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Thursday, September 21, 2017

How the Polish Government Is Eroding Liberty

The Law and Justice party represents everything a liberty-minded person should despise.

Poland’s Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) has made international headlines due to its radical reform policy regarding the country’s judiciary system. These reforms are problematic, but they are not the only reason to be concerned about the future of freedom in the Central European state.

How PiS Rose to Power

In May 2015, presidential elections in Poland are just around the corner and the position of the former president Bronisław Komorowski from the ruling party Civic Platform, seems to be unthreatened. Despite the scandal of secret tapes of leading Polish politicians being published and a series of public image-related flops of Komorowski (he struggled to interact with people without the help of whispered instruction from his “spin” doctor) the polls are consistently in his and his party’s favor.

The party’s victory may be an element of the same wave of nationalism and collectivism that raised Trump to power.

Against all odds, Andrzej Duda, the candidate of the rival Law and Justice party, wins the election on May 24th, 2015. His victory is a breaking point in the history of the modern Polish politics, opening the path for the electoral success of the “Law and Justice” party four months later. The party wins with a 13 percent margin and becomes the first party in post-communist Poland to have an absolute majority in Parliament.

The Law and Justice party’s victory may be an element of the same wave of nationalism and collectivism that raised Orban, Erdogan, and Trump to power. The party ruled by Jarosław Kaczyński – brother of former Polish president Lech Kaczyński who died in a plane crash in Smolensk – shares much of the aforementioned figures’ stances, and comparing them is entirely justified.

The Polish liberty movement was quite divided regarding the results of the elections. Many – most, in fact – were relieved with the Civic Platform’s failure, since it was far from being the economically liberal party it promised to be a few years earlier. The Law and Justice party, on the other hand, had almost nothing liberal in their program, which raises questions about how their success was met with such eagerness in some of the Polish liberty-oriented electorate.

Jarosław Kaczyński’s party – socially conservative and economically socialist – represents everything a liberty-minded person should despise. With its main slogan, “The good change,” they promised a program of government handouts for families with children, imposing new taxes on banks, and introducing the 12 PLN minimum wage for contract agreements and the self-employed. The unfortunate twist for the Polish economy is that the party actually plans on keeping its promises on these key issues.

The Law and Justice Party In Action

This reform is the biggest income redistribution scheme in Poland since 1989.

The flagship program of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party was “Family 500+” – a governmental scheme that guarantees a monthly handout of 500 PLN (ca. 140 USD) for every child a family has, beginning with the second born, or – if you meet certain income criteria – with the first. With 3 children, you would be able to receive 1500 PLN, which is more or less a net minimum wage in Poland.

This reform is the biggest income redistribution scheme in Poland since 1989, with the unfortunate side-note that it is only the beginning. A year later, the party introduced a sister program called “Apartment+”, this time meddling with the real estate market and building “affordable housing” for people in need.

PiS attempts to offset increased spending by tightening fiscal regulations on businesses and adding more taxes on banks and insurance companies. The government also strives to forbid renting and selling flats smaller than 25 m2, in order to prevent construction “of substandard cubby-holes called apartments” (as Tomasz Żuchowski, the vice-minister of infrastructure said).

The minimum wage was raised from 1,850 to 2,000 PLN, and is expected to grow by another 100 PLN in 2018.

Additionally, certain types of contracts were encompassed with mandatory social security fees. There is also a threat that business lawyers will be forced to provide the government with information about clients who are suspected of tax optimization.

The Law and Justice party is equally regressive when it comes to personal liberty. The “day after pill” is no longer prescription-free because Konstanty Radziwiłł, the minister of health, feared that teenage girls would use it on a daily basis. The same minister also said that as a doctor, he wouldn’t even prescribe the pill to a woman who was raped, claiming the conscience clause.

An Independent Judiciary under Threat

The Law and Justice party’s jump on the independent judiciary in Poland is not the only reform conducted by the government, but certainly the most famous one.

This doesn’t mean the end of the debate on the rule of law in Poland – it might just be the very beginning of it.

Recently, Jarosław Kaczyński’s party prepared and voted on three bills that, if implemented, would give them huge influence on the Polish judiciary. The proposed changes included effectively retiring current Supreme Court judges, enabling the minister of justice to fire judges of all Polish common courts for reasons deemed by many to be purely political, and increasing the parliament’s influence on the National Council of the Judiciary – a body responsible for nominating judges.

These proposals were met with fierce reactions from the opposition. Large crowds took to the streets and, according to the organizers’ claims, 50,000 people protested against the proposed changes in Warsaw, the capital. The Law and Justice majority in parliament was deaf to the protests and accepted all three bills, which were then directed to the presidential office to be signed by the president himself.

From the very beginning of his political career, Andrzej Duda wrestled with his image as a submissive politician following orders from Jarosław Kaczyński, who is essentially the puppet master behind important political decisions. That’s why he surprised everybody, including members of the ruling party, by vetoing two out of the three proposed bills, on the Supreme Court and on the National Council of the Judiciary.

This doesn’t mean the end of the debate on the rule of law in Poland – it might just be the very beginning of it. But the bill on the common courts was successfully implemented, which means that no judge of the common courts can be certain of their future position. The people and the EU are still waiting for Andrzej Duda to present his versions of the bills he vetoed, which, as he said, should happen two months after his veto, on September 24th.

European Reactions Are Unlikely to be Effective

The future of Poland’s position in the European Union remains uncertain.

Frans Timmermans, the Vice President of the European Commission, has announced that should the judges of the Polish Supreme Court be fired, he will trigger Article 7 against Poland, which in the long run could strip the country from the right to vote in the European Council. French president Emmanuel Macron had blasted Poland’s policy changes as being isolationist, saying that the country was “moving to the margins of the block”, prompting the Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, to call him “arrogant and inexperienced”.

The future of Poland’s position in the European Union remains uncertain. However, it stands to reason that above all, Polish politicians should first and foremost come under the scrutiny of the Polish people, not the remarks of officials in Brussels.

Real positive changes can only be achieved bottom-up, not top-down.

  • Bill Wirtz is a Young Voices Advocate and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. His work has been featured in several outlets, including Newsweek, Rare, RealClear, CityAM, Le Monde and Le Figaro. He also works as a Policy Analyst for the Consumer Choice Center.

    Learn more about him at his website

  • Paweł Piwowar is a passionate advocate of economic and individual liberty from Poland, cooperating with two NGOs as a filmmaker and project manager. He is currently pursuing his career in journalism and digital news media.