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A silent coup in Poland?

Rosalia Romaniec / jtmNovember 26, 2015

The days-old Polish government has wasted no time in making use of its new power. Critics are already worrying that their mandate has been stretched too far.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Turczyk

Beata Szydlo, prime minister of Poland since November 16, set the precedent for defied expectations with her choice of cabinet members.

As defense minister she appointed Antoni Macierewicz, who shares his hardline stance towards Moscow with the chief of the ruling Party for Law and Justice (PiS) Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Macierewicz eagerly spreads conspiracy theories about the plane crash in the Russian city of Smolensk five years ago that killed former President (and Jaroslaw's twin) Lech Kaczynski as well as a number of other high-ranking dignitaries. Worried he would scare away moderate conservative voters, Syzdlo promised in her campaign that Macierewicz would not take part in her government. And now he is in office.

Then there is the new secret service coordinator, Mariusz Kaminski. Former head of Poland's Central Anti-Corruption Bureau, Kaminski was convicted for abuse of office in March with a three-year prison sentence - barring him as well from public office. Kaminski has since appealed the ruling. In any case, the new prime minister was not bothered and has brought him into the government too. Immediately thereafter the president issued him a pardon.

Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Prime Minister Szydlo and PiS party leader KaczynskiImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

The president versus the courts

Critics fear that the head of state's unprecedented move will prompt other officials to support the party so they too may secure legal impunity.

The move itself was illegal, believes Piotr Kladoczny of the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights in Warsaw. "The president can pardon a conviction, but not the defendant himself," Kladoczny said.

In the meantime, judges from the court of appeals in Warsaw have spoken up. A council released a statement decrying the use of the justice system as a political instrument. Recalling the constitution's division of powers, it wrote: "The judiciary and the executive should not compete with each other and the president cannot release the courts of their constitutional duties."

Law's bulwark under siege

But the decision of what is just and what is unjust will rest in new hands.

Only a few days after the swearing-in of the new Sejm - the lower house of the Polish parliament - the ruling PiS party pushed through both houses of parliament an amendment that would vindicate the president's legal maneuvering.

Representatives and senators of the PiS voted in an nighttime session to appoint replacements for five recently nominated constitutional judges. With the help of the Kukiz'15 faction they gathered the necessary two-thirds majority to get their way. There was no hearing for constitutional judges. Amendment proposals were rejected. The opposition spoke of a shameful coup against the constitutional court and walked out before the vote in protest.

"It is very unnerving how the new leaders are moving forward, Kladoczny said. "It now looks like they want subordinate the constitutional court. That would be lethal," as the highest court is "the last reserve of jurisdiction."

The PiS has garnered a two-thirds majority in parliament
The PiS has garnered a two-thirds majority in parliamentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The media's 'national duty'

Now the PiS has set its eyes on the media.

Shortly before a Breslau theater was set to premier its staging of Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek's "Der Tod und Das Mädchen," newly installed Culture Minister Piotr Glinski urged the performance to be called off amid talk that pornographic scenes would occur on stage. "Government money for culture will not be spent on pornography," he said.

When a television moderator from the channel TVP asked about the legal basis of his threat, Glinski dodged the question before offering threatening TVP in turn: "This program is propaganda, just like the propaganda and manipulation that your channel has been pushing for years," he said. "That will end soon. Public television is not allowed to function like that."

The journalist was pulled as the program's moderator and the culture minister soon announced that reform for rules governing the media were already in their "final phase." It is so far known that state television and radio channels, as well as the Polish press agency PAP, will be cast as "national cultural institutions." Their current boards will be swiftly replaced with people who in turn could be dismissed at any time.

Genuine threat or make believe?

Public outcry has been exaggerated, says Andrzej Grajewski, a journalist with the conservative weekly newspaper "Gosc Neidzielny." In fact, he says, public media in Poland has been strongly polarized for years, made evident by the election campaign. The question is only whether the boards will be politically varied in their representation or replaced only with functionaries close to the government. He also dismissed further governmental designs on the media, calling the plan of a PiS politician to eject foreign capital - mostly German - from the regional newspaper market "completely impossible."

Most of these measures are part of a long and elaborate scheme dubbed the "Program for the Renewal of the Republic," which bears the handwriting of the ideological head of the PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Only ten days in power, the government is only getting started.