Freedom in the World
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Poland’s civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2, and it received a downward trend arrow, due to sustained attempts by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, through hastily drafted legislation and other measures, to increase government influence over the country’s media, judiciary, civil service, and education system.
Poland’s democratic institutions took root at the start of its postcommunist transition in 1989. Rapid economic growth and other societal changes have benefited some segments of the population more than others, contributing to a deep divide between liberal, pro-European parties and those purporting to defend national interests and “traditional” Polish Catholic values. Since taking power in late 2015, the conservative PiS party has enacted measures that increase political influence over state institutions, raising serious concerns about Poland’s democratic trajectory.
- In January, the European Commission (EC) initiated its first-ever probe into a European Union (EU) member state’s commitment to the rule of law, focusing on the PiS government’s moves to curb the powers of the Constitutional Tribunal (TK) and alter its composition.
- Several key pieces of legislation, including one that increased government influence over public broadcasters, were enacted through fast-tracked procedures that did not allow for significant consultation or debate.
- In December, attempts to limit media access to the parliament triggered protests by opposition lawmakers on the lower chamber’s floor, as well as mass demonstrations outside the building. PiS deputies then passed the 2017 budget in a separate room with only a few opposition deputies present; journalists were barred from entering.
- Throughout the year, the government attempted to silence or discredit academics, journalists, and others whose work challenged PiS’s preferred historical narrative.
During its first full year in power, PiS worked to increase its influence over state institutions and discredit the previous coalition government and its perceived allies in the media and the courts. Throughout 2016, controversial PiS initiatives prompted mass demonstrations and denunciations from domestic and international human rights groups.
In response to PiS’s attempts to alter TK procedures and interfere with the appointment of its judges, the EC in January initiated an official review of Poland’s commitment to EU standards for adherence to the rule of law. A standoff between PiS and the TK continued over the course of the year and appeared to draw to a close with the December expiration of the term of TK president Andrzej Rzepliński, who was appointed in 2007 by the previous government and had resisted PiS’s legislative attempts to curb the TK’s authority. The PiS government subsequently approved a measure granting the state president greater influence over the appointment of a new TK president. Julia Przyłębska, a PiS ally, was tapped for the job, clearing the way for PiS-appointed judges to form a majority on the tribunal. A day after Przyłębska’s appointment, EC vice president Frans Timmermans declared that there were “persistent problems with the rule of law” in Poland, and gave the government two months to address EC criticism, but declined to specify consequences for failure to do so.
In October, tens of thousands of women and many men took to the streets to protest a citizen-backed initiative that would have eliminated most of the exceptions to Poland’s ban on abortion. Lawmakers, under public pressure, ultimately voted down the initiative. A major opposition-led protest in December followed the government’s decision to limit journalists’ access to the parliament. The protest movement continued in the wake of PiS’s contentious approval of the 2017 budget, which was conducted by a show of hands in a side chamber that media representatives were barred from entering. Many critics called the procedure illegal.
Citing a need to “depoliticize the airwaves,” PiS moved rapidly after taking power in late 2015 to pass a controversial amendment to Poland’s media law, which took effect in January. The measure ended the mandates of the heads of Poland’s public television and radio broadcasters and empowered the treasury minister to appoint their successors. A series of dismissals at public media channels followed, while a number of managers who expected to be sacked chose to resign.
A new civil service law that lowered the standards for recruitment to senior posts and allowed for arbitrary dismissal also took effect in January, raising concerns about politicization.
Separately, PiS worked throughout the year to suppress the dissemination of information detailing the involvement of Polish people in World War II–era atrocities, both by putting pressure on Holocaust historians and by creating avenues for greater government involvement at national institutions that focus on Polish history. The efforts prompted sharp criticism from the academic community.
The president of Poland is directly elected for up to two five-year terms, and members of the bicameral National Assembly are elected for four-year terms. The president’s appointment of a prime minister must be confirmed by the 460-seat Sejm, the National Assembly’s lower house, which is elected by proportional representation. The 100 members of the Senate, the upper house, can delay and amend legislation, but have few other powers. While the prime minister is responsible for most government policy, the president also has influence, particularly over defense and foreign policy matters.
