Poland – The shadow of the Smolensk air crash over Polish politics

The crash of the presidential aircraft in Smolensk on 10 April 2010, killing not only president Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice – PiS) and his wife but also 94 other high-ranking politicians and military officials as well as the crew, is arguably the most significant moment in Polish politics during the last 25 years. PiS, controlling presidency and government since 2015, has recently ramped up its efforts to promote their questionable version of the events. Seven years on, the crash thus still casts its shadow over Polish politics and pose interesting questions regarding the developments in government and presidency.

President Duda lays wreaths at the Smolensk memorial and victims’ graves – 10 April 2017 | photo via prezydent.pl

The news of the crash in Smolensk (Russia), from where the president and other passengers were meant to drive to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD in 1943, put Poland in a state of shock – surpassing even the mourning in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Contrary to the passing of the ‘Polish Pope’, however, the event divided Polish society more strongly any other issue in modern Polish history. Criticism was mainly levelled at the Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk (Civic Platform – PO) and their handling of the investigation. In particular, the conservative and traditionally russophobe part of the electorate (which moreover strongly identified with the views of PiS), were discontent with the fact that Russia was handling the primary investigation, although this was dictated by international law. This was amplified by problems reported with the identification of victims (leading to exhumations even years later) and their transport to Poland. Already then PiS politicians including Jaroslaw Kaczynski – party leader and identical twin brother of the president – openly accused Donald Tusk and his government of conspiring with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to kill the president.

After Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost the subsequent presidential election against the government candidate and parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, controversy centred on the various reports on the crash. Prosecutors concluded that the plane had descended despite adverse weather conditions and too early, colliding with a tree and breaking up. An impromptu parliamentary commission led by PiS politician Antoni Macierewicz on the other hand produced a report that claimed that the plane had been brought down by explosions, basing its conclusion on statements by several self-proclaimed experts and containing several contradictions and inconsistencies. Throughout the years following the crash, PiS also supported vigils, a grass roots movements and other initiatives such as the yearly ‘Smolensk Conference’ (whose website has a section dedicated to exposing alleged misinformation and cover-ups by the Tusk government).

The issue of Smolensk remains highly divisive, yet PiS has interpreted its victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections – preceded by the election of its candidate Andrzej Duda as president only months earlier – as a mandate to not only execute a number of highly controversial and arguably unconstitutional measures, but also to considerably increase its efforts to push their own version of the events nationally and internationally. Although formally these are promoted by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and members of her government as well as president Duda, it is clear that they are coordinated by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (who does not hold any government office himself and is not even leader of the parliamentary party). At first, the new government disabled the official website about the investigation. Later, it started to promote the widely criticised film ‘Smolensk’ which is based on the discredited explosion/assassination theory; as even diplomatic posts were used to promote it internationally, some cinemas rented for the purpose of viewings cancelled the booking as the film was seen as government propaganda. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself has stated that the film showed ‘the truth’. In November 2016, the government opened a new investigation which included the exhumation of the president and several other victims against protests by the majority of relatives. Two weeks ago, the Polish prosecution – which like the state media has been restructured to reflect the views of the ruling party – announced they would charge two Russian air traffic controllers with deliberately causing the crash.

The activities of the Polish government regarding the Smolensk air crash are part of a wider strategy and legitimising narrative to consolidate power. Nevertheless, they have never been able to shake the appearance of a personal Vendetta by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Therefore, and given that a majority of the Polish population is now in favour of laying the matter to rest (only ~25% consistently report to rather trust any of the conspiracy theories), it is puzzling why the government would still pursue it. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s personal interest is surely a driving factor, yet he is also well aware that he cannot win elections with the topic (admittedly, the government has a introduced and put more effort into a number of other policies more clearly directed at gaining popular support). However, it may well be that the recent shift from the explosion-theory to accusing Russian air traffic controllers is part of a larger plan to rather mobilise anti-Russian sentiment in the Polish population (which is more promising). Another interesting point is the fact that Andrzej Duda as president, albeit supporting the PiS narrative, has not taken a more prominent role. At first glance, this may appear as a strategy to appeal to a wider electorate in the next presidential election than just PiS’ core electorate. Yet as he has so far never openly criticised the government or any of its policies, this seems unlikely. Rather, the Polish presidency under Duda (and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as the grey eminence) eerily beings to resemble developments observed in Hungary, i.e. towards a presidency as mere lapdog of the ruling party rather than an effective check-and-balance. While the once again poses the question, what use the institution then fulfils for the party in power, it is a parallel in two increasingly illiberal democracies that requires further investigation.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 19 April 2017

