Guest post: Who is winning Poland’s ‘constitutional tribunal war’?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s new right-wing government has been engulfed in a debilitating controversy over the composition of the country’s constitutional tribunal. While opposition groupings claim that the government is undermining democracy, its supporters argue that the crisis was caused by its predecessor’s attempt to pack the tribunal with opponents of the new administration. The opposition has been more successful in promoting its narrative, and support for the ruling party and President have fallen, but the government retains the backing of its core supporters.

Controversy over new judges

Poland’s new government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has enjoyed virtually no post-election honeymoon and was plunged immediately into an ongoing dispute over the composition and functioning of the country’s 15-member constitutional tribunal. The tribunal is a powerful body whose task is to check whether or not laws and regulations adhere to the Constitution. At the end of November, the Law and Justice majority in the new Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, annulled the appointment of five tribunal judges nominated in October by the previous parliament dominated by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the former ruling party. Earlier, in June the Sejm amended the constitutional tribunal law to allow the outgoing parliament to appoint these judges, including two whose terms of office were not due to expire until December by which time the new Sejm would have convened. However, the five judges were unable to assume their posts because Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda did not accept their oaths of office. This opened the way for the newly-elected Sejm to choose five new tribunal members, in spite of vocal protests from opposition parties.

At the start of December, the tribunal ruled that the appointment of two of the five Civic Platform-nominated judges (replacing those whose term of office expired in December) was unconstitutional, but that the other three were nominated legally and should be sworn in immediately. However, the presidential chancellery argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of Sejm appointments, and Mr Duda swore in the five judges nominated by the new Sejm instead. Tribunal president Andrzej Rzepliński responded by declaring that the five would not participate in its work until he judged that their status was fully resolved.

Law and Justice tried to break this impasse by amending the constitutional tribunal law to increase the number of judges required to make rulings in the most important cases from nine to thirteen; thereby obliging Mr Rzepliński to accept the five judges appointed by the new Sejm. Moreover, the Law and Justice amendments increased the threshold for tribunal rulings to a two-thirds majority, making the votes of these new appointees more significant. They also stipulated that complaints filed to the tribunal would be considered chronologically rather than at its president’s discretion, potentially delaying its ability to question bills passed by the new government. The new law would take effect immediately, preventing the tribunal from declaring it unconstitutional. While critics claimed that that these changes would emasculate the tribunal, the government argued that they increased the legitimacy of its judgements and prevented the timing of cases being manipulated.

Threat to democracy or restoring balance?

The government’s actions met with vociferous protests from opposition politicians, the liberal-left media and much of the Polish legal establishment. Civic Platform, now the main opposition grouping, apologised for the rushed nomination of two additional judges, but condemned Mr Duda for refusing to swear in the other three nominated by the previous Sejm and argued that the election of the five Law and Justice nominees was unconstitutional. It joined forces with most other opposition parties in accusing the government of interfering in the independence of the judiciary by trying to obstruct the tribunal in order to free itself from legal checks and balances. The government’s critics claimed that it was reverting to the allegedly confrontational and authoritarian style of politics that they claimed characterised the previous 2005-7 Law and Justice-led administration, and that its handling of the constitutional crisis contradicted the moderate, centrist image that the party cultivated during the parliamentary election campaign; exemplified by Jarosław Kaczyński, the party’s combative leader, nominating his more emollient deputy Beata Szydło as its prime ministerial candidate. They also tried to raise the emotional temperature of the debate by arguing that the new government was violating the Constitution and posed a threat to democracy. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new civic movement, on the two Saturdays before Christmas; the largest of which, in Warsaw, was (according to police estimates) attended by 20,000 people. (A figure disputed by organisers who claimed 50,000 and cited figures produced by the Warsaw mayor’s office; although government supporters say that she participed in the demonstration).

On the other hand, the government’s supporters, who organised a 40,000-strong (according to police estimates) counter-demonstration in Warsaw, placed the blame for the constitutional crisis squarely on the previous Civic Platform-led government, which, they say, appointed five judges illegally just before the October parliamentary election that opinion polls suggested it would lose. It did so, they claim, to pack the tribunal with opponents of the new government, thereby frustrating its legislative programme. Previously, they said, government turnover had ensured a more politically-balanced tribunal but the fact that the Civic Platform administration was the first in post-1989 Poland to be re-elected for a second consecutive term undermined this relative pluralism. Indeed, by attempting to stack the tribunal with five rather than three additional judges, all but one of tribunal’s 15 members would have been appointed during the period when Civic Platform was in government. Thus, even with the appointment of five members by the new Sejm, the tribunal would still have been dominated by judges nominated by Civic Platform government-dominated parliaments (although the three vacancies due to arise within the next 18 months could give Law and Justice nominees a majority during the second half of the current parliament).