Andrzej Duda of PiS won the second round of Poland’s May 2015 presidential election with 52 percent of the vote, defeating popular incumbent Bronisław Komorowski. Duda’s victory was interpreted by many observers as a protest vote against the ruling center-right Civic Platform (PO), which had led Poland’s government since 2007, and with which Komorowski was associated.
PiS won a landslide victory of 37.5 percent in the October 2015 parliamentary elections, increasing its representation in the Sejm to a total of 235 seats. It was the first party in postcommunist Poland to win an outright parliamentary majority, allowing it to rule without coalition partners. Beata Szydło was elected prime minister, though her role was soon eclipsed in practice by that of PiS’s chairman, former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński. PO came in second with slightly more than 24 percent of the vote and 138 seats. Third and fourth place both went to new parties: Kukiz’15, a right-wing, antiestablishment party led by former rock musician Paweł Kukiz, which took 42 seats; and the probusiness party Modern, led by economist Ryszard Petru, which won 28. The agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) won 5 percent of the vote and 16 seats. A representative of the ethnic German minority received the remaining seat. In the Senate, PiS took 61 seats, PO 34, and PSL 1.
Poland’s political parties organize and operate freely. PO and PiS have dominated the political scene since 2005, with relations between the two parties becoming increasingly polarized.
PiS won a narrow parliamentary majority in 2015, so it requires the support of other parties to obtain the two-thirds supermajority needed for any constitutional changes. Following the United Left (ZL) alliance’s failure to cross the 8 percent vote threshold for electoral coalitions in 2015, there are now no left-leaning parties in the parliament. (The threshold for individual parties is 5 percent.) Voter turnout for the 2015 parliamentary elections was low, at 51.6 percent.
Ethnic, religious, and other minority groups enjoy full political rights and electoral opportunities. Their political parties are not subject to the minimum vote threshold for parliamentary representation.
Freely elected officials can determine and implement laws and policies without interference in Poland, but anticorruption laws are not always effectively enforced. Several notable corruption probes that emerged in 2016 pointed to ongoing problems in state institutions. In October, a Defense Ministry official, Bartłomiej Misiewicz, came under investigation after Newsweek Polska accused him of attempting to bribe opposition politicians to switch allegiances by offering them jobs at state-run companies. The case was assigned to district attorney Magdalena Witko, the wife of a former PiS deputy, prompting opposition claims of a conflict of interest. The inquiry followed revelations that Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz had appointed Misiewicz, his former assistant, to a position on the board of a state-owned defense company for which he had few qualifications. Opposition parties argued that Misiewicz was just one of many unfit appointments to state companies based on cronyism and party loyalty. In September, Szydło announced plans to make personnel and systemic changes to address the problem, saying “we did make some mistakes.” It was unclear at year’s end if changes to recruitment standards had been adopted.
In November, prosecutors charged the head of the Supreme Audit Office (NIK), Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, a former PO senator and justice minister, with influencing the office’s recruitment process. Separately, Józef Pinior, a leader of Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement who represented PO in the Senate from 2011 to 2015, was arrested the same month along with 10 others in connection with bribery allegations.
PiS has employed opaque practices to pass laws, including fast-tracking procedures that leave little time for public comment on proposed legislation. Fast-tracked amendments to the Civil Service Act that took effect in January 2016 lowered the standards of recruitment for higher civil service posts, and allowed for arbitrary dismissal. Similarly fast-tracked media legislation, which gave the government greater control over the public broadcasters, took effect the same month.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship. Libel remains a criminal offense, though a 2009 amendment to the criminal code eased penalties. A person may be found guilty of blasphemy, punishable by a fine of 5,000 złoty ($1,250) or up to two years in prison, even if the offense was unintentional. Poland’s media are pluralistic and mostly privately owned. The government does not restrict internet access.
PiS has drawn sharp criticism from the EU and press freedom advocacy groups for its move to increase the government’s authority over public broadcasters. On the last day of 2015, PiS deputies in the Sejm passed an amendment to Poland’s media law that ended the mandates of the heads of the public television and radio broadcasters and empowered the treasury minister, rather than an independent body, to appoint their successors. PiS defended the move as an attempt to depoliticize the airwaves. The leadership of the public broadcasters was quickly replaced with PiS appointees; several managers at the influential public television station, TVP, resigned in protest before they could be fired. The new TVP president was the deputy minister of culture and former parliamentarian Jacek Kurski, who once described himself as the PiS founders’ “bull terrier.” He was officially appointed to a four-year term in October, though TVP toed the government line throughout 2016. Meanwhile, large state-owned companies have redirected their advertising spending to progovernment media, effectively penalizing private outlets that were seen as sympathetic to the opposition.
