At the end of July, the streets of Warsaw and other Polish cities again witnessed a wave of protests against reforms drafted by the incumbent, right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS).
This time, the subject of the dispute was the Polish judicial system, which according to PiS is inefficient and needs changes to improve its functionality. The opposition parties, on the other hand, all believe that the main aim of the reform is to gain control of the judiciary, and therefore consider it a violation of the rule of law. In response to the political fight for the Supreme Court, mass demonstrations took place in several Polish cities, where citizens demanded that President Andrzej Duda veto the new law, which could undermine the independence of the Polish judiciary.
The path to absolute power?
The new bill drafted by the PiS would certainly increase the government’s control over the Supreme Court, which plays a critical role in supervising the work of lower courts in the country, and scrutinises both parliamentary and presidential elections. Under this new law, parliament would appoint 22 out of 25 members of the National Judicial Council. According to the draft bill, the mandate of the existing Supreme Court judges would be terminated and only judges appointed by the government would be able to remain in their jobs.
The draft law, which is often described by the Polish media as a threat to the independence of Supreme Court, has been a subject of criticism among the leaders of European institutions. Frans Timmermans, the Vice President of the European Commission, stated that the Polish crisis is a threat to democratic standards. The U.S. Department of State and the head of the Czech Constitutional Court also expressed concern. Indeed, the only European politician to offer his support for the proposed law in Poland was Viktor Orban, who is known for having disputes with the European establishment.
Since 2015 – when the Law and Justice party won the parliamentary elections – the question of the rule of law and democracy in Poland has worked its way into the international media spotlight and pushed the Poles to demonstrate on the streets. In late 2015, after seizing power in parliament, PiS made its own appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal and refused to implement several court rulings that it viewed as unfavourable. Facing condemnation from the European Commission and the European Parliament, the Polish government continued the reforms despite mass protests in all of the country’s major cities. People poured onto the streets once again in October 2016 to demonstrate against the controversial proposal of new abortion law, which would have banned abortions in almost all circumstances.
How did the protests of July 2017 differ from previous ones?
While all were fairly peaceful and directed against the increasing control of the ruling party over a number of national institutions, a key differentiating factor is the demographic makeup of the protesters who are out in force.
The Committee for the Defence of Democracy, a civic organization that was responsible for the organization of most of the protests triggered by the Constitutional Court crisis of 2015, consisted mostly of people who had previously protested against the communist government in the 1980s. Those who demonstrated against the reformed abortion law were predominantly women.
In contrast, the protests of July 2017, which were aimed at defending the independence of the Polish Supreme Court, consisted mainly of young people: high school and university students, as well as young professionals in their mid-20s. It was a surprise not only for the political elites but also for sociologists that the PiS was the most common choice for Poles aged 18-29 in 2015 elections. Furthermore, in Poland, those younger than 30 are significantly less involved in political issues and tend to refrain from demonstrations and other political gatherings such as rallies.
Increased participation of young people in demonstrations could suggest that society is increasingly concerned with the actions of the current government. However, it is debatable whether this is an effective way of constructing an opposition in the long run.
Although the government ignored the demonstrators and implemented the changes to the Constitutional Court, it withdrew from introducing the new law on abortion under the pressure from society and women’s groups. On July 24, Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two of the three bills that would have threatened judicial independence. Previously considered subordinate to the ruling party, Duda surprised many Poles.
Even though it is hard to say to what extent society’s opposition to the new law influenced the President, latest demonstrations in Poland definitely proved that protests have power, can draw international attention and can serve as a warning for the ruling elite.