Welcome to Gazeta Wyborcza’s weekly newsletter on Polish politics,
Ten days after the parliamentary elections, the ruling Law and Justice party is refusing to come to terms with the ballot results in the Senate, where opposition secured a 51 to 49 majority.
While the upper chamber of the parliament does not hold significant power within the Polish constitutional framework, and in particular has no means of blocking the Sejm majority from adopting laws, the loss of Senate marks a dent in the PiS’ ambition to have full control over all democratic institutions in the country.
At first, the governing party engaged in efforts to persuade some of the opposition-supported senators to switch camps. One particularly brazen quid pro quo saw an unnamed high ranked member of the ruling camp promise a post of the Minister of Health to a conservative leaning PO-backed senator who refused the offer and made it public. As of now, no new senator decided to shift his or her allegiances.
This led PiS to file a number of cases claiming that six senate races were potentially decided by electoral fraud at the expense of the government-backed candidates. While the ruling camp has yet to present any proof of electoral irregularities, the cases will be heard in front of a recently established chamber of the Supreme Court whose benches were fully filled with judges favourable to the government.
There are serious questions concerning the legality of the new chamber, as it is fully composed of appointees recommended by the reformed National Council of the Judiciary, operating based on a law which is currently examined by the Court of Justice of the EU. While the ruling will be issued in November, the opinion of the Advocate General of the CJEU pronounced the legislation as being in violation of the principles of the EU law. There are no reasons to believe that the court will go against the AG’s recommendations.
Meanwhile, during the last sitting of the expiring parliamentary term, the governing party supported a bill that makes sexual education synonymous with incitement to pedophilia and qualifies it as a criminal offence. Despite widespread protests, project will continue to be discussed by the incoming parliament in November.
This marks yet another case of the ruling camp siding with conservative extremists on issues related to reproductive justice, sexual minorities protection and women’s rights. The appalling track-record of the Law and Justice party with respect to the latter is covered by this week’s op-ed by Aleksandra Klich-Siewiorek, the deputy editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza.
Let us stay united, for there is no freedom without solidarity!
The Law and Justice party filed electoral c omplaints in six out of the hundred Senate districts with accusations of electoral irregularities and a demand for vote recount. All six districts concern tight electoral races in which the ruling camp candidates lost to the opposition.
In itself, filing for recount in close elections might appear mundane in many democratic systems. However, the Polish law is relatively strict on the matter - such a complaint is only actionable if there are well-justified suspicions that electoral fraud took place. Unlike in the U.S., a close margin not only does not entail an automatic recount, but in fact is not sufficient to warrant one.
The opposition sees the decision by the ruling camp as a potential coup. The filing of complaint came only after a week during which the governing party did not make statements on its suspicions concerning any irregularities, but instead attempted to persuade several opposition senators to switch sides, promising one of them the dossier of the Minister of Health in exchange. After that strategy failed, PiS turned to the legal route, questioning the validity of several races.
The alarm raised by the opposition is mostly due to the fact that the complaints will be adjudicated by a newly established Supreme Court chamber, created by the ruling camp during the previous term. It is composed of judges recommended by the new National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), itself full of appointees pushed through by the Law and Justice majority against the protests of the legal profession, the Supreme Administrative Court of Poland , international legal bodies and the European Commission.
The Court of Justice of the EU will issue its ruling on KRS’ independence in November. It is very likely that it will call its reform to be in breach of the EU law, which should make void all the appointments made by the KRS, including to the new Supreme Court chamber in charge of adjudicating the electoral results.
Grzegorz Schetyna, the chairman of the largest opposition party PO, issued a plea to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which sends electoral observers and monitors electoral irregularities, to pay special attention to the court proceedings initiated by the governing party.
The opposition also filed electoral complaints concerning three Senate districts . Unlike in the case of the six districts appealed by PiS, in which the only argument by the ruling camp is the small margin of victory and the fact that it is lower than the number of invalid votes, the opposition cases appear better justified.
In one district, an independent leftist Senate candidate name had the party logo of the Left bloc, which scored 12,5% in the Sejm elections, even though he was not supported by the committee, which did not run a contestant against the main opposition candidate. He received more than 25 thousand votes in an election lost by the opposition candidate by less than 2 thousand votes. In two other districts there were equally obvious irregularities.
The court has up to 90 days to adjudicate the complaints. Until then, the elected senators are considered to be legally elected and have full rights to participate in all Senate activities.
Last Tuesday, two days after Poles chose their new MP-elects, the Polish Sejm reconvened to finish the last parliamentary session of the outgoing term.
The decision made by the governing party in September to continue the proceedings of the previous parliamentary term after the new MPs were elected but before their swearing in was seen as very controversial. The opposition feared that its objective is to allow the Law and Justice party to push through bills which it did not want to publicly discuss before the election out of fear that they would negatively impact its popularity among the voters.