While some government supporters accepted that Law and Justice may be partly to blame for the crisis by voting out the three justices who, in the tribunal’s view, were elected legally by the outgoing parliament, others pointed out that their election was invalid because of procedural errors in the October vote. They also argued that, as guardian of the Constitution, the President had the right not to accept the five judges appointed (in his view illegally) by the previous parliament and that the tribunal could not instruct him what to do with parliamentary nominees. The new Sejm, they said, elected five new tribunal members on the basis of its own procedural rules which are in line with the Constitution and cannot be reviewed by the tribunal, whose only role is to check the constitutionality of laws and regulations.

More broadly, the tribunal’s critics see it as a highly politicised body (a charge that the tribunal and its supporters deny vigorously). Law and Justice believes that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite and remains committed to a radical reconstruction of the state. While the Committee for the Defence of Democracy-sponsored protests may have involved many politically non-aligned citizens, the party’s supporters argue that, far from being spontaneous civic actions, they were orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to the government’s plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. The latter include generous additional child benefits and reversing the Civic Platform government’s deeply unpopular decision to increase the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men) to be funded partly by new taxes on banks and larger retailers. During the previous Law and Justice government the tribunal struck down key elements of the party’s programme, notably its flagship ‘lustration’ law extending the scope of vetting public officials and authority figures for their links with the communist-era security services. The new government, they say, had to redress the balance within the tribunal as it posed a threat to its core policy agenda.

No Law and Justice honeymoon

The constitutional tribunal war has developed into the most serious political crisis in Poland for many years, polarising opinion on both sides. No incoming Polish government has come under such rapid and intensive attack as the new Law and Justice administration. Given its determination to ‘cleanse’ the political system and scale of its reformist ambitions, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the new administration would encounter vigorous opposition. On the face of it, constitutional prerogatives and abstract concepts such as the ‘separation of powers’ are difficult for ordinary citizens to grasp, and the tribunal is a body that does not appear to have any direct impact on their day-to-day lives. However, the opposition has been extremely successful in promoting its argument that this issue exemplifies how Polish democracy is under threat from the new government; a narrative that has been picked up by large sections of the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and who share their dislike of Law and Justice. At the same time, the negative reaction to the government’s constitutional tribunal changes has caught Law and Justice off-guard and, in stark contrast to the professionalism of its election campaign, the party has failed to make its case effectively. Rather than using the language of ensuring greater pluralism and restoring balance, Law and Justice has often attempted to justify its actions by claiming that they increased the government’s effectiveness, making them appear part of a crude power grab. Although the Civic Platform government enjoyed much less hostility from the mainstream media (the lack of scrutiny of its over-reach in appointing additional constitutional tribunal judges in October being a case in point), it was also careful to ensure that it made state appointments with greater subtlety and finesse.

While newly elected governing parties usually enjoy a post-election ‘bounce’, opinion polls suggest that the crisis has led to a drop in support for Law and Justice among more moderate, centrist voters. The main beneficiary of this has been the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, a new party formed in May by liberal economist Ryszard Petru which has pulled ahead of Civic Platform and is currently running neck-and-neck with (and, in some surveys, even slightly ahead of) Law and Justice. Others opinion polls have shown a substantial increase in negative evaluations of Mr Duda who, by being forced to take sides in such a divisive and polarising dispute, has paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government. For sure, Mr Duda still enjoys relatively high approval ratings and remains Poland’s most popular politician, but the perception that he is a ‘partisan President’ may be difficult to shift.

While Law and Justice probably did not anticipate that the ‘constitutional tribunal war’ would prove to be so debilitating, the party has stood its ground and is clearly willing to pay a political price for actions it feels are necessary to ensure that its legislative programme is not de-railed. It has retained (and possibly even solidified) support among its core voters and no national elections are scheduled until autumn 2018 so has plenty of time to recover. Moreover, while the opposition has been mobilised and, to a degree, united by the crisis, it remains fragmented. ‘Modern’ is currently benefiting from its political ‘newness’ but Mr Petru’s grouping remains an unknown quantity and experience suggests that the social base for a purely liberal party is relatively narrow. Although it would be extremely damaging for Law and Justice if the perception of the party as a ‘threat to democracy’ were to become firmly lodged in public consciousness, ultimately the government’s fate, and ruling party’s electoral fortunes, are probably more likely to depend on its ability to deliver quickly on its high-profile socio-economic policy promises.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of ‘Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe?’ (Routledge, 2012) (http://www.tandf.net/books/details/9780415380737/) and blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at: http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.

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