Warsaw—It is natural for parliaments to pass new legislation when new governments take power. But when a new government first eviscerates the Constitutional Court, and then passes a flurry of system-transforming legislation at breakneck speed—and during the holidays, when public attention is elsewhere—then it’s fair to talk about regime change and not a normal transfer of power.
Since taking office in Poland in mid-November, the Law and Justice party (PiS, to use its Polish acronym), led by Jarosław Kaczyński, has pursued an uncompromising revolution from above that abandons the institutions of liberal democracy and any ethos of compromise in favor of an unchallenged monopoly of power. The new authorities call for a “strong” state instead of a “lawful” state, to be guided by “Polish values” and “Christian traditions,” deeply hostile to any political opposition, and imagining itself in a historic battle with a Europe committed to “totalitarian” ideas like gender equality and resettling refugees.
The pace of legislation has been dizzying to the extreme. On December 29-30 alone, parliament passed two major system-transforming laws—repoliticizing the civil service and establishing party control of public media—while simultaneously passing two other laws of national significance (turning back the starting school age from 6 to 7, and levying a bank tax), and introducing a new intelligence bill expanding Internet surveillance powers. “We’re not even able to read the bills we have to vote on,” an opposition deputy complained.
This burst of legislative shock-work came only a day after the president signed into law draconian restrictions on the Constitutional Court, stripping it of its ability (and obligation) to assess the constitutionality of this legislative agenda. PiS needs an eviscerated court because it lacks the votes to change the Constitution but pursues policies that violate it.
Because the lethal combination of cynicism, hypocrisy, and determination long standard in Kaczyński’s arsenal reveals itself so fully in the battle over the Constitutional Court, a few details are in order. Soon before leaving office, the previous government appointed three justices to vacant positions on the Court, and then broke convention by nominating two more to positions set to expire later. PiS challenged this move to the Constitutional Court. But then it won the elections, and instead of just redressing the transgression by rescinding the two nominations, it annulled the selection of all five justices. When the Court then ruled as PiS had originally hoped (the president was required to swear in only the three justices, and the new parliament could elect two new ones), PiS balked. It didn’t care what the Court had ruled. It insisted that its own ruling was the constitutional one, and that all five justices were illegal. In a matter of hours it then chose, and had the president swear in, five new ones instead.