Those concerns appear to be well founded. One of the items added to the parliamentary agenda was a bill entitled „Stop pedophilia” , drafted by a traditionalist Catholic anti-abortion fundation „Pro - Right to Live”. The bill’s main point is that sexual education should be treated as endorsing pedophilia, which is a criminal offense .
As per the proposal, Polish penal code would be expanded to include sexual education, since „sexual education, contraceptives, preventing STDs, equality, tolerance, diversity, homophobia, gender identity” are all part of „themes characterized by the risk of sexual depravity” to which children are also exposed during „extracurricular activities run by schools, such as visits to the cinema and theaters, or meetings with NGOs which specialize in the so-called sexual education”. Based on the bill’s provisions, such activities are synonymous with „inciting children to engage in sexual activities”, which should be punishable by up to three years of prison.
Despite a flurry of protests taking place in major Polish cities, the bill was not rejected during the first reading , as MPs from the Law and Justice party and the far-right groupings voted in favour of proceeding it to a parliamentary committee for further work. Since the project was a citizens’ initiative, it will remain on the agenda during the incoming parliamentary term.
The right-wing government which has ruled Poland for the last four years is steadily reducing women’s rights and their freedoms.
Its first move was to limit access to contraceptives, in particular the day-after pills, which are now available at a steep price and with prescription only. The pharmacists can also refuse to sell any contraceptives based on the conscience clause.
It becomes increasingly difficult to find a doctor who would agree to perform a legal abortion, even though the conditions for one are already very restrictive; it is allowed when pregnancy endangers the mother’s life, when grave fetal anomaly was diagnosed, or when pregnancy results from rape. Religious fundamentalists supported by the Polish Church demand further restrictions, with their final goal being a complete ban on all abortions.
According to statistics, around 600 Polish women are killed each year by their partners. The previous government signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, but the right wingers currently in power refuse to apply it, claiming that its provisions clash with traditional catholic family values. The police is oftentimes temporizing domestic violence cases, and state funding was pulled from institutions whose role is to help the victims.
Public schools, controlled by the government, witness a retreat of gender equality education and its replacement by a traditionalist cliché model of women as caregivers, cooks and pious churchgoers. The lack of institutional support for women on the job market, the paucity of kindergartens and the increasing number of social programmes aimed at supporting children leads to fewer and fewer women staying on the labour market. One in every two Polish women is not professionally active. Meanwhile the Polish retirement system allows women to retire earlier, which translates into pension benefits which are appallingly low. Many women in Poland decide to quit their careers to take care of their ailing parents or children with disability since the country lacks systemic and institutional support for such needs.
Social policy experts raise alarm that the cumulation of these factors can only lead to further exclusion of Polish women from the labour force and condemn them to poverty.
Last week, the governing camp started working on a bill to make sex education a criminal offense, under the pretext that it facilitates pedophilia. Under the bill, the penalty for providing sex ed courses could be up to 3 years of prison. Lack of proper sexual education raises another set of threats to women: young people deprived of any other sexual knowledge besides the one offered by online pornography will struggle to nurture healthy sexual relationships, thus increasing the risks of domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies.
In this very dark landscape there is a little ray of light. In the parliamentary elections ten days ago, many courageous, progressive women known for their efforts to combat domestic violence, to safeguard reproductive justice, and to introduce a fully secular state have won their first parliamentary mandate.
They are our last hope.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO SHOW SOLIDARITY WITH POLAND?
Please subscribe to our newsletter so we can update you on a situation and send you tips how to make a difference and share this link to help others subscribe.
Support Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation:
Have a look what Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation does for strengthening free media and democracy in Poland, and if you like it, support it with a donation.
Please share this newsletter with your professional network, friends and family - those who don't want to stay indifferent to the erosion of democracy in Poland. You can also share this newsletter in social media.
You can find the first issue of our newsletter for sharing here.
Let us know what you think:
If you want to offer us your advice or opinion, contact Joanna Krawczyk at email@example.com
If you need more information for editorial purposes, contact Roman Imielski firstname.lastname@example.org
We need to show solidarity, or else no one will stand in protest when the authoritarian power comes after you, after me, after us. We need to stand with those who are beaten, not those who beat them.
Authoritarian states flourish not when bad people do bad things but when good people allow them.
Today we are asking fellow Poles and our friends abroad to join the movement of people of solidarity. Your position gives you the right to speak out loud when others are being hurt. We do not have an army to defend ourselves, but we have words that can help those who are being harassed. Your voice is valuable because it can open the eyes of those who still prefer to turn their heads and remain silent. Now is the time to call things by their names. Let us speak the truth about the situation of free Poles in their own country. Let us remember that there is no freedom without solidarity.