January 15, 2024

Legal chaos in Poland as president, new govt clash

Legal chaos in Poland as president, new govt clash

Polish President Andrzej Duda (L) and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (R) shake hands during their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, on January 15, 2024, with a portrait of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski seen in the background. (Photo by Wojtek Radwanski / AFP)

A standoff between Poland’s new pro-European government and its nationalist president, who is allied with the previous populist ruling party, is creating legal chaos and political instability.

During eight years of rule by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, Warsaw was at odds with Brussels over judicial reforms which the government said were needed to combat corruption.

The EU said the reforms undermined democratic freedoms and the rule of law in Poland and had blocked billions of euros in recovery funds.

“The institutions of the rule of law have been violated in Poland with the help of the president and the new government is now trying to re-establish them,” Marcin Zaborowski, an expert from the Globsec think tank, told AFP.

The new pro-European coalition headed up by former EU chief Donald Tusk, which came to power in December, has promised to restore rule of law.

Tusk has accused Duda, whose mandate only runs out in 2025, of being the “author of this constitutional and legal confusion”.

While the head of state’s responsibilities are relatively limited in Poland, Duda still has veto power on legislation which the new government is not in a position to overrule.

Duda is supported by Law and Justice, which is still a powerful force despite its electoral defeat in October as it has influence over institutions such as the Constitutional Court.

Tensions have been rising ever since the new coalition took power and embarked on major reforms of the judiciary and public media.

The refusal of the previous ruling party to accept a series of new nominations to key institutions has created a confusing situation.

“There is a de facto legal dualism,” Zaborowski said.

“Within the Supreme Court, there is one chamber that says the president is right and another that says he is wrong,” he added.

The latest confrontation has been over two former Law and Justice MPs who have been jailed for a case dating back to 2007.

Mariusz Kaminski, a former interior minister, and his colleague Maciej Wasik were arrested last week in the presidential palace where they had been invited by the president.

“This is an unprecedented situation for a democratic country when the president gives refuge to two people who have been convicted by a court,” said Stanislaw Mocek, head of the Collegium Civitas university in Warsaw.

In 2015, the two men were sentenced to prison terms for making false accusations against a leading political figure when they were in charge of the anti-corruption agency.

They then both received a presidential pardon, which was questioned by the Supreme Court.

The Constitutional Court has since rejected the verdict of the Supreme Court, authorising the president to say his pardon was still in force.

– ‘Fuel to the fire’ –

The two were elected to parliament in October but have since had their convictions confirmed on appeal and their parliamentary mandates cancelled.

Now under arrest, they have begun hunger strikes and Duda has launched another pardon procedure.

“The president is adding fuel to the fire, while claiming that he wants to find a compromise. Only one compromise is possible — the rule of law,” Mocek said.

In the furore that ensued, Duda has spoken out against the “terror of the so-called rule of law” while Tusk has called it “a basic principle” that needs to be followed.

The stage is set for a prolonged confrontation that observers say could well last until the end of Duda’s mandate.

“The new government has already shown that it will not pull back from reforms while the president has shown that he will not hesitate to veto them,” Zaborowski said.