Poland – Judicial independence in jeopardy? President Duda refuses appointment of ten further judges

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 5 July 2016

The controversy over Poland’s constitutional court triggered by president Duda’s refusal to appoint judges nominated by the outgoing Sejm and passage of legislation to legitimise his and the new government’s behaviour has so far dominated the presidency of Andrzej Duda (for a summary see Aleks Szczerbiak’s post here). Now, Duda is once again in the line of fire following his refusal to appoint ten out of thirteen judges from lower-level courts to higher positions. Thus, although the individuals put forward by the National Judiciary Council (a committee formed of 17 judges, the minister of judges and 5 political nominees) are far from uncontroversial, the relatively unchecked power of the president in the area of judicial appointments and the government’s plan to reform the judiciary continue to be the most prominent battlefields of Polish politics today.

President Duda appoints 'his' nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

President Duda appoints ‘his’ nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

The Polish constitution, like so many others (irrespective of this being intentional or not), remains vague on a number of presidential duties and prerogatives. Article 179 of the 1997 Constitution thus states with regard to appointments of judges that “judges are appointed by the president on the suggestion of the National Judiciary Council” but gives no further instructions on the procedures or an eventual right of the president to refuse such nominations. Constitutional scholars widely agree that presidents may refuse the nomination of any candidate for public office (irrespective of judge, professor or prime minister) on the grounds of a person’s lack of formal and legally required qualification or reasonable doubts about their loyalty to the constitution. While this generally follows from presidents’ inaugural oath to uphold and protect the constitution, the rejection of nominees for political or personal reasons arguably has no legal basis.

Duda’s refusal to appoint the judges met with particular opposition due to the lack of justification for his decision. Before being proposed candidates for judicial promotions are vetted by the National Judicial Council; if their application is denied they can appeal the decision in court. An additional vetting by the president beyond formalities thus appears not only unreasonable but also adds the complication that there is no prescribed legal way to appeal his refusal to appoint a nominee. Many conflicts over constitutional clauses along the lines of “the president appoints/signs/etc” fall into the category of conflict between two constitutional organs and can be adjudicated by the constitutional court by the ways of a standard procedure. Yet as both the National Judicial Council and the rejected nominees lack ‘organ quality’, neither of them can easily challenge the president’s decision. The latter became clear in the only other case judicial promotions at lower courts were refused by the president. In 2007 Duda’s pre-predecessor Lech Kaczynski (the deceased twin-brother of current Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski), created a precedent for Duda’s actions by declining to appoint nine judges. The nominees’ constitutional complaints were eventually rejected after four years of deliberations as the justification was that the implementation of administrative law by the president does not fall within the remit of the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Administrative Court likewise rejected the complaints and subsequent further constitutional complaints were also rejected so that the case now (still) lies with the European Court of Human Rights (for a longer summary, see the report of the Helsinki foundation here).

Newspapers have speculated on the reasons which led the president to reject the nominations. In fact, some of the nominees are far from uncontroversial. One judge was prominently accused of bribery, another judge controversially dismissed a collective law suit against the financial services provider Amber Gold (which was liquidated following the discovery that is was based on a pyramid scheme), and a third was involved in the widely discussed case of restricting the “parents’ rights” of a couple accused of violence against their children. In addition, one judge was widely criticised for continuously extending the arrest of a football fan for alleged drug-dealing, yet without any verdict being issued over the course of three and a half years. Last, one of the judges whose promotion was denied judged on a case in which Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski leader sued fellow legislator Janusz Palikot (then Civic Platform, later founder of ‘Palikot’s Movement’) for insulting him.

