OPN 191114  PiS-1573728742026
Polish Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (centre) attends the first session of the new Polish Parliament on November 12, 2019 in Warsaw. Image Credit: AFP

On Monday in Warsaw, tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets in what was nominally the occasion of the nation’s independence day. It became free on the same day the First World War ended with the defeat of the Austro-Hungarians and the Germans — empires that along with Russia had divided and partitioned Polish territory for generations.

That independence has been difficult, as the events of the Second World War just two decades later and Poland’s subsequent non-voluntary immersion as a Soviet satellite followed. Realistically, it’s only the events set in place by Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in the Gdansk shipyard three decades ago that has led to prolonged and meaningful freedom. Historians point to Solidarity and its success in the June 1989 Polish elections as one of the key reasons why the Berlin Wall would fall months later.

But it has been a long and strange road that Poles have followed over these past three decades. Last month, Poles voted again in a general election — the turnout of almost 62 per cent was only surpassed by that election that brought Walesa to power and swept away Communism. As things stand now, however, Poles are still conflicted by two other -isms — nationalism and liberalism.

Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party was returned to power on October 13, determined to continue its socially conservative programme that includes overhauling the nation’s judiciary. It’s a programme that has set PiS on a collision course with the European Union, sparking legal action and the very real threat of sanctions by Brussels. A condition for membership of the EU is an independent judiciary free of political interference as a normal check and balance in an open democracy.

Those elections gave PiS 235 seats out of the 460 lower legislature. It failed, however, to win a majority of seats in the upper senate.

Divisions and tensions

If Monday’s independence day celebrations were supposed to mark unity, separate meetings between supports and opponents of the PiS underscored the divisions and tensions in Polish society now. At a PiS-organised rally in Warsaw, participants chanted “God, honour, homeland!” and “No to the European Union!” as they waved red and white Polish flags. Increasingly, conservative and Roman Catholic thinking on social change has dominated the divisive PiS programme. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski makes no bones about its role. “Our nation has a mission and it has to fulfil it,” he said last week. “Our mission is to sustain everything that’s a foundation of our Christian civilisation. We will walk this path, and if it’s done in a thoughtful way, it will bring us to victory.”

In the southwestern city of Wroclaw, one nationalist march and rally was abandoned after 25 minutes because of racist remarks by the organisers and too many flares, the local city council said.

The first four years of PiS have moved government policy to the right, media freedoms have been rolled back and the judiciary forced to retire early, with new judges being appointed by PiS-controlled panels. Prosecutors too are appointed by the government.

Certainly, there’s a movement in Poland now that would love to see it follow the course Britons and leave the EU — Polexit, you might call it. Ask British lawmakers who want to take back control what their biggest bugbear with the EU is and they’ll answer being subject to the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Ask Polexit-leaning Poles that question and they’ll most probably give a very similar answer. The ECJ has just ruled that Poland broke the law when the PiS lowered that age of retirement for judges. It gave too much power to the government, removing a check and balance on the independence of the judiciary, and making female judges retire five years before their male counterparts was also discriminatory and broke EU equality laws. The PiS changed the mandatory retirement age for both sexes from 67 to 65 for males, 60 for females. And yes, while the PiS did change the law after an outcry it never did reinstate the judges forced out by the original decision.

The ECJ ruling is the second major decision against Poland in recent months. Last June, the ECJ ruled that a 2018 PiS law to force the retirement of 40 per cent of its Supreme Court judges was also contrary to EU law.

In its most recent rule, the ECJ rapped Poland’s justice minister on the knuckles for having the decision-making power to allow some judges carry on after retirement age, saying the power was vague and that the criteria used were not verifiable. In essence, it said he could pick and choose who could stay or go.

The legal action against the Warsaw government was commenced by the European Commission, a cabinet-like body that is responsible for the day-to-day running of the EU and the result has been welcomed in Brussels, calling on PiS to offer redress to those judges forced from their well-polished Polish benches.