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Corruption thrives as rule of law and democratic oversight weaken in Poland

Protestors wearing masks gather in the streets of Poland. One holds a pink sign.

Image: Lena Ivanova / Shutterstock

Grzegorz Makowski

Batory Foundation

This year’s Corruption Perceptions Index sees Poland achieve its lowest score since 2012 and record a statistically significant decline of seven points. To observers of the country, the decline comes as no surprise: the downward trend, which has been exacerbated by the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, was already visible in 2016, just one year after the United Right, an alliance of conservative political parties, came into power.

A concerning politicization of the Polish judiciary

The complete politicization of the Constitutional Tribunal, made possible by the appointment of purely political nominees as judges, is one of the main factors nurturing systemic corruption in Poland. If this was not enough, some judges of the current Polish Constitutional Tribunal are so-called “doubles”. They were placed in the Constitutional Tribunal in violation of the constitution, taking the seats of judges that had been appointed by the outgoing parliament but were then blocked by President Andrzej Duda, who was a candidate of ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Having full control over the Constitutional Tribunal, the ruling party introduced many changes that would normally be considered unconstitutional. They led to a drastic reduction in the independence of the common judiciary and prosecutors, both of which must now submit to political interference. The changes combined the positions of Minister of Justice and Public Prosecutor General and prevented the judicial community from nominating candidates for the National Council of the Judiciary – the constitutional body making judicial appointments and promotions.

The public administration suffered similar blows. Contrary to the constitution, the law on the civil service was amended, replacing what used to be a competitive recruitment for the highest positions with a party recommendation and lowering the competence requirements for candidates. It is estimated that by 2016, as a result, nearly one third of the highest-ranking government officials left civil service or were demoted.

A monopoly position aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis

Simultaneously, there was a takeover of public service media and state-owned companies, which include over a dozen of the largest Polish enterprises (such as the oil company PKN ORLEN or the largest bank in the country, PKO BP).

Power is now concentrated in the hands of the ruling party in a way unprecedented since the fall of communism. Law and Justice and its satellites use it to protect their own interests and expand their influence. In recent years, we have witnessed many corruption scandals involving top officials. To date, none of these cases has been fully prosecuted by law enforcement. Most did not even reach the judicial stage. Civic organizations, watchdogs, and independent media are attacked on government television and radio if they criticize the authorities.

After six years of rule, the government and its allies continue efforts to strengthen their monopoly position. Under the cover of the pandemic, presidential elections were held in a hurry, a decision considered to have helped the re-election of President Duda before the government’s response to the pandemic undermined support for the ruling party.

Under the banner of media “repolonization” the government wants to bring foreign-owned media outlets under Polish control, further silencing independent voices. PKN Orlen, the largest oil company in Poland and the whole Central and Eastern Europe, took over the media company Polska Press from the German owner Verlagsgruppe Passau. State-owned PKN Orlen now owns 20 regional dailies, 120 weeklies and 500 websites used by over 17 million Poles monthly, further tightening the government’s stranglehold on the media. It did so without prompting any vigorous reactions from the European Union.

A need for more international pressure

Until recently, the majority of Polish people didn’t seem too concerned with the government’s increasing authoritarianism. According to a 2017 public opinion poll, only 31% of respondents declared that corruption is a major social problem in Poland. However, in the fall of 2020 opposition to the government’s policies crystallized into widely supported protests, which started after the Constitutional Tribunal further tightened abortion laws in a ruling that made it almost completely illegal. Polls show that support for Law and Justice declined from over 40% at the end of 2019 to a little above 30 at the end of 2020.

It is however too early to know if this will lead to change. The next parliamentary elections are far away: by 2023, corruption will likely have spread further in the country with a little help from the socio-economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

The systematic breach of the rule of law that we witness in Poland is directly linked to corruption, as it invariably leads to monopoly of power, opacity in public decisions and the impunity of politicians and officials. The international community, including the experts co-creating the Corruption Perceptions Index, must strongly pressure Poland to uphold the rule of law.

The Polish government, as well as its counterpart in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, must receive a strong warning from democratic countries, international business and civil society around the world. Following this path means greater corruption, and it also deepens the political crisis, erodes the country’s international position, discourages investment and is a perfect breeding ground for deep socio-economic crises, which, during a pandemic, could prove catastrophic.

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