While journalists are not allowed in the main parliament chamber, they have traditionally waited in the halls, where they were able to interview lawmakers. In December 2016, PiS deputies decided to limit this access, starting in January 2017, to preapproved journalists. In protest, opposition lawmakers occupied the speaker’s podium to block a vote on the 2017 national budget. The ruling party responded by passing the budget with a show of hands in a side chamber that media representatives were barred from entering. Many critics called the procedure illegal.
Separately, in April 2016, conservative weekly Do Rzeczy publicized an audio recording of what it described as a 2014 conversation between an aide to former PO prime minister Donald Tusk and the late Jan Kulczyk, then Poland’s wealthiest businessman, about coverage critical of Tusk’s family by the popular tabloid Fakt. Kulczyk agreed to discuss the matter with Fakt’s owner; according to Do Rzeczy, the conversation took place weeks before Fakt’s editor was removed.
The state respects freedom of religion. The PiS government is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church, which has significant influence in the country. Religious groups are not required to register with the authorities but receive tax benefits if they do. There is a formal ban on state funding for church construction, but a church can obtain Culture Ministry funding in practice if it includes a museum—as does the Temple of Divine Providence in Warsaw. In September 2016, the government, which contributed about $10 million to the Catholic temple’s construction from 2007 to 2014, agreed to continue financing the institution as a comanager.
The ruling party has sought to discredit academics who challenge its preferred historical narrative, which largely omits the involvement of Poles in World War II–era atrocities. In April 2016, prosecutors questioned Holocaust historian and Princeton University professor Jan Gross for five hours over allegations that he had publicly insulted the nation. The claims stemmed from a 2015 article in which he had stated that during World War II Polish people had killed more Jews than they had Nazis. Duda’s office had also considered stripping Gross of the Order of Merit he was awarded in 1996. His questioning and the president’s proposal drew sharp criticism from intellectuals in Poland and abroad. In December 2016, the director of the Polish Culture Institute in Berlin was fired after Poland’s ambassador to Germany called for her departure in connection with “too much Jewish-themed programming.”
Separately, new legislation governing the state’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a body formed in 1998 to investigate crimes committed under both the Nazi occupation and communist rule, entered into force in June 2016. Among other changes, the law, drafted by PiS, cut short the mandate of the IPN’s governing council, which was replaced with a nine-member panel selected by the Sejm, the Senate, and the president. In July, the panel recommended Jarosław Szarek, a historian who has expressed views in line with the government’s preferred narrative, to serve as the institute’s new head. The planned opening of a new World War II museum in Gdańsk was delayed in 2016 as the government sought to replace the collection’s global perspective with a narrower focus on Polish suffering and sacrifice, prompting criticism from historians.
In December 2016, the Sejm approved a PiS-authored overhaul of the education system, which eliminated middle schools in favor of eight years of primary school, followed by high school or trade school. Critics have expressed concern that the shift could usher in new curriculum and staff changes aimed at indoctrinating students with the ruling party’s brand of patriotism. Among other laws passed during the same parliamentary session, held without opposition deputies present, was one that allows the government to appoint directors and deputy directors of state research institutes without a competitive hiring process. The new legislation, condemned by the Polish Academy of Sciences and the academic community at large, also eliminated the requirement that directors speak a second language.
People are free to engage in private discussions on political and other matters without fear of harassment or detention by the authorities.
Freedom of association is generally respected in law and in practice. Poles hold public demonstrations with some regularity, though local authorities can limit demonstrations in their districts on grounds of maintaining public order.
In a late-night parliamentary vote in December 2016, the Sejm passed legislation that gives priority to repeated rallies organized in the same place on predictable dates, and requires separate gatherings to keep a distance of at least 100 meters. PiS, which sponsored the bill, said its intention was to prevent conflicts between demonstrators, but critics called the measure a restriction on freedoms of assembly and speech. Duda referred the legislation to the TK, and it had not been signed at year’s end.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate without government interference. However, in November 2016, Szydło announced plans for a new, centralized civil society department that some observers said could allow the government to pressure NGOs. Human rights advocates have charged that progovernment media frame NGOs—particularly those receiving foreign funding—as working against the country’s interests. Several news stories broadcast on TVP during the year appeared intended to discredit NGOs and protest movements that were critical of the government.
