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Poland's judiciary conundrum: Where is the resistance?

New judiciary reforms in Poland will undermine the rule of law. Why is the country moving towards a new dictatorship, and where is the resistance? DW's Jan Pallokat reports from Warsaw.

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Poland: Fear for democracy rises

Donald Trump seemed to be irritated for a few minutes. During his much-applauded Warsaw speech, he praised Lech Walesa, who was also present. This mention was met by boos from supporters of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). The former Polish president is probably one of the few Poles to be also famous in the United States and throughout the world. He is the epitome of the Polish rebelliousness that Trump celebrated in his speech. No one likely told Trump why Poles would boo this man. The US president briefly hesitated as though he wanted to say something and then continued praising the Polish spirit of resistance.

People who know Poland well also ask themselves what has happened to this spirit. Why is the land of Solidarnosc, the famous labor union whose persistence contributed to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, now yielding to a one-party power? People are demonstrating every day, not just in Warsaw or Poznan, but also in small towns. The number of protesters peaked on Thursday evening. Why were the laws passed in the last session of the Sejm, Poland's lower house of parliament? Why did this happen at five minutes past midnight?

Jaroslaw Kaczynski (imago/Eastnews)

Kaczynski has slammed his opponents in parliament

If you ask people who are not protesting, you get a wide range of answers. Dorota, a doctor from Katowice who wished to remain anonymous, predicts great dangers for the country but she is not taking to the streets. "There's no use anyway," she says with a wave of the hand. "Besides, I am scared. I am scared that I will end up on some list and then have problems at work." A growing number of people fear reprisals for rebellious behavior - like penalties or legal prosecution - under the new justice system that will be controlled by PiS politicians. "We have a foster child. We have to obey the law," explains Magdalena, a translator. "Otherwise they will take our child away from us."

Many reasons for anger

Most people one meets in Poland have turned their backs on politics, the media and public discussions. The contingent worker Marek, for example, says he has lost all faith in "the media" because they only purse their own interests. "It is all a big show," says the man in his late 30s. He relies on different internet sources to form his opinion. In the judicial reforms debate, he does not trust either side.

Political disenchantment has taken its toll on much of Polish society. Marcelina Zawisza, the leader of the young left-wing party Razem (Polish for "together), wants to break down what many people are upset about: the hardened blocs in politics. "We have been waiting for problems to be solved for 25 years," she complains. Razem does not base its support for projects off of which political faction they come from. This new style of politics should be going over well with people, but in the polls the party continues to struggle below the five percent support threshold needed to enter parliament. "It is difficult to build trust," admits Zawisza. Social trust in Poland is generally low. And faith in politics is practically non-existent.

Poland's parliament debating justice reform (Reuters/Agencja Gazeta/S. Kaminski)

The PiS pushed the judicial reforms through Poland's parliament

The judiciary has struggled to build a sense of trust with the Polish public ever since the Fall of the Iron Curtain. There is a lack of significant court rulings and distinctive checks and balances for politicians that could have made the value of an assertive judiciary clearer. Many people wished the courts had cracked down harder on former communist leaders and officials. But Magdalena, the translator, does not believe PiS' claims that the judiciary is still controlled by post-communist forces. "The problem is the extremely bad experiences with the judiciary, even in minor cases." Trials drag on endlessly; arrogance is prevalent, she says, and she knows many people who have gone through this. "People are really angry."

At the same time, the 10 - perhaps 20 - percent of angry citizens who sweepingly condemn judges and are glad that "those up there" are getting what they deserve are probably the most vocal citizens and faithful to their cause. PiS has a very loyal base, says Jacek Kucharczyk, a political scientist in Warsaw - unlike the various opposition groups, each of which is fighting to prove its credibility. "In the last elections, 18.6 percent voted for PiS," recalls Kucharczyk. "But that was enough because the majority of the moderate voters were demobilized."

Protests against judicial reform in Poland (Reuters/Agencja Gazeta/A. Grzybowska)

Were the protests against judicial reforms too little too late?

Rediscovering the average Joe

Populist parties like PiS focused on this mood of protest and fueled it. PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski made a new discovery after his term as prime minister: the average Joe. PiS does not only represent the right but also the left. At the beginning of the week, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo once again explained that the judiciary had to be returned "to the people" because "Poles expect us to support the weak and not to stand by the rich." PiS has successfully established itself as the party of average citizens by lowering the retirement age and raising child benefits.

Many Poles do not buy into Kaczynski's apparent interest in average people. But very few have serious objections to his policies. Perhaps if the recent wave of protests reaches a critical mass, more and more people will realize what is at stake.

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