2017: A tumultuous, fascinating year (Part Two): Democracy in crisis?

On a typical, warm and occasionally cloudy summer afternoon in the South-Western city of Wroclaw, Poland, tourists and locals alike fill the historical market-square, enjoying the delicacies of Polish cuisine and updating their instagram galleries with photos of the magnificent Old Town Hall building. The atmosphere is both tranquil and exciting, with street musicians, performers and artisans enhancing the experience in one of Eastern Europe’s most charming cities. I sat in one of the Rynek’s beer gardens, enjoying my beverage along with a high school friend; Just catching up on life and discussing the year’s events. It was the day of Chester Bennington’s death, but one we would remember for completely different reasons. An hour and a couple more beers went by before we finally joined the sea of protesters flooding the square. With the evening approaching, the thousands of anxious faces, many carrying Polish flags and “3X VETO!” banners, dominated the scene. The month was July, at stake was democracy, and for the first time in my life, I was about to protest.

Just days earlier, the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, with support of their allies, pushed through parliament a set of sweeping judicial reforms, allegedly aimed at repairing Poland’s corrupt and ineffective judiciary system. The laws proposed would effectively politicize the country’s judiciary, giving the ruling parliamentary majority tremendous and unprecedented power to fill key judicial positions with party loyalists. First came a piece of legislation concerning the National Council of the Judiciary (NCJ), a body responsible for judicial nominations and appointments across the country. The new laws proposed by PiS would shorten the terms of the council’s existing members, whilst granting the parliamentary majority the power to select 15 of the committee’s 25 judges. Former supreme court judge, Ewa Letowska commented that “This can simply result in a situation in which judges, who will publicly criticise authorities, will not be selected by the NCJ…”. The reforms wouldn’t stop there; The new Supreme Court laws would force its existing members to retire, with the minister of Justice (personally closely allied to PiS) deciding who could stay on. New members would in turn be elected by the NCJ, which as a result of the legislation outlined above, would now mostly consist of PiS parliamentary supporters. Most alarming of all, politicizing the supreme court, a body responsible for validating parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as controlling the budgets/spending of political parties, poses a serious threat to free elections in Poland. The third law proposed, meanwhile, would give the Justice minister the power to dismiss local court presidents without justification.

Defending the reforms, party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s most powerful politician, labelled Polish courts “a barricade protecting the system known as post-communism”. Propaganda a la Trump. Ironically enough, the very reforms his party was proposing, along with other examples of their pseudo-“patriotic” agenda, risked throwing the country back into the the dark pits of Soviet-style political centralisation, censorship and alienation from the West. Kaczynski, the identical twin of deceased former president Lech, partially blames the opposition for his brother’s death in a famous 2010 plane crash. Since his party’s ascent to power in 2015, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has refused to hold an official position in government, leading the country from the shadows; PiS electoral fortunes and growing support in the polls may be attributed to the generous social welfare spending, tough anti-refugee talk and nationalist agenda Kaczynski has masterminded since winning parliamentary elections two years ago; However, judicial reform was always considered a key legislative objective. And although most Poles would agree that courts, and the system underpinning them, require reform and modernization, very few would knowingly give their consent to such a cynical, arguably unconstitutional coup on the judiciary; itself an essential component of institutional democracy.

No wonder I saw thousands of fellow Poles on the streets protesting the government’s unlawful actions, demanding that President Andrzej Duda veto the bills; quite a challenge considering Duda’s close affiliation to the ruling party. In fact, the president owed his political ascent to his party and Kaczynski, and thus his loyalty was expected. So it was a shocking, unexpected development when Duda announced he would veto two (NCJ, Supreme Court) of three bills. It appeared democracy had triumphed, but only until December, when a slightly revised version of the bills, this time authored by Duda himself, was signed into law by the President. Hours earlier, the EU had initiated disciplinary proceedings against Poland — known as article 7 — which in theory could lead to diplomatic and financial sanctions. The procedure, however, is only symbolic; any serious sanctions would require unanimous consent by EU member states, with Viktor Orban — the EU’s other ‘difficult child’- already declaring Hungary would veto such a move. Both countries’ relations with Brussels are rock-bottom.

