidate as much power as possible in the branches of government it currently controls, the executive and the legislature. Since his ascendance to the presidency in 2015, Andrzej Duda has signed multiple pieces of legislation that have stripped the Polish Judiciary’s ability to remain impartial in making their decisions for fear of being replaced.

At its core, the PiS is a conservative, populist party that is able to justify its recent moves by pushing forth a narrative that recent legislation is necessary to rid Poland of its supposed enemies within. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the PiS who was not put forth as either a candidate for Prime Minister or President due to his more polarizing nature, has declared that those who “dare to oppose” the PiS are “a worse sort of Poles.” Such a declaration furthers the narrative that the Law and Justice Party represents the best interests of the supposed “true Polish people” and as such, any means necessary to achieve their ends is justified.

This narrative has made its way into public state-sponsored TVP channels that Kaczynski had once argued were unfairly biased against the PiS. And given that a majority of the Polish population tunes into TVP channels, such a narrative is incredibly dangerous as criticism of the ruling party is essentially disallowed. This move completes the second goal of the Law and Justice Party to restrict unbiased journalism and media, stymieing dissent and opposition.

This latest move of getting rid of the system of checks and balances through changing the way in which the fifteen judges that serve on the National Council of the Judiciary are chosen is one of the final steps necessary for the Law and Justice Party to cement its stranglehold over the Polish government. It is nothing short of executive aggrandizement. By also transforming electoral laws such that the largely PiS-opposed population-dense capital of Warsaw is grouped with many surrounding pro-PiS suburbs in February 2017, the Law and Justice Party have blatantly manipulated formal electoral proceedings to favor their party. In the 2015 Polish Parliamentary elections, the Law and Justice Party received less than 38 percent of the popular vote, yet were able to take a majority in both the upper and lower houses of Parliament for the first time in Poland’s history. This move further undermines formal institutions that uphold the democratic value of allowing for opposition in government to play a significant role in shaping policies and contributing to civic society, and helps the Law an Justice Party to keep its majority in both houses in the next parliamentary elections.

It is clear that international condemnation from member nations of the European Union have been ineffective in halting the Law and Justice Party’s dismantling of democratic institutions. However, public outcry against a proposed restructuring of the Polish Supreme Court that would have gotten rid of every Justice in favor of PiS-chosen Justices was able to put enough pressure on Andrzej Duda to veto the legislation. Since then, Duda has proposed a measure that would require any proposed Justices to have 60 percent support in Parliament, more than the Law and Justice Party currently holds. However, Duda’s proposed measures also include the creation of a “Disciplinary Chamber” that would be able to investigate and punish Supreme Court Justices it deems as corrupt. Such an institution would be in the hands of the PiS, and would only further the democratic backsliding that Poland is experiencing.

While public dissent has prevented the Law and Justice Party from taking the next step to their indefinite rule, it is clear from past actions and President Duda’s latest proposal that this is not the last we will hear about the Law and Justice Party’s attempts to subvert Poland’s democratic institutions.



Photo by Reuters/ Agencja Gazeta, Creative Commons Zero License


  1. Victoria Hill

    May 1, 2018 at 4:30 pm

    This is an interesting and important topic. PiS has been using their control of the legislature to ensure their own continued grip on Polish politics and to silence any opposition, although it seems that the opposition in Poland is not currently well-organized. Part of the problem is that PiS espouses the sort of redistributive economic policies that would traditionally have been the province of the left, but with a rightwing focus on ethnicity and the nation that ensures redistribution only goes to the “right” sort of people. David Ost’s analysis mentions that PiS’s support comes from three main areas: fundamentalist Catholics, secular intellectuals obsessed with the Polish nation, and economic adherents, who might most easily peel off to another party. Of course, PiS’s manipulation of the electoral rules ensures that the votes of their opponents are diluted by districting that lumps them in with the suburbs–essentially, gerrymandering. Add in the ways in which they are stacking the courts and the bureaucracy with ideologues over career civil servants, and there’s a recipe for authoritarianism, as you point out. I don’t see these changes stopping any time soon since, as you point out, the public opposition has been limited. The state of the political opposition has been similarly lackluster, although it might be likelier among the younger generations to begin organizing around political platforms instead of ethnic nationalism, which leaves no room for compromise.

  2. Conor Gleeson

    May 7, 2019 at 9:22 pm

    Your examination of Law and Justice’s gerrymandering efforts in addition to their judicial destruction and “executive aggrandizement”, (good word choice) helps tie everything together in communicating that PiS’s assault on Polish democracy is multi-faceted, determined, and knows exactly what it is doing. In contrast the political opposition centered around Civic Platform and its new Coalition to Save Democracy is blundering around like a chicken without a head. I’m amazed that Parliament members and politicians from Civic are already walking out because of the presence of Democratic Left Alliance politicians, who haven’t been relevant since 2005, but every voice counts in both a symbolic and electorally practical gesture such as this coalition. Unfortunately as PiS is still 20 points ahead of Civic in the last polling I saw, looks like the late May elections are going to cement PiS’s electoral majority, leaving the Presidential election as the only way to stymie them.

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