None of the above-mentioned controversies would generally justify denial of appointment or other presidential intervention. Thus, it is more likely that they are part of the Law and Justice government’s plan to reform and mould the judiciary in their image. Given that Duda is generally seen as little more than a vicarious agent of Law and Justice leader and Polish politics’ grey eminence (he does not hold any government office) Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it is not unreasonable to assume that the president is now helping to fulfil that plan (while at the same time extending the powers of his office). In a recent proposal made by the government (which was already widely criticised by the Human Rights Ombudsman and NGOs), the National Judiciary Council would have to propose two candidates per vacancy thus considerably increasing the president’s power over judicial nominations. This, together with the conflict over the constitutional court and the government’s decision to once again merge the position of general prosecutor with the minister of justice (the positions were separated by the predecessor government in 2008 and unsuccessfully vetoed by president Lech Kaczynski) highlights the great importance that Law and Justice attaches to judicial reform. Nevertheless, it also shows that judicial independence in Poland might increasingly come under threat – not only, but partially due to president Duda’s activism.

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See also my blog posts on similar conflicts over judicial appointment in Slovakia:
Slovakia – Continuing a legacy? President Kiska’s first 3 months in office and the battleground of judicial appointments
Slovakia – One year on, conflict over president’s refusal to appoint judges remains unsolved

Voice of dissent or singing in tune? Visegrad presidents and the refugee crisis

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 1 October 2015

The refugee crisis facing Europe continues to make headlines as more and more refugees arrive at the South-Eastern borders of the EU and European leaders still battle to find a common position, let alone a solution to this problem. This is not my first post about presidents and the refugee crisis, having written about Austrian president Fischer’s intervention in a coalition conflict over managing influx of refugees into the country from Hungary two months ago. In recent months, the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán has been particularly vocal in rejecting further acceptance of refugees and recently even closed its borders with neighbouring Serbia (having already built a fence along the border). Orban was joined by heads of governments in other Central and East European states, particularly other members of the Visegrad Group (consisting of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) in a refusal to agree on an EU-wide quota system. While the countries’ Prime Ministers have naturally been the dominant actors with regard to the crisis so far, it is worth looking at presidents’ reactions as well given their that their position – irrespective of constitutional powers – also entails the role of moral authority. In this post I contrast and compare the public statements and positions of presidents with regards to the refugee crisis.

visegrad presidents prespow

Presidents of the Visegrad group countries (from left to right): Janos Áder (Hungary), Andrej Kiska (Slovakia), Milos Zeman (Czech Republic) and Andrzej Duda (Poland).

In stark contrast to Prime Minister Orbán, Hungarian president Janos Áder has by far been the least active with regards to the refugee crisis. Apart from stressing that Hungary would only accept refugees fleeing from war and persecution but not those migrating in search of work as well as a joint statement with Slovenian counterpart Borut Pahor calling for a – rather undefined – European solution, Áder has been relatively silent on the issue in public appearances. While addressing the issue once again during his speech at the UN general assembly in September where he called for global refugee quotas that would involve the US, Canada, Australia and China, his visit was dominated by the news that UN general secretary Ban Ki Moon expressed concern about the Hungarian response to the crisis in a meeting with him. Overall, Áder has aligned himself with the government and has given no indication that he disagrees with its policies. Given that Áder belongs to the governing Fidesz party and is a long-time ally of Viktor Orbán, this should not be surprising – Áder has generally not publicly shown himself to be an active check-and-balance on the government (see also my post ‘Hungary – Presidency lost?!‘ from last year). While a significant portion of public opinion disagrees with the government’s policies, they are not part of Fidesz’ electorate. Furthermore, being indirectly elected Áder relies on the parliamentary majority for re-election in 2017 – becoming too active not supporting the government in the current situation would mar his chances to remain president.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his government, similarly to his Hungarian counterpart, has been very vocal in opposing a European quota system. Although Slovakia temporarily accepted 500 refugees to ease the pressure for neighbouring Austria and refusing to accept a significant number of refugees. One government spokesperson even declared that the countrywould only accept Christian refugees as Muslims ‘would not feel at home’ given the lack of mosques or local Muslim population. In contrast to other Visegrad presidents, Slovak president Andrej Kiska’s position comes much closer to that of Germany and some other Western European countries. Kiska expressed support for temporary quotas to distribute the burden among EU member states and stressed the EU’s moral duty to help the refugees. Although his call for doing more about the causes of the crisis in the countries of origin chimed with the argumentation of other Visegrad leaders, he notably refrained from making any reference to cultural issues/religion and stressed that more needed to be done to gain the trust of the Slovak population and make them understand why it is necessary to help. Given that Kiska is popularly elected and not affiliated with any political party (although he can generally be classified as belonging to the centre-right), he has more leeway in contradicting the government than Janos Áder. Nevertheless, national elections are due to be held next spring and taking a position that is ‘too Western’ might put him at odds with some of the centre-right parties on whose support he is planning to build in the next legislature.

