Poland’s governing Law and Justice party has bowed to popular pressure and withdrawn proposed changes to their media laws. The changes, which have been described by Polish opposition party members as undemocratic and authoritarian, were the subject of popular protests at the end of 2016. Thousands of Polish civilians picketed the parliament, and many hundreds protested outside the home of the president. Police responded by forcibly removing protestors, who were blockading the parliament.
Polish President, Andzrej Duda, was compelled to intervene and mediate between the government and opposition parties as the opposition blockaded the parliament, forcing a vote on the national budget to be held away from the Polish parliamentary chamber.
The winding back of the media-reform proposals comes in the wake of another successful popular protest in Poland in October. The populist, conservative government proposed a blanket ban on abortions but stepped back from the proposal after thousands of women took to the streets, dressed in black, to protest against the new laws. The protests saw widespread media coverage, putting international pressure on the government to respect the concerns of protestors and the public, rather than pushing through its ideologically driven agenda.
The Polish government remains in the international spotlight, however, as the European Commission discusses possible sanctions and rhetorical reprimands over the Law and Justice party’s policy agenda of reforming public institutions to make them more partisan-friendly. The outgoing president of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, Andrzej Rzeplinski, argues that the legislation introduced by the government is designed to limit the judicial oversight of the government and stymie the independence of the court. Rzeplinksi argues that this is a deliberate erosion of the system of checks and balances that ensure that the government adheres to democratic principles and does not reach beyond its democratic mandate. The European Commission is considering invoking article 7 of the EU Treaty, which would deny Poland voting rights in the Union, on the basis that their commitment to the rule of law does not meet the standards set by the European Union.
The current global political climate, with the rise of nationalist and populist governments in Europe in particular, has led to a fear amongst commentators that the world is entering a new phase of “illiberal-democracy,” with governments being democratically elected and subsequently using the platform to impose authoritarian, nationalist rule. The example that the Polish people have set, however, gives hope to the power of peaceful, popular protest to direct the policy of national governments. Although tensions between protestors and police escalated and the protests appeared to be becoming increasingly aggressive, violent confrontation between protestors and authorities was avoided. Both sides, and President Duda, should be commended for their willingness to resort to established, peaceful channels of dispute resolution.