The European Union on Wednesday gave Warsaw a dressing down over concerns about the erosion of the rule of law in Poland. And with good reason. The conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) headed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which runs the government, has repeatedly tinkered with and undermined the institutions of democracy in the country, progressively tightening its grip over them. The EU’s patience is running out, and it could eventually strip Poland of voting rights in the European Council, an unprecedented action. This is a reflection of grave concerns over the developments in Poland, especially the actions the PiS has taken since it came to power in October 2015 to control the Constitutional Tribunal, Poland’s highest court. In July, the EU made recommendations aimed at protecting the independence of the judiciary. These have been largely ignored. Examples of PiS action that have impacted judicial functioning include publishing judgments selectively (without which they do not have legal standing) and passing legislation to temporarily appoint the head of the Constitutional Tribunal. On Monday, Andrzej Rzeplinski, the outgoing president of the court, alleged that the government was out to destroy the tribunal. While concerns are focussed around judicial independence, they are by no means limited to this.
Among the government’s moves are the replacement of heads of public bodies with its loyalists, a ban on abortions (which was rolled back following widespread protests), a campaign to control NGOs, and curbs on media freedom. About 100 journalists from state media organisations have been fired, and the government, until Tuesday, was proposing to ban most journalists from entering the lower house of Parliament in 2017. This resulted in an opposition sit-in in the main hall of Parliament, while thousands protested outside, preventing the passage of the 2017 Budget. This led to the government passing the Budget in an anteroom, a move that has, understandably, not gone down well with the opposition. The EU has given Poland two months for a course correction. PiS was elected on a populist platform a little over a year ago, ousting the centre-right Civic Platform (PO). The party was aided by the relatively benign economic conditions when it came to power, but the economy is slowing down even as chaos and unrest continue. The government, thus far unmoved by the interests of civil society and democracy, may be forced to tread a bit more carefully.