Music Soothes the Customs: Parliamentary Crisis in Poland
On December 16, 2016 parliamentary crisis started in Poland. Oppositional lawmakers occupied the rostrum in the lower house of parliament (Sejm) in protest against banning an MP from the debate on the state budget. The ban was the last straw in a mounting series of breaches of established formal and informal rules of parliamentary conduct that started with the change in government in 2015, when power went to the nationalist-populist Law and Justice (PiS) party. Our post is an attempt to explain the background of this development and describe its dynamics.
Parliamentary democracy in Poland is twenty-seven years old. Political change from state socialism occurred in 1989, slightly ahead of the other Eastern bloc countries and may have been a factor precipitating the dismantling of state socialism in other states controlled by the Soviet Union. Transition to democracy and free market was an elite-driven process, whereby reformist leaders of the official structures (the Communist Party, allied parties, official trade unions, and the military) negotiated with the leaders of the opposition. The opposition consisted of unofficial, illegal structures of “Solidarity” movement, led by Lech Wałęsa, the trade union leader and leader of opposition during its years in the underground. The negotiations were conducted in the framework of the Round Table: representatives of both sides negotiated the transformation of the political and economic system. As a result of negotiations, semi-free elections to Parliament were held on June 4, 1989 and a government led by the opposition was sworn in on September 12, 1989.
Democracy in Poland consolidated slowly. Constitution came into force relatively late, in 1997. The party system was at first extremely fragmented, but consolidated in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Before we discuss the parliamentary crisis, we should ask a question: what was the state of Polish democracy before PiS took power in 2015?
Rating Polish Democracy Before 2015
Democratization in different parts of the world, in particular the wave in late twentieth century, brought about many studies and projects whose goal is establishing its quality. A range of institutions systematically dealing with its quality assessments emerged alongside longstanding projects such as Freedom House or Polity. For instance, there are initiatives by the Bertelsmann Foundation, such as the Transformation Index or the Sustainable Governance Indicators. They focus on aspects of democracy, the state, and the market economy relevant in democratizing countries, i.e. the attributes we do not usually analyze in traditional stable democracies of Western Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. Democratic Audit of Poland (DAP) is a project whose goal is the interpretation of existing data, both specific to Poland and comparative. The state of Polish democracy before the government change was assessed as satisfactory, or even good, especially when analyzed against other Central European states. The results of this project were consistent with numerous international projects assessing similar issues such as the Freedom House Ranking, the Bertelsmann Transformative Index and the Rule of Law Index. In these indices, Polish democracy was usually rated as one of the regional leaders.
Elections in Poland have (so far) been conducted in accordance with democratic norms. There were deficiencies which impaired the functioning of democracy, such as corruption, nepotism and patronage on the local level. One of the areas that required many improvements was the media, which were free and ensured access to information concerning the public sphere, but whose quality and objectivity were sometimes problematic. Problems with mass media in Poland (tabloidization, economic weakness, de-professionalization) resembled those in other countries of Central Europe and in many developed countries as well. The quality of the rule of law in Poland was also ambiguous. It seemed that, similarly to some other aspects, formal systemic solutions could be evaluated higher than the actual performance. Such evaluation is obviously relative, so it should be stressed that Polish democracy looked well in relation to several years back and favorably against the countries of the region at a similar level of development.
Thus, the emerging consensus of different comparative studies could be summarized as follows: significant progress was made in terms of institution-building, but the civic foundations of democracy remained fragile. The government of PiS broke the continuity of institutional development. Its actions were especially severely felt in the areas where Polish democracy was weakest. PiS activities strengthened the degree of nepotism (party colonization of state enterprises), weakened mass media (change of legal framework of public media and consequent takeover of state radio and TV) and undermined the rule of law (conflict around the Constitutional Tribunal). The government actions resulted in mass protest marches in Poland an elicited critical reactions of international institutions, including the Venice Commission and European Parliament.