Poland has a robust labor movement, though certain groups—including the self-employed, private contractors, and those in essential services—cannot join unions. Complicated legal procedures hinder workers’ ability to strike.
Since taking office, the PiS government has faced criticism from the United States, the EU, and rights groups for working to curb the powers of the TK and to alter its composition in ways that hamper its ability to serve as a check on the political branches. The EC in January 2016 initiated an official review of Poland’s commitment to EU standards for adherence to the rule of law in connection with the matter.
The year was marked by legal wrangling between the PiS-led legislature, which passed a series of laws that created inefficiencies in the TK and otherwise interfered with its functioning, and the court itself, which ruled most of the changes unconstitutional. However, the government refused to publish some of those rulings, meaning they technically never became binding. As a result of a dispute over the appointment of TK judges, which began during the 2015 parliamentary election campaign, the TK had only 12 out of 15 seats filled for most of 2016.
The term of TK president Rzepliński, who was appointed in 2007 by the previous government and resisted PiS’s legislative attempts to curb the court’s authority, ended in December. That day, Duda signed into law additional changes to TK procedures that gave him increased influence over court appointments. Przyłębska, whom many consider unqualified, was named TK president, prompting further membership changes that left PiS-appointed judges with a majority on the tribunal. (In accordance with existing TK law, the court had convened a general assembly earlier in the month to choose Rzepliński’s successor, but PiS-backed judges called in sick to prevent a quorum.) A day after Przyłębska’s appointment, EC vice president Timmermans declared that there were “persistent problems with the rule of law” in Poland, and gave the government two months to address EC criticism, but declined to specify consequences for failure to do so.
Separately, in March 2016, the government merged the office of the justice minister with that of the public prosecutor general, a move that gave the government greater influence over prosecutions. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who thus became public prosecutor general, was known for pursuing corruption and cronyism cases against political opponents when he had held both posts between 2005 and 2007.
In June 2016, Duda signed new antiterrorism legislation that gave authorities more leeway to monitor the movements of foreign citizens without prior court approval, and permitted suspects to be held without judicial review for up to two weeks. The legislation was submitted to the TK by the national ombudsman, who said ambiguous provisions on collecting individuals’ data, arresting civilians, prohibiting demonstrations, and blocking internet access violated the constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.
Pretrial detention periods can be lengthy, and prison conditions are poor by European standards.
Ethnic minorities generally enjoy generous legal rights and protections. Some groups, particularly the Roma, experience employment and housing discrimination, racially motivated insults, and occasional physical attacks. Members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community continue to face discrimination. Data released in November 2016 by the National Prosecutor’s Office showed a 13 percent increase in hate crimes during the first half of 2016. Approximately half of all reported incidents related to hate speech on the internet, but the category of “physical violence or threats” (14 percent of the total) increased by over 40 percent compared with the same period in 2015. The most frequent targets of such attacks were Muslims, or people believed to be Muslim by their attackers. In April, the government abolished the Council for the Prevention of Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance.
Citizens enjoy freedom of travel and choice of residence, employment, and institution of higher education. Citizens have the right to own property and establish private businesses.
Women hold senior positions in government and the private sector, including about 27 percent of the seats in the Sejm. Both PO and PiS fielded female candidates for the position of prime minister in the 2015 elections.
Under Polish law, abortion is permissible through the 12th week of pregnancy only if a woman’s health or life are jeopardized, if the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act such as rape, or if the fetus is severely damaged. Legislation proposed in September 2016 would have removed most of these exceptions to the ban and made illegal abortions punishable by five years in prison. Following mass protests, PiS leaders distanced themselves from the legislation, which failed to pass. In November, the Sejm adopted legislation that provided financial incentives for women to carry fetuses with severe disabilities or terminal illnesses to term.
Domestic violence against women remains a serious concern, as does trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution. In May 2016, the government withdrew funding from the Women’s Rights Center (CPK), which has provided support to victims of domestic violence for over 20 years. The state’s justification was that the CPK offers help only to women, rather than to all victims of abuse.
The U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report noted an uptick in labor trafficking throughout Poland, with Romany children in particular being subjected to forced begging.