Polish president Andrzej Duda has attacked the departing ombudsman as "anti-Polish" for suggesting their central European homeland has taken an "anti-democratic" turn.
The president's remarks came amid the forced departure of ombudsman Adam Bodnar, a public official with a human rights focus.
To his supporters, Mr Bodnar is the final independent institution not allied with or controlled by Poland’s ruling national conservative Law and Justice party (PiS).
He has been a regular target due to his outspoken criticism of the government’s far-reaching reforms of the judiciary, public broadcaster and other aspects of Polish life.
Mr Bodnar accused the current Polish government of "successively trying to paralyse or control ... the mechanisms of power, one by one". He said the government, steered by PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, now in its second term, had "marginalised the role of parliament" and made it beholden to the constitutional court, the public prosecutor and public media.
All of these institutions, he said, were in turn packed with direct or indirect PiS appointees, which, viewed as a whole, were contributing to Poland’s shift “in the direction of an undemocratic state”.
This was contested by Mr Duda, an ally of PiS in his second term as Polish head of state. He dismissed the ombudsman’s words as “slogans” that were “simply anti-Polish in my view, and, from the Polish point of view, anti-state”. It was unacceptable for Mr Bodnar to make claims to the international community, which, the president said, were “unsupported by objective facts [with] nothing in common with reality”.
The Polish president said that "absolutely unquestioned democratic elections are held" in Poland, including last year's parliamentary poll and his own re-election.
The Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, in a report on the election, found no problem with polling day itself but took issue with the preceding campaign. This was marred by “intolerant rhetoric”, in particular by public broadcaster TVP, which “failed in its duty to offer balanced and impartial coverage”.
The clash is a final war of words before the forced departure of Mr Bodnar from office after a ruling by the constitutional court. That chamber, which is controlled by judges Mr Bodnar and PiS opponents consider illegitimate, set aside a law allowing the ombudsman to remain in office until a successor is found.
For months, Poland’s government-controlled lower house, the Sejm, has been deadlocked with the opposition-controlled upper house, the Senate, over a new ombudsman.
A law allowing him to stay on until then, the court ruled, was too loosely worded and set aside. For Mr Bodnar, whose term ended officially last September, the decision to remove him was politically motivated and would “compromise the stability” of the office and “threaten human rights in Poland”.
Mr Bodnar has spoken out critically, too, of the approach of Brussels to developments in Poland, particularly the new commission under president Ursula von der Leyen.
He said Brussels "hasn't really accomplished anything" other than allowing Warsaw to "solidify changes" that have allowed "the subordination of the judiciary".
Warsaw's lengthy battle with the European Commission – and the EU's highest court – continues to work its way through the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). A ruling is looming over whether recent judicial reforms and appointments are in keeping with European law.
Last month a CJEU advocate general said serious doubts existed about the independence of Poland’s judiciary because “the manner of appointment of its members are capable of giving rise to legitimate doubts”.
Warsaw has consistently denied claims of political interference in the judiciary, and the CJEU is not obliged to follow the advocate general’s opinion in its final ruling.