Divisions run deep in Polish society as judicial reform plans spark Irish protests
2017-08-15 09:41:08 -

By Emilia Marchelewska

The controversy over reform of the judicial system in Poland has deepened divisions both within Polish society and among its worldwide diaspora. 


Reforms that its claimed would end the independence of the country’s judiciary were proposed by the right-wing national conservative party Law and Justice, which won a populist vote in presidential and general elections in 2015. 


Polish people in Ireland joined international protests to express their concerns about the proposed reforms. They also wanted to raise awareness among Irish people about the potential impact of the situation in Poland on Ireland and Europe. 


On Sunday 23 July, over 200 Polish and Irish people gathered in solidarity at the GPO in Dublin and at the offices of the Honorary Polish Consulate in Limerick, chanting slogans that called for assurances of an independent judiciary.


“The Polish government has been systematically destroying the separation of powers in the country. The last step of this destruction is their attempt to remove the independence of the judiciary,” said Michał Szpak, chair of the Irish branch of Polish political party Razem (Together) and organiser of the Dublin protest.


“The Polish parliament has voted – in the most outrageous fashion, breaking the law and ignoring standing procedures – in favour of a bill that gives the Minister for Justice the final decision on the membership of the Supreme Court.


“This evisceration of the separation of powers puts our democracy under serious threat,” he added.


Justyna Cwojdzinska, a business women and activist, was the organiser behind the Limerick protest.


“We wanted to show solidarity with those protesting in Poland and demonstrate that we value freedom. I brought my children with me to teach them about democracy in action,” she said. 


“I‘m very saddened that Poland, once synonymous with democracy and home of the Solidarity movement which led to the fall of communism in eastern Europe, is now facing sanction from the EU for its undemocratic system of governance.”


The announcement that Polish President Andrzej Duda had vetoed two of the three bills in question on Monday 24 July was unexpected. His decision was broadly welcomed, but some see it as insufficient as it leaves the door open to abuses of both power and human rights when the bills return to the table. 


Nonetheless, the president’s veto has created an opportunity to balance the power in the Polish political landscape.


According to Szpak, people in Ireland should be more aware about the situation in Poland and its potential impact on their lives. Leaflets in English, distributed at the protest, briefed on the controversy and called on people to lobby their TDs for the Irish Government issue a statement on this matter.


“Despite the fact that Polish people are the largest minority in Ireland, the Irish Government is not taking our concerns seriously,” he said. “Destruction of the rule of law in Poland may have far-reaching consequences including the further isolation of Poland, EU sanctions, and even Polexit. Subsequently, this may create a two-tier EU, encouraging again the rise of populist movements and therefore destabilising the EU.”

The Polish government and its supporters, however, see the protests as blowing things out of proportion, and their coverage in the international media as biased.


On Monday 24 July, the Polish Department of Foreign Affairs reached out via embassies to the public abroad with an official statement. It emphasised that the Polish court system is “dysfunctional” and that reform of the system is long overdue. 


The statement said these reforms have been neglected by previous governments and that, for many months now, Poland has been engaged in dialogue with international institutions to explain its judicial reform proposals. 


The European Commission’s threats to impose sanctions are seen as premature, unfounded and unjustified as the process to reform the Polish judiciary has only begun, it added.


“In its reform measures, this government has striven to follow European standards while retaining the principle of a tripartite separation of power,” the statement continued. “We regret that the government’s reform efforts, supported by the public at home, are being abused by domestic and foreign opposition in an ongoing political fight. We also note with concern the attempts of external interference in the pending legislative process.“

Meanwhile, some Polish people are content to allow the government proceed with its plans given their mandate in the general election polls.


Damian Małecki, of Fundacja SejmLog but living in Dublin, said: “I did not vote for Law and Justice but I am not protesting as I respect democracy. [They] won the election and have a majority in the Polish parliament. I respect the fact that they are fulfilling their electoral promises. 


“Meanwhile, the opposition seems to think that democracy only exists when they rule, and when they don’t, they call it the destruction of democracy.”


Małecki disagrees that the vetoed bills were unconstitutional, quoting Article 180, which states that “any judge (including of the Supreme Court) can be sent on administrative leave in the case of any reform of the court system.” 


“Whatever the opposition is saying, this is exactly what is happening,” he said. “[Law and Justice] is not doing anything extraordinary, and similar legislation is in place in Ireland: judges are nominated by the Government and appointed by the President.”


The Polish president’s veto means that the two bills in question will return to parliament for discussion later in the autumn. Until then, Polish people have time to reflect as heightened emotions dampen down. Nonetheless, it is clear the protests are more than only about the recent judicial reform. They are indicative of the deepening of serious divisions in Polish society which is also visible in the Polish community in Ireland.


“Anyone interested in Polish politics will have noticed the constant hysteria of the opposition,” said Małecki. “You can hardly find any legislation passed by [Law and Justice] during the current term that was not called ‘undemocratic’, ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘Putinisation’ by the opposition.”


On the other hand, Magda Kubat, an architect from Dublin, finds the Law and Justice style of governance deeply disturbing and damaging to both Poland and the Polish people. She’s disgusted at how the government gives power to the Church; how it allegedly replaces personnel in state-run agencies with people loyal to the party; and how she says it promotes xenophobia and normalises hate speech. 


“I attended the protest,” she said, “because I wanted to show that Polish people are not all the same and that there are Polish people who want to be in Europe, who want to be part of the global community.”


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