Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is ready to twist the law – not only to achieve political results but simply to show strength.
One of the best-known catchphrases in modern Polish history is the title of Adam Michnik’s 1989 article “Your President, Our Prime Minister.” The Solidarity activist and Gazeta Wyborcza editor in chief called on anti-Communist opposition to accept a member of the Communist nomenklatura as president, while a Solidarity member would take the post of prime minister. This approach allowed Tadeusz Mazowiecki to come to power and started the democratic transformation process. The words “Your president, our prime minister” are intended to remind Poles about the ability to achieve more by giving up a little.
Last year the Polish opposition and NGOs tried to propose a similar formula to the ruling Law and Justice party to foster the election of a new human rights commissioner: Your country, our ombudsman. However, the party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski perceives this as a confession of weakness. Law and Justice not only denied support for the independent candidate but manipulated the process to try and remove the current ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, from his post.
Bodnar, a human rights lawyer and deputy director of the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, was elected by parliament as ombudsman in 2015 by the then-ruling coalition of Civic Platform and the Polish People’s Party. After Law and Justice won the parliamentary elections that October, Bodnar had plenty of challenges, such as the illegal appointments of the new members of the Constitutional Court; the transformation of public media into a mouthpiece for governmental propaganda; controversial judicial reform; and attacks on the LGBT community. His office remained the only independent governmental institution in Poland, the place where a person who experienced injustice could hear “In the name of Poland, please accept our apologies.”
No Room for Compromise
Law and Justice members did not hide their irritation with Bodnar; public television attacked him and his family. His term was to end in September 2020, so in late 2019 Polish NGOs began a discussion on his possible replacement. More than a thousand NGOs supported the candidacy of Zuzanna Rudzinska-Bluszcz, Bodnar’s deputy, an experienced lawyer who rarely appears in front of television cameras. The mandate of trust from NGOs and the lack of an oppositionist image seemed like a chance that the Sejm – even with a Law and Justice majority – could lend its support to her.
However, the tactic of “not teasing the predator” didn’t work. Justice Committee hearings on Rudzinska-Bluszcz were endlessly postponed, as was the Sejm’s vote. A photo of Rudzinska-Bluszcz sitting on the floor waiting for the vote went viral on social networks. Finally, lawmakers rejected her candidacy, twice. The first attempt to elect an ombudsman was canceled; the second time Law and Justice deputies chose to vote for Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk. His candidacy, in turn, was rejected by the Senate, where the opposition has a majority.
It is noteworthy that the election of Rudzinska-Bluszcz would not have affected in any way Law and Justice’s control over the state. In Poland, the ombudsman is a non-executive authority. He or she can file a complaint, intervene in court, or draw media attention to a problem. But the ombudsman cannot unilaterally change a situation. A disloyal ombudsman could not resist government policy (though he or she could give civil society at least a quantum of moral satisfaction). Law and Justice did not even agree to this.
When Bodnar’s term officially ended in September, according to the law he continued in office until such time as the Sejm would elect, and the Senate approve, a new human rights commissioner. Polish law itself contains the understanding of the ombudsman as a compromise, a non-partisan figure.
However, here Law and Justice decided to apply its traditional strategy: If the law does not suit us, it must be changed. A group of party deputies sent a request to the Constitutional Court to determine what to do with Bodnar if parliament could not reach consensus. And on 15 April, the government-controlled top court announced that in the eventuality that a new ombudsman had not been elected, the outgoing one could continue in office for three additional months, in this case starting from the date of the court decision, meaning Bodnar can remain until mid-July.
The next day the Sejm approved the nomination of Artur Wroblewski, a Law and Justice parliamentarian, as the new ombudsman. The Senate had already announced it would block Wroblewski’s election. Bodnar thinks that in this case, the Law and Justice deputies could simply pass a new law to establish the post of “temporary ombudsman,” whose appointment would not require Senate support. Which means further degradation of the rule of law in Poland.
A Chance for the Opposition?
The EU reacted to the situation as to most other changes in Poland and Hungary. It is “concerned.” Brussels is still not ready to take decisive action against illiberal regimes.
A career in Polish politics already is being prophesied for Bodnar. Not burdened with media squabbles, he has built a reputation as an arbiter and protector of the weak. Bodnar himself says that he is more attracted to a career in the Council of Europe, but perhaps his opinion will change as the 2025 presidential elections grow closer.
In Bodnar, liberal Poles see an alternative to Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw and President Andrzej Duda’s opponent in last year’s elections. Trzaskowski campaigned with dignity and had real chances of winning – more than 10 million Poles voted for him. But he wasted all his capital ineptly, first postponing the start of a new political movement because of COVID-19 and then canceling it altogether. The leader of his Civic Platform party, Boris Budka, says bluntly that he is not a “revolutionary hero.”
Over the years of Law and Justice rule, the opposition has become used to enjoying a lack of responsibility. It competes not for power but only for moral rightness. Outrage at the dismantling of democratic institutions is limited to Twitter and Facebook. Poles, deprived of independent public media, independent courts, and now an ombudsman, have to be content with likes and shares. While waiting for a true revolutionary hero.
Olena Babakova is a journalist specializing in migration, international mobility, and Polish-Ukrainian relations. She is a columnist at Krytyka Polityczna (Warsaw) and European Pravda (Kyiv), and is a Rethink.CEE German Marshall Fund fellow.