Polish budget debate sparks protests over rules on media’s role

Protests over authoritarianism in Poland persist outside parliament building

Polish MP Michal Szczerba is still surprised he sparked the latest round in his country's worsening constitutional crisis. It was Friday evening and the 39-year-old opposition politician took to the podium of the Sejm parliament in Warsaw to present some proposed amendments to the budget.

Before he spoke he put a piece of paper on the podium reading #freemediainsejm – a protest against new parliament rules limiting press access to parliament in the new year. Then all hell broke loose.

"The first warning, second warning and exclusion happened in just 20 seconds," said Mr Szczerba of the opposition Civic Platform (PO) to The Irish Times.

After he was kicked out, opposition MPs occupied the speaker’s podium in protest, halting the budget debate. That prompted a walkout from MPs of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). They reconvened in another chamber where, without opposition MPs or media present, they voted with a show of hands to pass the budget. Word spread on social media, angry protesters blocked the Sejm exits and it was 3am on Saturday morning before government ministers could leave the Sejm under a police escort.

Three days later, Mr Szczerba believes his exclusion and the subsequent standoff was not decided by the parliamentary speaker, but orchestrated by PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The seasoned politician, considered by many to be Poland's de facto prime minister, was photographed leaving parliament early on Saturday morning wearing what the Fakt tabloid dubbed a "cynical grin". It thundered on its Monday front page: "You are destroying the Sejm! You are destroying Poland! "

Destabilising forces

For the PiS-friendly Gazeta Polska, however, the weekend drama was the fault of a political opposition trying to destabilise Poland.

"And those who have an interest in that," it warned its readers, "are Russia and Germany. "

A year after PiS came to power, the dispute over the budget is just the latest chapter in battle for power that has polarised Poland and poisoned public debate. The national conservative PiS have promised a radical renewal of Polish society but opposition parties accuse PiS of eliminating all democratic safeguards, including press freedom and the constitutional tribunal, to establish an authoritarian state.

Outside the Sejm parliament building on Monday, about 40 people, the dregs of the weekend protest of some 2,000, warm their hands around a log bonfire or bowls of soup.

“We’re not saying the government shouldn’t rule but they should rule according to the constitution,” said Barbara (58), vowing to stay until the budget vote is repeated. “We remember communism and how authoritarianism can slowly creep in and take away our freedoms.”

Most of the crowd are over 50. One of the few young people here, Kamila, says she was born in 1992 and has no memory of communism.

“But this atmosphere caused by the government is polarising our society,” she said. “Because of my liberal views some of my friends now call me a ‘mindless lemming’.”

Watching the protesters from across the road, wearing a sardonic smile, is Artur, a 25 year-old Pole home from London.

“This is stupid, these people should go home and make dumplings for Christmas,” he said. “Mr Kaczynski is a very good strategist and several moves ahead in this game, but I do worry his game is pushing contemporary Poland backwards.”

Cold gloom

In the freezing Warsaw gloom on Monday, politicians, spin doctors and journalists speculated on whether the most recent drama was part of Mr Kaczynski’s long-term strategy to retool political institutions to his personal whims. Or whether he is driving by sight – and caught off-guard by the blowback on the budget vote.

Inside the Sejm, chastened parliamentary leaders met with journalists and agreed to water down proposed new rules limiting media access to parliament. An upper house vote on the 2017 budget has been postponed from Tuesday until January 11th. But while the ruling PiS still claims it has adopted a valid budget for next year, the opposition disagrees. The budget is just as illegal as the closed-door gathering that voted for it on Friday night, it says.

Mr Szczerba, whose protest sparked the standoff, is fearful of what the budget row means for Poland in the new year.

“It is important that the budget is approved in the correct way as it contains many projects co-financed by the EU,” said the politician.

“The situation does not look very good for 2017. Kaczynski is following the Hungarian way of politics but even faster, without any consideration of public or European opinion.”