The position of the Czech government on the refugee crisis deviates only minimally from that of its Visegrad partners. In early September, Prague hosted the meeting of Visegrad Prime Ministers which resulted in a joint statement for “preserving the voluntary nature of EU solidarity measures” and stating that “any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable”. Yet here it is the president whose statements have dominated the headlines. Milos Zeman, who once said Islam was the “enemy of euro-Atlantic civilisation” and likened it to Nazi ideology, recently described the refugee crisis as a “tsunami that was going to kill him“. In his speech at the UN general assembly, he avoided mentioning the topic of refugees directly, yet focussed on the need to military strikes against ISIS. Although Zeman’s comment do not put the Czech Republic in the best light internationally (an issue the government has faced since taking office), the government currently has little motivation to oppose them. Apart from the fact that public opinion in the Czech Republic is on their (and Zeman’s) side, individual members of the government have – at least indirectly – provided similarly controversial commentary on the crisis.

Poland is in a special situation among the Visegrad states as is features not only the most recently elected president but also a government facing re-election in just a month’s time. Although the government has so far shown the same position as other Visegrad members, the governing Civic Platform generally pro-European stance during its time in office and close cooperation with Germany might now – in addition to poor approval ratings which will see it losing the upcoming election regardless – be another factor contributing to its demise. President Andrzej Duda who is affiliated with the right-wing and EU-sceptic ‘Law and Justice’ party which is currently set for electoral victory has so far not produced the best track record in foreign policy. However, by speaking out against the quota system and blasting the “EU dictate of the strong” he has hit a nerve among the Polish electorate and found another way to play a strong role in the election campaign. Furthermore, Duda’s argument against accepting more refugees coming to the EU from its south-Eastern borders has been that Poland was already accepting refugees fleeing the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This points the traditionally Russo-sceptic Polish electorate (even more so the core electorate of Law and Justice where many still blame Russia for the tragic death of president Lech Kaczynski in the Smolensk air crash) to another point where he and his party can score points.

In conclusion, while the governments of the Visegrad states stand relatively united with regards to the refugee crisis, presidents exhibit some more variation. Nevertheless, apart from Slovak president Andrej Kiska they are all basically still singing to the same tune to play to public opinion and appeasing their electorate (be it the public or parliament) or that of their parties.

Poland – As referendum is thwarted by low turnout, new president tries to shake up rules of the game

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 8 September 2015

On Sunday, 6 September, poles were called to urns the for the second time this year to vote in a referendum on three largely connected questions. The only common denominator was that the referendum itself was a remnant of the presidential campaign during which incumbent (and now ex-president) Bronislaw Komorowski – shocked by only placing second in the first round and the sizeable vote share won by anti-establishment candidate Pawel Kukiz – tried to sway voters by promising them to decide on said three questions. Just as Komorowski’s bid for re-election failed, so did the referendum as only 7.80% voters made their way to the polling stations. At the same time, Komorowski’s successor Andrzej Duda is trying to shake up the political scene in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in October which – after the president – might also remove the government of the Civic Platform from power.

