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Is democracy at risk in Poland?

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
February 14, 2017

Poland's ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party has come under fire for trying to take power from the country's highest court and cracking down on media freedom. DW talks to Polish Finance Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

DW Conflict Zone - Zitat Mateusz Morawiecki, polnischer Finanzminister

Mateusz Morawiecki on Conflict Zone

Poland's ultra-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power at the end of 2015 and has since sought to reshape Polish politics. Almost immediately the new government came under fire for a series of changes which critics say are designed to cement their hold on civic institutions.

The first controversy? Changes to the country's highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal.

PiS dismissed five judges appointed by the previous government and pushed through legislation to overhaul the tribunal. Critics say the law puts more power into the hands of Poland's conservative government and removes checks on government power. Many say it was essentially a coup against the highest court in the land and the only branch of government not under PiS control.

Polen Protesten gegen polische Regierung in Warschau
Protesters speak out against changes to Poland's Constitutional Court by holding signs with the image of the court's head, Andrzej RzeplinskiImage: REUTERS/Agencja Gazeta

The move triggered street protests in Poland and set off alarms with the European Union (EU), which requires its member states to maintain the independence of the judiciary. The European Commission, the EU's executive body, launched an unprecedented inquiry, marking the first time the rule of law of an EU member state formally came under investigation.

Court crisis

Six months later, the European Commission announced that there was "a systematic threat to the rule of law in Poland." It called on the Polish government to take action to guarantee the independence of the constitutional tribunal and to respect democracy and fundamental rights.

But Poland's ruling party rejects the EU's assessment. 

In an interview with DW's flagship political talk show Conflict Zone, Poland's finance minister and PiS member, Mateusz Morawiecki, called the criticism "illegitimate" and said the EU "completely misunderstood the situation."

Conflict Zone Dreh - Mateusz Morawiecki
Polish Finance Minister and PiS member Mateusz Morawiecki is this week's guest on Conflict ZoneImage: DW/M. Martin

But criticism hasn't just come from abroad. Polish Ombudsman Adam Bodnar, who is charged under the constitution with protecting rights and freedoms in his country, recently spoke of attempts to paralyze Poland's constitutional court. 

Morawiecki also rejected this criticism, saying Bodnar "is completely politically tainted" as he is "in the avant-garde of fighting for the previous establishment."

Media freedom

Poland's current government also quickly drew criticism for taking control of state television and radio broadcasters.

At the end of 2015, PiS signed into law a bill that allows the government to designate the heads of public TV and radio. The Council of Europe, the European body wich promotes human rights, called the move "unacceptable in a genuine democracy."

By the end of last year, Poland was again in the headlines when PiS announced it intended to limit the number of reporters allowed to access and cover parliament. That proposed media law led to demonstrations across the country.  

Polen | Protest vor dem polischen Parlament gegen die Einschränkung der Pressefreiheit
A protester holds a sign reading "free media" during a demonstration against PiS trying to limit press freedom in PolandImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. Radwanski

Reporters Without Borders just recently reported that since PiS came to power, "over 220 public media journalists have been fired, forced to quit or moved to less influential positions by the Polish government." 

In the interview, Morawiecki defended the government's current stance on the media, saying:

"In Poland, the media is in the hands of only one group (…). Is this a balanced media approach?"

He also urged Conflict Zone host Tim Sebastian to "read more newspapers from both sides. Not only the liberal media, read also the other media."

The migrant question

Poland's governing party has also come under fire for its reluctance to take in refugees and migrants – something Morawiecki objected to in the interview.

"We are accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine," he said. "We have registered one million Ukrainians. 1.3 [million] to speak precisely."

DW Conflict Zone - Zitat Mateusz Morawiecki, polnischer Finanzminister

But critics say it's a different story with Muslim refugees. After the Brussels terror attacks in March 2016, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said she wasn't "okay with accepting any number of migrants at all" and criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for having "invited migrants into Europe" in the first place.

 "We do accept lots of Muslims, but not as many as in Germany," Morawiecki said in the interview, "because you are a much richer country, because you didn't have 50 years of communism."

Increase in hate crimes

However, critics say that certain remarks by PiS politicians are xenophobic and are designed to stir up fear and open hatred towards migrants and refugees in public life. PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, for intance, claimed that refugees coming to Europe have brought diseases like cholera and dysentery to the continent.

Before the Pope's visit to Poland last year, the Vatican issued a statement, criticizing what it called an "artificially created fear of Muslims in Poland."

Polen Rassismus FLüchtlinge
Right-wing groups like the "Nationales Slubice" (pictured) have called for protests against refugees in PolandImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

The "Never Again Association," which tracks racist and xenophobic incidents in Poland, told Financial Times they have recorded a seven-fold increase in racist incidents in Poland in 2016.

Asked why the Polish government shut down the main body for preventing racist incidents,  the Council for the Prevention of Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, without providing another body to take its place, Morawiecki said:

"What brings a security to the country is the quality of your police. (…) And given all the recent polls, the level of security in the [Polish] society has increased. People feel more secure here, and in Germany, France and Italy, they feel less secure. Why is this so?"

For Morawiecki, security is the most important issue in Poland – more important than the law.

"Of course the law is not the most important. The life of people and security is," he said. 

Demonstrations a sign of democracy?

Since PiS took power, Poland has seen a flood of protesters hitting the streets. They have voiced their concern on a range of issues, from a crackdown on press freedom, to diminishing gay and abortion rights, to the court crisis.

But Morawiecki doesn't think the increase in protests is a sign that democracy in Poland is failing, quite to the contrary.

"Demonstrations are a sign of democracy working in Poland," he said.

"Everybody can demonstrate whatever they want, apart from Communist and Nazi opinions."

You can watch the full interview on February 15 at 1730 UTC.