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HomeBalkansDemocracy Digest: Polish Opposition Begins to Assert Itself

Democracy Digest: Polish Opposition Begins to Assert Itself

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The now opposition-controlled Polish parliament is considering taking steps to restore the separation of powers in the justice system even before these parties form the new government, which is not expected to happen until December at the earliest. On Tuesday, the Sejm elected four representatives, all of them from opposition parties, to the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body that appoints judges to various positions. The composition of the KRS is at the crux of the politicisation of the judiciary orchestrated by PiS during its eight years in power. PiS’s judicial ‘reform’ made it so that the 15 members of the KRS that were previously appointed by judges to the body would be elected by the Sejm, which at the time was dominated by PiS. That change was criticised by Brussels, declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights, and is one of the reasons why Poland is being financially penalised by the European Commission.

The election of the four opposition representatives this week won’t solve the issue: those four have always been political appointees to the collective body, which is composed of representatives of the judiciary (the first president of the Supreme Court, the president of the High Administrative Court and 15 representatives of the judiciary’s self-governments appointed for a four-year term of office), the legislative (four deputies and two senators chosen for a four-year term of office) and the executive (the justice minister and an individual appointed by the president). At stake is how to reverse the procedure of appointing those 15 members of the KRS that are not supposed to be political representatives. While the opposition majority in parliament is ready to reverse that PiS reform, it is feared President Andrzej Duda would veto any law passed for that purpose. Some constitutional experts think the Sejm could issue a resolution instead of a law, which Duda cannot formally veto; they argue a resolution would be enough, as the PiS law itself was unconstitutional. Other experts urge more caution.

A Warsaw court on Thursday ruled that a pro-Palestinian march on Saturday could go ahead. In its reasoning, the court said the municipality didn’t present sufficient evidence that the march needs to be banned or that it did not have a peaceful character. The ruling came after the Warsaw municipality on Tuesday issued a decision to ban a pro-Palestinian march set to take place on Saturday in Warsaw, but greenlighted a pro-Israel demo on Sunday. In justification of its decision, the Warsaw municipality argued, “the likely participation of Palestinian citizens living in Poland and of those supporting Palestinians, in counter to many citizens or supporters of Israel, could lead to an escalation of tensions and lead to restlessness and aggression against each other.” Yet three pro-Palestinian rallies have already been held in Warsaw and others elsewhere without incident, with the only controversial occurrence being a participant holding an antisemitic banner, for which the participant, a Norwegian medical student studying in the Polish capital, has since publicly apologised for.

Stork’s Nest scandal takes wing again; death of an aristocrat; lobbying under scrutiny

It’s the corruption scandal that keeps on giving. Prague’s High Court this week overturned the acquittal of former Czech premier Andrej Babis in the Capi Hnizdo (Stork’s Nest) case. The original verdict delivered in January, that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the billionaire fraudulently secured a 2-million-euro EU subsidy for the eponymous leisure resort in 2007 by hiding its ownership, surprised many. Even though it took seven years for prosecutors to drag him into court, Babis has always claimed the case was cooked up by his political rivals to push him out of power. Others, including his own son – who asserts his father had him kidnapped to prevent him from testifying – say the episode is part of a pattern of dubious business dealings. Towards the end of Babis’s time in the PM’s chair, the EU decided he had a conflict of interest regarding subsidies and froze payments to the Czech state. The appeal court’s ruling, which said the acquittal was based on “insufficient and erroneous evidence”, will see the Prague Municipal Court reopen the case. Babis retorted that the court’s new ruling will simply be a repeat of the last, dismissing the case, which has gone on since 2015, as “absurd and endless”.

A grandee of Czech politics, Karel Schwarzenberg, died on Saturday. The 85-year-old former foreign minister had been moved to Vienna as he battled undefined health issues. It was to Austria that he decamped during the Communist years, from where he aided the dissident community. He returned to Czechia following the Velvet Revolution, becoming a key advisor to then-president Vaclav Havel. A staunch democrat and pro-European, he went on to hold the role of foreign minister in 2007-2009 and 2010-2013 as Czechia settled into Euro-Atlantic institutions, before co-founding the centre-right Top09 party, which is part of the current governing coalition. Cultivating an image crossing academia with his Hapsburg aristocratic background, Schwarzenberg become known for his bow tie, pipe and moustache; during his battle against with the wily leftwing populist Milos Zeman during the 2013 presidential election campaign a pink mohawk was added as he turned punk – at least on campaign badges and posters. It was Schwarzenberg’s questioningof the validity of the WWII Benes decrees that appeared to hand victory to Zeman. Eight years on, his defence of Top09 deputy Dominik Feri, who was jailed at the start of the month for several counts of rape, suggested time had passed him by. Schwarzenberg was awarded the White Lion, Czechia’s highest state award, less than a fortnight before his death. A remembrance ceremony will take place at Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral on December 9.

In a bid to raise transparency, the Justice Ministry is set to table draft legislation to regulate lobbying. Under the proposed law, lobbyists, legislators and politicians would be registered and activities documented. The ministry says the aim is to distinguish between beneficial lobbying focused on sharing information for legislative change, and non-transparent, behind-the-scenes lobbying. The proposed register would require lobbyists to inform the ministry of meetings in advance, disclose their clients, and submit a report on their activities every six months. Transparency advocates have been pushing for lobbying to be regulated for years, as well as an ethical code for MPs regarding gifts or benefits, and have expressed disappointment the centre-right coalition government that took power in 2021 promising to quash graft has not done more. Seemingly in line with their complaints, the Finance Ministry said it opposes the proposed legislation, citing cost and time-related concerns.

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