With the judicial reforms, purges in public media and the civil service, the defunding of many NGOs etc — my fear is that 2017 in Poland initiated a leap away from genuine democracy towards a quasi-democratic system; A place where ‘puppet’ institutions under a minority give artificial semblance to a country governed by the rule of law. At the protests, a man told me: “After 1989 and the fall of communism, I never thought I’d be back here on the streets”. You see — to many Poles of the older generation, the dark times of of political centralisation lived in fresh memory; Sadly, the fear of its return no longer seems fully irrational.

Poland’s story of declining democracy was by no means unique; On the contrary, 2017 further bore witness to the trend of rising authoritarianism across the globe. Not so long ago, Turkey was viewed as an example and hope for democratisation in the Middle East. In a country that has now gone through four (attempted) military coups since 1960, the latest attempt staged in July 2016 has only helped Erdogan to consolidate his power and brutally marginalize his political opponents. According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom that tracks prosecutions of Turkish journalists, 245 journalists are behind bars as of January 18, 2018. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has been blocked since April 2017 while thousands of judges, civil servants, academics and military personnel remain behind bars in what has to be viewed as a ruthless assault on free speech and democracy. SInce the coup in 2016, over 150,000 have been arrested, suspended or dismissed. Last year’s referendum, proposing changes to the Turkish constitution marked a personal triumph for Erdogan and a seismic power shift in his favour. The razor thin 51–49 % win for the “Yes” campaign meant the abolishment of the Prime Minister’s office, and the replacement of a parliamentary system with a presidential one. Erdogan would gain more control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors (Poland, anyone?), as well as the power to personally call a state of emergency and dismiss parliament. This trend in Turkey is extremely worrying for the international community. But Erdogan, similarly as Kaczynski in Poland, is widely popular at home among a broad coalition of rural, less-affluent and religious voters, giving him a certain degree of legitimacy to instigate far-reaching changes in the country

The same cannot be said about Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s unpopular dictator-in-the-making. Last year, Maduro, who replaced the deceased, charismatic and strongly anti-American leader Hugo Chavez in 2013, tightened his grip on power, jailing political opponents and swearing in a new all-powerful legislative body — the constituent assembly. This assembly will gain unlimited powers to dissolve parliament, amend legislation and rewrite the country’s constitution (Turkey, anyone?). Marred by allegations of voter fraud, the most severe economic crisis in the country’s recorded history, and massive protests around the country, Maduro’s reign just might prove short-lived; 2018 will witness presidential elections in Venezuela, with the Socialist party confirming on February 3rd that Maduro will be their candidate. One can expect Maduro to win easily and remain in power, as his leading opponents have been banned from running against him. But a severe economic recession, an angry, frustrated population and a widely unpopular dictator seem like three perfect ingredients for revolution. Most recently, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson suggested the military might step in to remove Maduro, joking that the leader should seek refuge in Cuba. One might speculate whether the comment was backed by intelligence and behind-closed-doors information acquired by the US’s top diplomat.

Examples outlined above (and others i.e The Philippines, Hungary, arguably the US) point to a simple conclusion: 2017 was not a good year for democracy. The Washington Post replaced its old slogan with a new one: “Democracy dies in darkness” — a not so gentle reminder to all of us that democracy and our political empowerment fades behind the scenes if and when we decide to look away and stop caring about Politics. Then comes an economic crisis directly hitting our pockets; A corrupt judge unfairly rules against one of our relatives; A referendum result jeopardizes our opportunities to travel and work freely around Europe; A demagogue becomes the world’s most powerful man… THEN we care about Politics, but “then” could also mean too late to make meaningful changes without accepting serious sacrifices. Just ask the jailed journalists in Turkey, who have sacrificed their freedoms and wellbeing to defend universal democratic ideals.

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