We analyzed the most important changes regarding the judiciary, media and election rules that have taken place in the last 8 years.
In the autumn of 2023 parliamentary elections will be held in Poland. After eight years in government, United Right, with Law and Justice as its leader, will fight for their third term, while the opposition, who last formed a government in 2015 – a coalition government of Civic Platform (liberals) and the Polish People’s Party – will try to regain power.
Two terms of Law and Justice rule have remade the political system. Poland will enter 2024 with institutions whose competences have been curtailed and a democratic system devoid of fuses and without the ability to self regulate. For almost a decade now United Right have been changing the rules of the Parliament’s functioning (the Sejm is no longer a rulemaking and regulatory institution), the competences of local governments have been restricted, the Constitutional Tribunal has no liberty to act, the judiciary has been taken over (the Minister of Justice is at the same time the Attorney General, judges are nominated by the new National Council of the Judiciary which itself has been elected without adherence to law, and the allocation of cases to particular judges is based on a questionable algorithm), new regulations tightening control over school principals have been introduced, as have financial tools for disciplining scientific institutions and non-governmental organizations. There has been a turnover of officials (not only high-ranking ones), preceded by abolishment of the so-called civil service – a group of independent state officials.
These, and other, changes were accompanied by a deregulation of the electoral system in Poland. The Electoral Code was amended nine times, requirements for members of institutions conducting the elections have been lowered and other institutions connected with elections have been eroded – including the Supreme Court, one of the competences of which is to declare the validity and the outcome of the elections. Access to information has also been critically restricted – state media (central and local TV and radio stations and their internet websites) are foghorns for the government’s propaganda, while local commercial media have been bought by the state-controlled oil company Orlen. The Law and Justice party secured additional funding for its campaign through creating a system of transfers of money from board members of state-owned companies and using public funds from grants for NGOs. The sum of these changes and their significance justify the suspicion that the upcoming elections in Poland will not be thorough and that their results will be influenced by an election campaign conducted without adhering to the principle of fairness (more on the gradual suppression of fair elections in Poland in our timeline:
Law and Justice (PiS) wins parliamentary elections with 37% of the vote.
The ruling coalition United Right (Zjednoczona Prawica) attempts to take over the Constitutional Tribunal for the first time. The government wants to end the term of the tribunal’s President and introduce disciplinary liability of the judges upon request of the Minister of Justice or the President. They also nullify the election of new justices of the tribunal.
The government takes over control of state media.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer Dawid Jackiewicz appoints Jacek Kurski, former PiS MP, as president of Polish Television (TVP).
The public prosecutor’s office comes under the sway of political authorities as the Minister of Justice becomes Public Prosecutor General.
The National Media Council is created – an agency for media control with no basis in the constitution.
Julia Przyłębska, viewed favorably by PiS who have influence over her but unfavorably by Polish judges, becomes President of the Constitutional Tribunal.
The Minister of Justice takes over control of the organization of the work of judges.
An attempt to end the term of the Supreme Court is launched. The Supreme Court declares the validity of elections in Poland.
Election management becomes more centralized and the importance of institutions is reduced.
Candidates to the National Electoral Commission, responsible for the conduct of elections in Poland, no longer need to be judges.
The National Electoral Commission loses some of its competences, the head of the National Electoral Office and electoral commissioners are now appointed by the Minister of Justice from among the candidates selected by the executive.
The new law brings with it the end of the term of the previous electoral commissioners – judges responsible for the conduct of elections in the districts. The growth in the number of commissioners (from 40 to 100) is accompanied by a decrease in the office’s gravity as being a judge is no longer a prerequisite for becoming a commissioner.
Local governments are no longer responsible for the management of the elections in the respective areas. Electoral officials are now appointed by the National Electoral Office.
Voters voting abroad can no longer send in a postal vote.
Amendments to bills on the National Council of the Judiciary in Poland (NCJ; a body responsible for the promotion of judges ) and the Supreme Court.
The NCJ is no longer independent from political authorities as NCJ members (judges) are now chosen not by judges, but by the parliament.
In order to cut the term of the first president of the Supreme Court short the age of retirement for judges is lowered.
The Supreme Court now has a new chamber: Extraordinary Review and Public Affairs Chamber. All of its 21 members are appointed by the political, so-called neo-National Council of the Judiciary. Its purpose? Declaring the validity of elections.
Amendment to the Electoral Code
Spurred on by the fear of there not being enough candidates for electoral officials, the authorities reduce the requirements to become one.
An attempt is made to change the electoral law for European Parliament elections. United Right wants to raise the effective electoral threshold which would mean that smaller committees stand no chance to have their members elected as MEPs. The bill is vetoed by the President.
Local government elections.
During the election campaign politicians affiliated with PiS suggest that subsidies from the central government would be dependent on what local authorities are elected in the given region.
The Electoral Code is aligned with the Supreme Court bill amendment.
Law and Justice (PiS) wins parliamentary elections with 43% of the vote.
Supreme Court judges face disciplinary liability for calling into question the changes in the judiciary introduced by United Right.
Amendment to the Electoral Code: due to the pandemic, postal vote is introduced for people over 60 or those in isolation.
The National Electoral Commission’s competences are curbed. For the 2020 presidential election, the NEC will no longer be responsible for:
– publishing notices of poll;
– giving confirmations of the right to vote;
– organising postal and proxy voting;
– ballot design and printing of the ballots.
Temporary provisions are introduced, which take precedence over the Electoral Code. Universal postal vote is introduced for the presidential election of May 10, 2020.
The provisions are revoked on June 2, 2020.
First date for the presidential election. Despite pandemic provisions being introduced, the elections – so-called envelope elections due to the universal postal vote – did not take place.
Temporary provisions are introduced, which take precedence over the Electoral Code. Postal vote in the presidential elections is introduced for some voters.
Andrzej Duda, the sitting president and PiS candidate, wins re-election having received 51% of the vote in the second round of voting.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) criticises Polish state media, stating that Polish Television “has not fulfilled its legal obligation to be a source of objective and unbiased information during the election campaign”.
The state owned oil company PKN Orlen buys regional media: 20 regional daily newspapers, almost 120 local weeklies and internet websites.
An attempt is made to limit the scope of activity of the private TV network TVN.
The National Electoral Commission has the right to examine whether political parties register donations and keep a record of contracts. The NEC has the right to impose fines.
In practice, however, the NEC cannot enforce these rights as the MPs did not foresee executive regulations.
The so-called LexTvn, a bill aiming to limit the activities of the private TV network TVN, is passed in Parliament with votes from the United Right.
President Andrzej Duda vetoes LexTVN.
The Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court is closed and the Professional Liability Chamber is introduced in its stead.
Yet another amendment to the Electoral Code is published on the Parliament’s website.
The amendment of the Electoral Code introduces:
– electoral commissions in villages of up to 200 inhabitants. 6 000 new polling stations are estimated to be created;
– a Central Register of Voters, overseen by the Ministry of Digital Affairs;
– guaranteed transport to polling stations for people with disabilities and people over 60;
– persons of trust who have the right to video the election process and who are paid for their work (the fee amount is set in the bill).
Competences of the National Electoral Commission regarding receiving complaints about electoral districts are taken over by administrative courts, whose decisions in this matter cannot be appealed.
An attempt is made to limit the freedom of political activity when the United Right introduces a bill on “A National Committee for investigating Russian influences on internal security of the Republic of Poland in the years 2007–2022”. As a final administrative decision the committee can, among others, ban people from “holding offices connected with management of public funds for a period of up to 10 years”. In May, President Andrzej Duda signed the bill into law.