Poles take to streets – and Mass – in anti-government protests

Warsaw Letter: Country’s ruling PiS party is accused of trampling over the constitution

In the chilly gloom of Warsaw’s Dominican Friars church, three confessionals are doing a roaring pre-Christmas trade – on a Monday evening.

As people shuffle forward, the bell rings up at the front. The Mass begins and the message is not long coming.

Fr Alfred Wierzbiecki, one of the black friars here, notes in his homily how "thousands of citizens are protesting against the threat of authoritarianism" in Poland.

In the packed pews, people are leaning forward. The people in the confessionals are listening too, sins forgotten, as the priest recalls democracy’s weak spot: its inbuilt self-destruction button.


“Laws enacted by parliament need an ethical foundation and pluralistic conditions to find the truth,” he says quietly. “But the institutions enabling political debate in Poland today are being destroyed.”

At the end the crowd claps for more than a minute, showing their support for his words and for the man being honoured at this mass: the head of Poland's constitutional tribunal, Prof Andrzej Rzeplinski.

His tribunal has come under sustained assault since the national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, headed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, came to power a year ago.

With Prof Rzeplinski’s retirement last week, many Poles fear the final pillar of a state beyond government control has fallen.

The battle began with judicial appointments. Instead of appointing three judges named by the last government, the new PiS administration installed its own. When the court found this – and subsequent PiS laws – unconstitutional, the government simply halted publication of tribunal rulings in the state gazette, the last step for rulings to take effect.

Banished to a legal limbo, PiS announced far-reaching new procedures for the constitutional tribunal’s operations. When, as expected, the independent judges bristled at this interference, the PiS government tied them in further legal knots and is now legislating without judicial oversight.

The government’s justification for all of this: Rzeplinski and his colleagues were part of an old, post-communist order out to get Kaczynski, arrogant judges who refused to bow to the government’s parliamentary majority as the ultimate democratic instance.

‘Absolute comedy’

For months the European Commission has warned PiS that it is risking the rule of law. Last week, Brussels warned Warsaw to roll back changes within two weeks or else. Kaczynski laughed off this warning as an "absolute comedy", insisting his government was acting legally. He knows that the EU's big gun – sanctions against a member state – can only be fired if all with member states agree. And Hungary backs Poland.

Two hours after his farewell Mass, Rzeplinski appeared on a private news channel, his grey skin and the haunted shadows under his eyes suggesting a heart attack waiting to happen.

The 67-year-old let fly at PiS for “trampling on the constitution” and its “tormenting hate” towards the tribunal.

The retiring tribunal president said that Kaczynski, though he holds no official government post, now enjoys “full personal power”.

“But he wants even more,” said Rzeplinski, “and he is unstoppable now.”

Last year PiS scored a double ballot box win, taking the presidential palace and then an absolute majority in parliament, a post-communist first in Poland.

Voters, frustrated by the unequal spread of the spoils in recent years, embraced the anti-elite PiS promise to rule for the many, not the few.

And there has been change, from a 500 zloty (€113) a month child allowance to a cut in the retirement age. After bowing to massive protest, PiS abandoned plans to ban abortion and left the restrictive abortion status quo intact. Instead it adopted a one-off “pro-life” payment of 4,000 zloty (€906) for parents of handicapped children.

For younger Poles and those struggling in rural areas, cash in hand is more important to their daily lives than abstract concepts such as the separation of powers, underpinned in the 1997 constitution.

Last week President Andrzej Duda, a Kaczynski protege so loyal that his former constitutional law professor has disowned him, appointed another Kaczynski loyalist as acting head of the tribunal. Illegally, argue critics. The justice minister, another PiS man, is double-jobbing after taking on the role of what used to be the independent state prosecutor.

State broadcaster TVP is, under PiS, a pro-government propaganda outfit while further attempts to curtail media freedoms in the Sejm parliament caused a near riot last week.

A year after Poles made their sovereign choice, polls still give PiS steady support. But does securing one-third of popular support at a poll allow one party – in effect, one man – reprogramme a country’s democratic DNA?

Back in Warsaw’s Dominician church, the confessional queue was still shuffling forward.

"Pope John Paul knew there is a price to pay for freedom," said Fr Alfred Wierzbiecki. "That freedom is not a gift but something for which one fights." But will Poland fight?