Poland takes to the streets ahead of a long summer of campaigning

More than half a million Poles have rallied for democracy after the country’s government signed a law that could effectively ban opposition politicians from public office for a decade. It’s only the latest attack on Poland’s democratic institutions by the Law and Justice-led government. 

In 1981, Lech Wałęsa, an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, a founder of the Solidarity movement, became a global figure when he led a wave of strikes against Poland’s communist government. He later won the Nobel Peace Prize and would be a key figure in the peaceful transition to democracy in 1989. He would go on to serve as Poland’s president.

On June 4, the 34th anniversary of Solidarity’s 1989 victory in Poland’s first free election for decades, Wałęsa joined the largest demonstrations in the country since the fall of communism as over 500,000 Poles protested against the current ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections. 

Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and president of the European Council (EC), was also present.

He told the crowd, “The whole of Poland, the whole of Europe and the whole world sees how strong we are and how we are ready to fight for democracy and freedom again, like we did 30, 40 years ago.”

Since the end of his term as president of the EC, Tusk has returned to Polish politics to again lead the Civic Platform, a party he co-founded in 2003.  

The march brought the Civic Platform’s supporters and members of other opposition parties together in Warsaw’s Castle Square, but smaller gatherings were held the same day in other Polish cities, as well as in Berlin and Paris. Protestors demanded “free and fair elections” and a “democratic, European Poland” as well as full reproductive and LGBT+ rights. 

The PiS government has drawn deserved international praise for its military aid for Ukraine and shelter for millions of Ukrainian refugees, but it has banned most abortions, demonised LGBT+ Poles, and all but taken over public media.

A Civic Platform politician was surveilled using spyware, while the leader of the PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński, has blamed Tusk for the 2010 plane crash that killed then president Lech Kaczyński and 95 others. 

‘Tusk law’ 

On May 29, President Andrzej Duda signed into law new legislation that could effectively ban opposition lawmakers from public office for a decade under the guise of rooting out Russian interference in the country.

Put forward by PiS, the law calls for the creation of a new commission tasked with investigating alleged Russian interference in the country from 2007 to 2022, including gas deals signed with Moscow that the government says left the country overly reliant on Russian energy.  

The law is widely seen as targeting Tusk, and it has picked up the nickname of the ‘Lex Tusk’ or ‘Tusk law.’.

Top United States and European Union officials have condemned the law. EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said it would, “deprive citizens, individuals of their rights to be elected in a public function — public office” and noted “it will be possible to do that as an administrative decision without any judicial review.” 

On June 2, as international and domestic backlash mounted, Duda retreated and proposed urgent amendments to the law.  

Duda backtracked two days before the demonstrations in Warsaw, and his government suffered another blow the day after when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled PiS’s controversial judicial overhaul violated the right to have an independent and impartial judiciary. 

“The value of the rule of law is an integral part of the very identity of the EU as a common legal order and is given concrete expression in principles containing legally binding obligations for the member states,” ruled the ECJ.  

A long summer awaits

The ongoing dispute between Warsaw and Brussels began in 2019 when PiS empowered the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court—criticised by the European Commision and United Nations as a political tool to increase control of the judiciary—to punish judges according to the content of their verdicts.

The overhaul also changed the rules governing the relations between courts and prevented judges from assessing each other’s compliance with EU legal standards.  

In 2020, the ECJ ruled that Poland must suspend the disciplinary chamber, but Warsaw refused to comply. The European Commission began to fine Poland 500,000 euros a day for refusing to implement that ECJ ruling and Brussels has  withheld billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds. 

The June 5 ruling says the daily fines will stop, but Poland must still repay those that have accrued. 

As parliamentary elections approach in the autumn, most Poles are still deciding whether or not to give PiS another term in office. An outright majority looks highly unlikely, but Tusk – a divisive figure in Poland – has yet to convince the electorate that he is ready to return to the prime minister’s office.

Polls show PiS at 35 per cent with Tusk’s Civic Platform at 30 per cent. A long summer of campaigning, and more protests, likely awaits.

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