Warsaw (AFP) – Poland’s new conservative government has lost no time in seeking to take control of the EU country’s top court and secret services, sparking claims of a “coup” by the vanquished liberal opposition.
The highly contested moves by the eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party, hard on the heels of winning a general election on October 25, risk reducing the Constitutional Court and secret services to political tools, analysts say.
They are examples of a “totalitarian democracy where those who have the majority are always right,” said political scientist Stanislaw Mocek of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, whose PiS party brought an end to eight years of governance by their liberal rivals, on Thursday replaced the country’s four intelligence and counter-espionage chiefs.
Members of the opposition Civic Platform (PO) branded the move a “coup”, but Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski insisted the changes were “not revenge, but a parting of ways with men who failed to prove themselves”.
Also on Thursday — three days after the right-wing government was sworn in — the PiS made a Constitutional Court change that was also sharply denounced by the opposition, many of whose lawmakers boycotted the vote.
The amendment allows for five new judges to be elected, even though the previous parliament had already approved five other candidates.
The PiS has modified Constitutional Court legislation “so that no one could stop it from doing what it planned to do,” Mocek said.
Szydlo, a 52-year-old coal miner’s daughter who was handpicked by party leader and former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leads a majority government which controls parliament.
She has vowed to “fix” her country and campaigned on promises of generous welfare spending, imposing taxes on banks and foreign-owned supermarkets and refusing migrants entry into Poland.
– ‘Political purposes’ –
The new government’s court reform has sparked concern from the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights watchdog.
Just ahead of the parliamentary vote on the change, the Council’s commissioner for human rights called on Polish lawmakers to reject it.
“Amendments altering the composition of the Constitutional Court currently rushed through the Polish parliament undermine rule of law and should be withdrawn,” Nils Muiznieks said on Twitter.
Political scientist Kazimierz Kik, from Jan Kochanowski University in the central city of Kielce, said the PiS was “masterfully using techniques already used by previous governments, including the liberals — rejecting compromise and showing contempt for the opposition.”
The “PiS action doesn’t break the law but it creates the risk that the secret services will be used for political purposes in a country where the services already play too great a role in public life,” Kik told AFP.
His colleague Mocek drew parallels between the PiS moves and Hungarian hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has taken a tough stance on migrants and cracked down on media regulation and the justice system.
“It’s a way of acting like Viktor Orban, which is meant to successively take control of the different levers of power,” he said.
Kaczynski has repeatedly referenced Orban’s domestic policy in his speeches.
The PO has already vowed to lodge a complaint — somewhat ironically — at the Constitutional Court, while economist Ryszard Petru, who heads another opposition party, the liberal Nowoczesna (Modern) party, slammed the PiS’s “attack” on the top court.
Poland’s PiS-backed president Andrzej Duda, who was elected in May, had refused to swear the previously elected judges in, arguing that the former liberal parliamentary majority “violated the democratic order” by appointing new court members before their predecessors’ terms were up.
Despite the howls of protest, the PiS insists it is not doing anything wrong.
“It’s a return to normal,” senate president and PiS member Stanislaw Karczewski said, adding: “All procedures were in line with (parliamentary) regulation.”