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Opinion

Opinion: It's not too late for the Polish government to change course

Poland is divided. The government says it wants justice, but its actions say otherwise. Confrontation between the government and its opponents is escalating. In the end, Poland can only lose, says DW's Rosalia Romaniec.

In its recent history, Poland has never been as divided as it is today. An invisible line runs right through the country: through families, friendships and Facebook forums. On one side are those who are looking to the future, intent on defending the democracy won after 1989 with all its inadequacies. On the other side are the supporters of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) who disparage anyone who disagrees with them as a "bad Pole" and who want an authoritarian state. Between the two fronts is a deep trench. And it seems people on either side are more likely to jump into it than jump over their own shadows.

The nationalist and conservative governing party likes to think that its name, "Law and Justice," is synonymous with its program. It has overturned laws with a startling sense of entitlement, removing all obstacles in its path. Now it is facing the biggest hurdle: the constitutional court.

PiS leading in the polls

The ruling party's argument with the highest-ranking judges came to a head after the court struck down a set of government reforms as unconstitutional. In a mature democracy, the government would have responded by altering its course - also in an effort to not alienate voters. But Warsaw works differently. If elections were held in Poland on Sunday, the PiS would get more votes than both of the big opposition parties combined. Such poll results only bolster the government, which thinks it is fully in the right to ignore the verdict of the country's top court, and with it, the constitution itself. The "best" example of this is Prime Minister Beata Szydlo: She says the constitutional court is not even in a position to rule. She refused to publish the verdict, skipping the normal procedure to make rulings binding.

Romaniec Rosalia

DW's Rosalia Romaniec

The bitterness of the confrontation has come as a surprise to many, as has the persistence of the citizens who are protesting. Every week, thousands of Poles take to the streets - currently, many are choosing to stand outside the prime minister's office. Since she won't publish the court's verdict, they are projecting it onto the building's façade at night. "Beata, publish this text!" they shout. But only the private broadcasters are reporting the protests. State television simply informs the public about the "unacceptable procedures of the constitutional court judges."

The question is, how long will the PiS carry on? Pressure from both within and from outside the country is mounting. This weekend, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe published its report on whether democratic standards are being upheld in Poland. Warsaw itself asked for the probe, after the EU Commission launched an inquiry into the rule of law in Poland in January. PiS assumed that the Council of Europe would take a milder view of the situation. But the Venice Commission has reportedly concluded that democracy and human rights are under threat in Poland.

Correction or confrontation?

The government is now in panic mode. Instead of calming tensions, it pointed out that the Venice Commission is "only an advisory body." Warsaw is trying to hide behind this nonchalance, but it has a decision to make: correct its course, or continue down the path of confrontation? The former option would be the smarter, more pragmatic choice. But the latter is the more likely and will bring with it disastrous consequences. From a constitutional crisis or a state crisis to anarchy in the judicial branch - it's all possible.

The pragmatists in Jaroslaw Kaczynski's party know this, too. But much to their chagrin, the party leader is behaving like an autocrat who can dictate government policy, although he no longer holds an official government position. It's only a matter of time before some of them choose to free themselves from his reign. That was also the opinion of European Council President Donald Tusk when he met with Polish President Andrzej Duda. Borrowing rhetoric from "Star Wars," he said it "was never too late to switch to the light side of the force." That's true, but the decisive people in the PiS shouldn't wait too long. Otherwise, there will be a high price to pay, not just for the government, but for all Poles.

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