Events in the Polish parliament took an unexpected turn on December 16. On this day, the Sejm debated on a number of bills, including one of the most fundamental laws, the budget bill for 2017. A day earlier, the Speaker of the Sejm (Marek Kuchciński) had announced a regulation limiting (or, according to the Speaker, regulating) the presence of media representatives in the parliament building. In response to these announcements, opposition MPs held posters with the hashtag #wolnemedia (#freemedia). The atmosphere of the parliamentary debate was tense. At one point, an MP of the largest opposition party PO (Civic Platform – Platforma Obywatelska), Michał Szczerba, got up on the rostrum with this card and began his speech a little facetiously: Dear Mr Speaker, music soothes the customs. Szczerba wanted to raise the issue of funding for Sinfonia Varsovia, an orchestra. After that, the Speaker first called for appropriate behavior, then turned off Szczerba’s microphone, and finally ruled him out of the meeting. This caused loud protests of opposition MPs, mainly PO and Modern Party (Nowoczesna). They believed that the Speaker had no reason to exclude Szczerba from the meeting. Opposition MPs argued that Speaker cannot exclude an MP on such frivolous grounds because it would create a precedent for a further exclusion of opposition MPs. It could lead to an absurd situation in which the ruling party excludes all opposition MPs and works alone in the parliament, which would completely contradict the principles of parliamentary democracy. The parliament was brought to the brink of chaos. Opposition MPs first began chanting “restore the MP” and then began to occupy the rostrum. The Speaker, who could not continue conducting the session, ordered a break and asked for the meeting of the Presidium of the Sejm. During this meeting, the opposition proposed lifting the decision ruling out Szczerba and a return to the proceedings. Apparently, the Speaker was ready to agree to the proposals. However, at some point, he changed his mind and hardened his position, perhaps due to instructions he received from Jarosław Kaczynski, chairman of PiS with informal control over government business. In this situation, opposition MPs continued to occupy the rostrum in the hall of the Sejm. PiS parliamentary club met at a closed meeting, in another hall of parliament (the Pillared Hall).
The situation was a stalemate. The Speaker decided to move the meeting of the Sejm to an alternative room, the Pillared Hall. Opposition MPs were confused by this decision – some of them remained to occupy the rostrum, others went to the Pillared Hall. It is not entirely clear what happened later in the Pillared Hall – the media were not allowed to enter there, and recordings from CCTV cameras placed in the hall were incomplete and did not cover the entire room. According to opposition MPs, PiS blocked their access to the chairman’s table, making it impossible to submit questions and participate in the discussion. The situation was aggravated by the fact that it was the last session of the Sejm in a calendar year and it was necessary to enact the budget. As a result of these events, PiS, virtually alone in the Pillared Hall of the Sejm, voted through all the bills (including budget).
The voting raises several procedural concerns. It is still not clear whether there was a quorum and what number of MPs supported the bills adopted. The entire vote was conducted without the presence of the opposition in the room and, because the proceedings were conducted outside the main hall of the Sejm, voting was not fully documented. For instance, there was no electronic count and the identity of secretaries tallying the vote cannot be confirmed. There are legal opinions questioning the legality of such voting and, above all, indicating the betrayal of principles of parliamentarian democracy.
At the same time, the opposition still occupied the rostrum in the main hall of the Sejm, and the protest in front of the parliament building took on a mass character. Thousands of Warsaw residents came to oppose the actions of the ruling party. The tension inside parliament infected protesters on the streets. When in the late evening PiS completed the session, the protesters decided to block the road and did not let PiS MPs pass. They left Parliament assisted by the police. That evening, the crisis had its apogee. What happened later?
In the following days, opposition MPs continued the occupation of the hall of Sejm throughout Christmas and the New Year. Protest of citizens in front of the Parliament continued, but had a different scope depending on the time of the day. There was a small group of protesters at night and in the mornings, but a substantively larger group in the afternoons and evenings. However, the number of protesters decreased from day to day: the next Sejm session was scheduled for January 11, and Christmas in Poland is celebrated solemnly. Meanwhile, Senate Speaker met with media representatives to discuss changes in the regulations of media access to the parliament, while the Speaker of the Sejm, who raised the issue of this regulations, did not participate in these meetings. Another move by the ruling party was to bring major police forces to the area around the parliament building and build a special fence protecting the area from protesters.
