Is Poland Facing Democratic Backsliding?
“Free courts, free elections, and free Poland,” are the words that many people chant as they protest in Warsaw . In 2015, the presidential and parliamentary elections have caused Poland to flip upside down. Their largest political party, the Law and Justice Party, also known as PiS, won an absolute majority in Parliament as well as their candidate in the presidential election. One source claims that the majority of people voted for the opposition, right winged party, due to the massive amounts of Syrian refugees who were migrating to Poland. PiS is known to be against accepting refugees and supporting them through welfare programs. The majority of people voted for this political party, expressing their democratic rights, but as the years have progressed, Poland has demonstrated that their democracy is backsliding.
Democratic erosion is defined as “the state led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy.” The Law and Justice party, as mentioned, has gained power over the legislative and executive branches while also using that power to gain control over the judicial branch as well. Not only do they possess power over the Constitutional Tribunal, but also of the Sejm, lower house of the Parliament. Because PiS has control over the Constitutional Tribunal, the party gets to pass policies to determine how and which kind of judges are appointed. The Constitutional Tribunal is meant to be an independent branch of government that is only bound to the Polish Constitution, but the PiS has control over it giving them power to implement any laws they seem fit. Because this one political party has power over majority of the judiciary system, there will be no checks and balances between branches of government.
A recent article states, “From now on legislative, executive, and judicial powers will be concentrated in the hands of one institution, which is Law and Justice government of Poland. More precisely in the hands of the Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro.
New pieces of legislation give him the right to appoint and dismiss practically all judges, including those at the Supreme Court. The new law goes as far, as to allowing him to hand-pick judges for particular court cases. It is more than obvious, that these changes go in complete contradiction to The Constitution of Poland. Just like in the case of the late Constitutional Tribunal.”
Although the citizens of Poland do vote for who they want to be elected, an important element of democracy, the PiS is undermining other important elements of democracy while using democratic means. Many people tend to vote for this political party due to the fact that they promise to focus on the issues that “ordinary” people face; they promise to implement laws that will hopefully benefit all citizens, but are soon as they gain power, the people aren’t their main focus. Without having “checks and balances”, they possess control over the whole judiciary system. Because the group decided to slowly gain power over the judiciary system, it becomes easier to implement laws as there is no one else to answer to, for example “the government of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz political party in Hungary […] Brought to power in spring 2010 in a free and fair election. [The election] gave his Fidesz party 68% of the seats in a unicameral parliament. Under the rules of the game, Hungary’s constitution could be changed with a two-thirds vote. The election therefore gave Orbán the ability to change everything. And so he did. Almost three years later, Hungary has a new constitution and more than 400 new laws. The upshot of all of this legal change is that power is concentrated in Orbán’s hands. He and his party used legal, democratic means to capture a democratic state for themselves, all without appearing to change the key features that make Hungary look like a democracy.” 
Without checks and balances, PiS has implemented laws and policies that have violated rights. First, PiS has implemented policies that give top politicians control over the media limiting freedom of speech as well as freedom of the press. Protestors are also restricted when it comes to freedom of assembly as protesting would be a threat to the government. Although, these are civil rights that are being taken away , the PiS has begun to control human rights including the right to abortion. Even in cases of rape the PiS have limited sales of emergency contraception. “Girls and women can no longer purchase the pill over the counter at pharmacies, and must instead see a doctor in order to get a prescription. Such restrictions are unnecessary and may lead to unsafe abortions that carry risks including infection, hemorrhaging, and death.”  A violation of rights, human or civil, is a violation of democracy as the government is meant to protect the people and not infringe upon them.
Because protesting is not effective in making a change in government, the EU has become involved and has threatened Poland with not being able to vote in the EU elections if in three months they have not reformed their government to include checks and balances amongst the various levels of the judiciary system. The EU has noticed a change in government in which they felt the need to intervene before Poland becomes an authoritarian form of government . Is taking over the government worth losing their right to vote in the EU and possibly foreign relations?
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Photo By (afp photo) Wajtek Radwanski