Poland’s democratic transition is proving to be turbulent and challenging.
The liberal center-right government led by Donald Tusk took office on December 13, 2023, after eight years of rule by “Law and Justice,” a nationalist right-wing party. The new government’s reform efforts face the kind of domestic opposition that may pose the biggest threat to democracy in Poland since its initial fluorescence in the 1980s.
The prior government had passed anti-liberal laws, including against the LGBTQ community, and enforced a radical anti-abortion policy. It undermined the legal establishment, the freedom of the press, and the separation of powers in government. These actions brought about increasingly poor relations with the EU generally and with Germany specifically, to the point of imposition of sanctions by Brussels which blocked the transfer of EU funds to Warsaw.
Unsurprisingly, the new liberal government’s attempts to reconstruct Polish democracy and the rule of law are proving to be extremely difficult. Prime Minister Tusk, fully aware of the scope of the challenge, even compared his mission to “wading in the muck of the Augean Stables.”
A former president of the European Council and well connected in Brussels, Tusk is determined to prove to the EU institutions that he is moving ahead with his plans to restore democracy. He hopes to persuade them, among other things, to release EU budgetary support of 60 billion US dollars, badly needed to advance his social and economic policies.
Tusk’s reform progress has been slow. The most salient center of resistance is President Andrzej Duda, who has the constitutional power to veto legislation. Duda is scheduled to remain in office until August 2025 and has already announced that he would veto all legislation put forward by Tusk’s coalition government. To impeach Duda would require a legislative supermajority which Tusk’s coalition does not command.
Another center of resistance is the judicial system. In its eight years in power, Law and Justice appointed some 2,300 judges, a quarter of the overall number. They hold the Constitutional Court, most of the seats in the Supreme Court, as well as the National Judiciary Council, which appoints judges. Tusk’s minister of justice dismissed the Prosecutor General and seeks to remove other prosecutors who refuse to take instructions from the new government.
A third problem for Tusk’s coalition is the government-owned media, which has been turned into a propaganda tool to besmirch Tusk’s party (and now his government). The previous government created in 2016 the National Media Board to appoint executives for the national radio and TV channels. Nearly 200 journalists were fired or forced to resign for refusing to toe the line. It now falls to the Tusk government to return the government media to a more balanced line, and it will meet with serious political and judicial challenges in doing so.
The specific trigger for a constitutional crisis occurred in January with the arrest of two Law and Justice members of parliament – former minister of the interior Mariusz Kaminski and his aide Maciej Wasik. They sought refuge in the presidential palace with Duda’s permission. In 2015, both had been tried and sentenced to three and a half years in jail, for abuse of power during their tenure in the Office for Eradicating Corruption. President Duda had pardoned them in 2015 but in 2017 the Polish Supreme Court annulled his decision, and in December 2023 a court sentenced them again to two years in prison.
Subsequently, the Constitutional Court, in which justices friendly to Law and Justice predominate, ruled against the new sentence, and declared that the pardon given the two in 2015 was still valid. Kaminski announced that he had begun a hunger strike since his detention, and warned that Poland is sliding towards a dictatorship: he and his colleague, he said, are political prisoners.
President Duda announced that he was “deeply shocked” by the arrest of the two lawmakers, whom he still regards as pardoned. Meanwhile, the Marshal of the Sejm (parliamentary speaker) from the present governing coalition ordered their removal from parliament so that they can serve their jail terms. He also met with President Duda and warned him against precipitating a serious constitutional crisis, but Duda remains unconvinced,
As the crisis deepened, leaders of Law and Justice presented their party as victims of repression, that for the first time since the Communist era citizens were being put on trial for his or her political opinions. President Duda then announced again his decision to pardon Kaminski and Wasik, raising the stakes in the constitutional battle.
All restraints seemed to be cast to the wind. The leader of the opposition, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, at a party rally in Lublin on January 28, compared Tusk to Hitler. With the constitution no longer being upheld, he warned, “other methods” (which he did not specify) can be used to bring about a change of government.
In response, some members of Tusk’s coalition compared Kaczynski to President Trump on January 6, 2021. “If anybody really has a coup in mind, it’s probably Kaczynski,” Tusk said, and described his rival as “a man increasingly detached from reality, and on a scale that looks grotesque although with some dangerous tendencies.”
Further clashes lie ahead. Even before he was sworn in, Prime Minister Tusk initiated the creation of a number of parliamentary commissions of inquiry into apparent breaches of law and procedure by the previous government, including the alleged use of spyware installed in mobile phones to monitor political rivals.
Poland is not the only European country facing a test of its commitment to democratic norms. In Hungary, civil society and the legal profession were not able to resist anti-democratic and illiberal actions of the Victor Orban government. As a result, Hungary today is not considered democratic by the European Parliament. Poland, on the other hand, continues to be democratic, even while key positions in the executive branch – the presidency – and in the judiciary are held by the non-democratic camp.
Poland offers hope that autocratic tendencies can be defeated in elections. But after elections, the hard work of sustaining democracy in Poland is in the hands of the new government supported by civil society organizations and individuals.