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After Low Voter Turnout Leads To A Far Right Victory, Democracy Dies In Poland

On October 25, 2015, Poland held its latest parliamentary elections. The polling before election night found that the electorate was generally split, with right-wing Law and Justice Party holding a slight edge. It was going to be a nail-biter, with attention focused on several of the minority parties to see which would gain seats in both the lower (Sejm) and upper (Senate) houses of the legislature. With the Polish electoral system set up such that a political party needs 5 percent and a coalition needs 8 percent of the vote in order to secure seats in the legislature, the key for the election was going to be voter turnout.

The voters did not turn out

According to voting data collected by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), out of 31 million Poles of voting age, only 15.5 million showed up to vote at all. This is a near record low for voter turnout, which peaked at 24 million Poles, 98.87 percent of registered voters, in 1980. As a result, the Law and Justice Party, with 5.7 million votes, managed to secure a solid majority in both houses of the Sejm. They joined fellow party member Andrzej Duda in the Polish government following his election to the Presidency with 5.2 million votes in August. Remember these numbers, for having less than 20% of the total voting block, this party now controls both the legislature and the executive power within Poland.

Further, the impact of these votes was even more than the numbers would point to. Due to the minimum percentage required, one coalition, United Left, with 1.1 million votes, won no seats, while the Polish People’s Party with 779,875 votes and the German Minority party with 27,530 votes both are represented in the legislature. As a result, the allocation of seats became disproportionate, with over 16% of the votes, and the seats which would have been tied to them, effectively ignored. Hence, the Law and Justice Party controls 51 percent of the Sejm and 61 percent of the Senate, and when combined with their control of the Presidency means that one party controls Poland.

Normally, this much power consolidated in a party which had over 80 percent of the population which voted against them would be a concern. However, Poland operates Tribunals, extra-governmental judicial offices which are designed to oversee various aspects of government. The two most powerful of these are the State Tribunal, which handles impeachment and removal from office, and the Constitutional Tribunal which oversees the constitutionality of laws. These Tribunals exist to ensure that power is well-managed thanks to these external agencies tasked with oversight. And by operating independently of the government itself, the Tribunals are well established mediators which have preserved democracy within Poland since their establishment in 1982.

Poland In The Crosshairs

Just before the elections, the former legislature approved several judges for the Constitutional Tribunal. However, President Duda refused to swear in these new judges, an act which the Tribunal declared as illegal. However, without these judges, the court was unable to reach a quorum in order to enforce their viewpoint. Then with his parties legislative takeover, these nominations were nullified, and new judges, ones loyal to the Law and Order Party, appointed in their place.

Then President Duda formally pardoned Mariusz Kaminski, who had been convicted of abusing his office within the central anti-corruption bureau (CBA). While at CBA, Kaminski was found to have used his position to spy on political rivals. It was discovered that Kaminski had been forging documents, wiretapping phones, all to frame the head of the Farming Ministry for bribery in regards to a proposed land deal that would have turned a section of farmland into residential development. In return, Kaminski has now been appointed to be the new head of the Secret Services, or Urząd Ochrony Państwa (UCP). That means Kaminski would now be in charge of all internal intelligence operations for the nation, in an agency with little to no oversight now that the Constitutional Tribunal has been packed with loyalist judges. Combined with his history of corruption and abuse of office, this bodes poorly for Poland’s future.

Secure in place, the new government then began to shut down dissent. The new series of plays by Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek “Smert i diva I-V. The Drama of Princesses. (Death and the Maiden)” was ordered shut down by the new Culture Minister, Piotr Gliński, for being “pornographic.” Television personality Karolina Lewicka was then suspended following an interview where the Culture Minister was accused of refusing to answer questions over the attempt to censor the play. To avoid future issues the new legislature has introduced a bill which would take over public media and replace it with a new, government run agency.

Goodbye Democracy, Hello Dictatorship

The Constitutional Tribune was still moving to block these actions. To prevent this oversight, Law and Order passed an amendment which effectively neuters the Constitutional Tribunal. The new measure puts in restrictions which require the tribunal to hold a supermajority, and raises the minimum members needed to hold a quorum from 9 to 13. As there are 15 members of the tribunal, with office terms of 9 years on a rotating basis, it means that when terms end, the tribunal will have between 3 and 5 seats which are vacant, which would make it impossible to reach a quorum. And by passing this amendment, it removes the last barrier allowing the tribunal to block the appointment of the Law and Justice Party appointments to the bench.

This now puts Law and Justice firmly in control, and already enacting an agenda which is very disturbing to those who are concerned about civil liberty. Protests have become a common sight on the streets of Poland’s capital, Warsaw. There is now a widespread regret over the election, but with Law and Justice in full control, little that can be done about it.

Former President and leader of the Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa has voiced his concerns, speaking out against the actions of Law and Justice. “This government acts against Poland, against our achievements, freedom, democracy…” he said to Radio Zet in an interview. Now 72, Walesa is an elder statesman of Poland, and helped lead the reforms which saw Poland transition from an isolated nation to a member of the world community.

While some have pointed to these changes as harking back to the leadership under the Communist Party, they truly point to a far older point in Polish history. Following the 1926 coup d’etat led by WWI veteran Marshall Józef Piłsudski. The dictatorship he set up, run by a leadership council called informally “Pilsudski’s Colonels,” is what we find now being echoed within the Law and Justice actions today. By censoring the opposition, including show trials of left-wing party leadership, the Polish dictatorship held full power and control until the invasion by Germany in 1939.

Like Pilsudski, Law and Justice believe that the actions they are taking is justified — most dictators do, after all. The ends justify the means. Their vision for a strong, nationalist movement runs directly in contradiction to their new actions. Rather than oversight, Law and Justice are moving in the direction of corruption, authoritarianism, and dictatorship. Even the time under the control of the Communist Party is starting to look more attractive than the direction which Law and Justice are taking Poland – at least the people turned out to vote, even if for a flawed election. For if a party is going to seek out such loopholes in order to walk over democracy now, what else is it willing to do in order to secure power?

Cover – CC Image Of Demonstrations in Poland, by Lukasz2

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A former candidate for State Representative in Washington state, Nathaniel is a seasoned political writer who brings an analytical and informed eye to politics. He is currently promoting his newest book, "The People's Constitution," now available in both paperback and Kindle.