For each side of the conflict, it was clear that it had to be ended somehow, but it was not obvious how. In the meantime, rivalry arose between the opposition parties (PO and Modern) about leadership. Another problem for the Modern was a scandal which erupted at the turn of the new year: Ryszard Petru, the leader of the party, and his (female) deputy were photographed on holiday abroad, while the occupation of the Sejm still continued. Petru engaged in several actions to end the conflict. He proposed that opposition’s amendments to the budget bill should be submitted to the Senate by PiS senators (a majority in the Senate), for the bill to return to the Sejm, where proper discussion on the budget with the participation of the opposition would take place. PO did not support this position. The official reason was that such a solution would be an excessive concession to the ruling party. PiS took advantage of the lack of consensus among the opposition, passed the budget bill without amendments in the Senate, and then the law was signed by the President. At this point, the opposition felt powerless, since the budget bill was out of parliament. PO leader announced that his party suspended the protest. The message was considered an expression of defeat. The situation normalized, in that the parliament returned to work. It was the end of the biggest parliamentary crisis in Poland after systemic change.
What do we learn about the political situation in Poland from the crisis? It turned out that the opposition parties have difficulty in joint action and PiS ruthlessly took advantage of rivalry in the opposition and did not hesitate to pursue its goals. Moreover, PiS activists used the crisis to attack the opposition using very sharp rhetoric. They called it a coup attempt and (yet another) action of people deprived of power and privilege after government change. The concerns about violation of democratic rules, expressed by citizens protesting in front of the Parliament, were fully ignored by the government and PiS. It should also be added that only one national-level PiS politician decided to leave the party faction (in EU parliament) to express disagreement with party policy during the crisis. It indicates high cohesion within the party.
What does this all mean for the state of democracy in Poland? An innocent joke about music and customs turned into a serious parliamentary crisis. However, the events escalated because of previous actions of PiS dismantling some institutions of the democratic state, in particular media and the Constitutional Tribunal. It should be noted here that the Speaker acted within his powers: he may exclude an MP because of misconduct and has the sole power to decide what constitutes misconduct. MPs are not allowed to occupy the rostrum, and in individual cases meeting of the Sejm can be moved to another room. The extent of the power of the Speaker means that MPs can be expelled from the session for trivial reasons. This was not an issue before because previous Speakers did not abuse this power.
As a consequence of the crisis, the most important parliamentary act was passed without discussion and without the participation of the opposition, in uncertain circumstances. This event signifies a troubling change in parliamentary culture: some PiS MPs officially expressed the view that the opposition makes their work difficult, so it was not bad that it did not participate in the work on the budget bill. Obviously, this flatly contradicts core principles of parliamentary democracy. The concern is not only that the current ruling party does not comply with democratic traditions. Perhaps the bigger problem is the fact that anti-democratic practices of PiS may be repeated in the future. Even if PiS loses power, another majority in parliament may behave in the same manner, citing government reaction to recent crisis as precedent. It is a gloomy prospect for the Polish democracy.
Another danger is the international context of the crisis. Disregard for established parliamentary practice and for liberal democracy in general have been openly expressed by a number of leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, in particular Russia, Hungary, and Turkey. All these countries have experienced consolidation of power in the hands of political elite led by an authoritarian leader. Until 2015, Poland appeared to be a beacon of political and economic stability in the post-crisis Europe. A single-party rule in Poland, without checks and balances, without judicial oversight of the Constitutional Tribunal, with public media directed by the government and with increasing state overreach in the civil society, may be a part of the domino effect spreading to other states. This is a gloomy prospect for the region, as well.
Dr Michał Kotnarowski is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences. His research expertise includes voting behavior, comparative politics and political methodology. He has contributed to Party Politics, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Acta Politica, and International Journal of Sociology.
Dr Michał Wenzel is a lecturer at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. Prior to his present position he was a researcher and analyst at CBOS Public Opinion Research Center in Warsaw. He was a post-doctoral scholar at Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He also worked as researcher at University of Oxford. He has held numerous teaching positions. His interests include research methodology, political attitudes, organized labor and civil society. He is the author of Labour Protest in Poland. Trade Unions and Employee Interest Articulation After Socialism, Peter Lang, 2016.
Photo: Marek Kuchcinski, International Economic Forum | Flickr
 For comprehensive account, see: R. Markowski, M. Kotnarowski, M. Wenzel, M. Żerkowska-Balas, Democratic Audit of Poland 2014, Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2015