Poland has recently experienced a political earthquake. The candidate of the conservative Law and Justice party (L&J) Andrzej Duda won popular elections in May 2015 and the party itself secured a plurality of votes and absolute majority of seats in October elections.  On November 16, a new L&J government, headed by the Prime Minister Beata Szydło, was sworn into office. This completes the process of establishing a single-party rule for the first time since the introduction of democracy in Poland in 1989.

The true architect behind L&J victories is its undisputed leader Jarosław Kaczyński, a twin brother of the former Polish president killed in the plane crash in Russia. Despite his party’s success, Kaczyński did not assume a position in the government but is expected to wield unparalleled power behind the scenes, mudding democratic transparency and accountability.

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At the end of last week, the new parliamentary majority steamrolled a bill to take full control of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal that has powers to rule future L&J legislation unconstitutional. The L&J grudge against the Polish high courts goes back to last year’s local elections. Kaczyński accused the chief justices of the Constitutional Tribunal, the Polish Supreme Court, and the Supreme Administrative Court of “terrorizing courts” to approve the validity of allegedly rigged elections.

Together with the assault on the independence of the judiciary the new L&J parliamentary majority quickly assumed control over security services that, in the past, were used to keep watch on political opponents. In the process, the opposition was rooted out from the customary rotating chairmanship of the powerful parliamentary intelligence committee. The L&J party is now working on new legislation that will, among other things, establish tight control over public media, including dismissal of journalists that do not comport to the L&J party line, turn prosecutor general into a strictly government subordinate, and force early elections to local government to capture the remaining state institutions outside the government’s control.  

The government’s actions have already raised serious concerns. According to the former chief justice of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and a staunch conservative, Andrzej Zoll, the actions of the new government amount to “the end of rule of law” in Poland. Adam Michnik, former anti-communist dissident and the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, openly warns about coming of “a velvet dictatorship.”  

Strong pro-American views of the new Polish government and the Polish society in general gives the U.S. Congress a unique opportunity and responsibility to support and defend, if necessary, democratic procedures in Poland. Here is how:

During each official and unofficial meetings with the Polish government officials, the Congressional representatives must continuously stress the necessity for a genuine inclusion of the opposition into major political processes and ask for specific examples of such inclusion. L&J has certainly a mandate to rule the country but hardly a popular mandate to overhaul the Polish constitutional and political order without general support from opposition parties and the public. In recent parliamentary elections L&J won less than 20 percent of votes of all eligible Polish voters. It received less support (approx. 38 percent of those who cast the vote) than all opposition parties combined (approx. 44 percent);

Any U.S. military aid to Poland that the current L&J government might ask for must be inextricably linked to the state of democratic practices in the country, including respect for the independence of the judiciary;

Any U.S. Congressional delegations that visit Poland must request separate meetings with the parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition leaders as well as representatives of the civil society to hear their views about the state of the Polish democracy.

Kaczyński, not the prime minister or the president, is now the real power holder in the country. U.S. officials, however, should not seek the meeting with the L&J leader unless similar meetings with the heads of other parliamentary groups are arranged during a visit. This will insure that the U.S. Congress treats all party heads in the Polish parliament equally and does not legitimize the non-transparent rule of a party leader with no official government position.

Without the decisive leadership of the U.S. Congress Poland under Kaczyński and his allies might soon become like Hungary under its current Prime Minister Victor Orbán – democratic by name, authoritarian in practice.  

Bartkowski specializes in democratic change and popular pro-democracy movements. He is editor of Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles and on the faculty at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Views expressed here are his own. He can be followed @macbartkowski.