It’s always hard to judge the exact size of a protest, but the June 4 anti-government demonstration in Warsaw was huge. It stretched for more than a mile, with some estimates suggesting the numbers reached half a million and marked one of the biggest protests since the end of communism.
Opposition supporters have been galvanized by new legislation signed on 29 May by President Andrzej Duda. This new law established a special parliamentary commission branded Lex Tusk, or Tusk’s Law. It creates a parliamentary commission to investigate anyone who the commission accuses of acting as a Russian agent of influence and would give this extra-judicial body the power to disqualify those deemed guilty from public office and would deny them the right to appeal. Many observers describe it as a weapon to be used against the liberal leader of the opposition and former European Council president, Donald Tusk, as plainly unconstitutional and as a breach of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
“This violates all our constitutional foundations,” said Slawomir Patyra, a constitutional expert at Marie Sklodowska-Curie University in Lublin. Patyra said the proposed commission would investigate and prosecute “anyone who criticizes the current political or economic order” because the definition of “Russian influence” was so vague.
The government says it’s a necessary measure to counter Russian influence in Poland and that the pre-2015 government allowed the country to become dangerously dependent on Russian fossil fuels. But both the US State Department and the European Commission have expressed concern. The US said the statute “could be used to block the candidacy of opposition politicians without due process” and that voters must be allowed to select the candidate of their choice.
Diplomatic pressure may help to explain why on June 2 Duda proposed amending the law to defang many of its more contentious clauses. The ruling party has not yet said whether it will accept the amendment. The public responded with a trending meme: “If you live in Poland, don’t laugh in the circus.” A poll commissioned by the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita on 30-31 May showed only 29% approved of the law, with 47.5% against.
In other words, the commission is already being set up. The nine members will be empowered to accuse others without any risk of being sued for slander. Only the ruling Law and Justice plans to delegate its MPs at the moment, but as the biggest party it would anyway have the largest number of commissioners.
A way out would be for the new law to be entirely abolished in order to proceed with a regular investigative commission on the same topic. The Sejm already has the power to establish investigative commissions.
But as things stand now, the commission will start sanctioning people in mid-September, a month or so ahead of elections to be most likely scheduled for mid-October.
“Members of the commission will be able to accuse anyone . . . and sentence anyone to civil death without trial,” wrote Eugeniusz Smolar, Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. “The commission can target anyone: politicians, civil servants, public officials, executives of state and private enterprises, judges, academics, and journalists. Anyone.”
Regardless, the law is already having a significant political effect. While almost all opposition parties joined the June 4 rally, there’s likely only one beneficiary and that’s their main electoral enemy.
The polarization caused by Lex Tusk threatens smaller parties, which may not be able to surmount the 5-8% threshold for parliamentary seats (the first number is the bar for single parties, the second is required by coalitions of parties). If only one is squeezed out, Poland’s electoral system will ensure the beneficiary is the largest party — which is likely to be Law and Justice. In the 2015 elections, the left-wing coalition only narrowly failed to reach the 8% requirement and the far-right government won a simple majority.
Current polling shows PiS ahead with 35% of the vote, Tusk’s Civic Coalition at 28%, the liberal-centrist Poland 2050-KP at 13%, the left coalition at 10% and the far-right Confederation party also at 10%.
Poland now faces a vicious electoral struggle whose outcome is far from clear. It is a dangerous moment. The country enjoys a vibrant democracy, sometimes characterized by truly nasty behavior, but it has proven more resilient to the challenge to liberal democratic values than some other Central and East European states.
Above all else it needs stability and an end to the warfare between its pre-eminent political clans. A confident and outward-looking Poland at ease with its allies and partners is in everyone’s best interests.
Wojciech Przybylski is the editor-in-chief of ‘Visegrad Insight’ and president of the board of Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw. He is also Europe’s Future Fellow at IWM – the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.