Results of the Polish referendum on 6 September 2015
Question % Yes
Are you in favour of the introduction of single-member districts in elections to the Sejm? 78.75
Are you in favour of maintaining the current system of state funding of political parties? 17.37
Are you in favour of introducing the principle that uncertainty about the interpretation of the tax code should be resolved in favour of the taxpayer? 94.51
Turnout: 7.80% (outcome invalid/not binding; threshold 50%)

In the referendum, voters were asked whether they favoured the introduction of single-member electoral districts for parliamentary elections to the Sejm, the lower and politically significant chamber of the Polish parliament (Poland currently uses preferential voting in multi-member districts; elections to the Senate are already being held SMDs). The reason for this question is the fact that one of Pawel Kukiz’ (admittedly few) campaign promises was the introduction of such a system – officially to increase accountability of deputies towards voters. The two other questions were likely aimed to pander to the general public. The public financing of political parties has long been a subject of debate in Poland. The Civic Platform – Komorowski’s former party – even did not formally register as a party for several years, thus making them unable to claim state subsidies, to demonstrate their opposition to state financing of political parties. The last question referred to the interpretation of tax law in favour of the taxpayer; however, the Sejm already passed a bill to that effect on 10th July (i.e. after the referendum was already scheduled and Komorowski lost the run-off to Duda) so that it’s only function now would have been to remind citizens of the government’s ‘good deeds’.

The low turnout which eventually rendered the outcome of the referendum invalid had been expected by many analysts and politicians. The outcome also stresses the fact that Poles – while voting for Pawel Kukiz in surprising numbers (20%, the best result of a third-placed candidate in Polish presidential elections) – did not actually want the introduction of SMDs. Kukiz political movement ‘Kukiz 15’, once predicted to win as many as 20% of votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections has recently dropped to just 6% in the polls and the results of the referendum might well have delivered its death sentence. Interestingly, the fourth-placed presidential candidate, far-right MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke (4.40%), and his newly formed party KORWIN have also failed to gain significant support – the latter is currently predicted to receive between 2-3% of the vote. Last, fifth-placed candidate Magdalena Ogórek, rumored to aim for a safe list place rather than the presidency during the course of the campaign, has disappeared from the political scene and will not run for parliament.

While other parties might struggle to enter parliament or will at least experience significant losses, ‘Law and Justice’ (PiS) the party of president Duda has been leading in the polls for months. Yet Duda’s first month since taking office has not been without controversy. During his first official foreign visit to Germany, Duda tried to propose a new format for talks about the Ukrainian crisis which was quickly panned and its necessity questioned by all parties involved. While the Polish has a formal role in foreign and defence policy, his initiative was also generally negatively received as overstepping established boundaries between governmental and presidential responsibilities. It later emerged that Duda had also told his German counterpart Joachim Gauck that he did not consider Poland to be a state where everybody was treated equally, triggering another wave of criticism. Duda’s latest gaffe – although it is likely that this was planned in order to appeal to the PiS core electorate – was when he refused to shake hands with Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz during the commemorations of the outbreak of the WW II in Danzig.

Up to this point, Duda has is far from being a non-partisan president but his actions are almost reminiscent of PiS’ last president Lech Kaczynski and the 2005-2007 period when PiS-led governments led to Poland’s increasing isolation in foreign affairs and the questionable use of administrative resources and the judicial system against political enemies. Most recently Duda’s request to the Polish Senate for another referendum – to be held on the same date as the parliamentary elections and covering question ranging from the state retirement age and the management of state forests to the school starting age and thus mostly relating to changes introduced by the current government – was still denied. Nevertheless, the fact that letters still sent to his predecessor were sent back with a stamp ‘This person does not work in the Presidential Office’ rather than answered, shows how quickly Duda and his people have changed the character of the institution.[1] Duda has already declared that he will campaign on behalf of his party in the forefront of the parliamentary elections in late October, but (as always in Polish politics) it is too early to tell how his activism will impact on its electoral fortunes. On the one hand, PiS might benefit form the coattail effect; on the other hand, the Civic Platforms recently announced decision to co-opt several well-known conservative and left-wing politicians on its list might still sway voters in the other direction.

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[1] Interestingly however, the head of the important legal and institutional department and the presidential office’s longest serving employee, Andrzej Dorsz, who under Lech Kaczynski had still been banished to head the archive, has so far remained in his place.