Lawfare reaches Poland – if Civic Platform win on Sunday, prepare to see its opponents put on trial

Leader of main opposition party Civic Platform (PO) Donald Tusk appears on a screen while speaking at a TV studio during the election debate broadcast on Polish TV in Warsaw, Poland, 09 October 2023. EPA-EFE/Radek Pietruszka


When we observe the Polish public debate, we are struck by the brutality of the confrontation between Civic Platform (PO) and Law and Justice (PiS). We have the impression that each party considers the other a vital danger to the survival of Poland.

According to PiS, PO is a pro-German or even pro-Russian party that cannot govern sovereignly. According to PO, PiS is an authoritarian party that is destroying Polish democracy and cutting ties with European institutions. There are several explanations for this brutality.

Poland is grappling with a clash between traditionalism and modern liberalism. Polarising issues like religion, LGBTQ+ rights, and women’s reproductive rights exacerbate divisions. This ideological tug-of-war often amplifies existing political tensions, making the environment appear even more brutal.

The ongoing economic transformation since the end of Communist rule is another factor. The shift to a market economy has created disparities in wealth and access to resources (notably between PiS-voting Eastern Poland and PO-voting Western Poland), fueling discontent and often finding expression through extreme political positions.

The media landscape serves as an echo chamber, reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and rarely providing a balanced viewpoint. This can lead to misinformation, mistrust, and further radicalisation of political stances.

Further complicating the media landscape is the foreign ownership, particularly from Germany, of the majority of Polish opposition press. This foreign control can skew public perception.

But most importantly, the political animosity in Poland is deeply rooted in the nation’s tumultuous history, which has been characterised by struggles for survival against foreign invaders and oppressive regimes. From the partitions of the late 18th century to the fight against Nazi occupation and subsequent Communist rule, Poland has a longstanding tradition of battling for its independence and sovereignty.

This fight against external influence extends to modern politics. While not direct descendants, PiS and PO can be seen as contemporary manifestations of factions that have existed since the 17th century, advocating either for foreign collaboration or national independence.

PO, founded in 2001, initially positioned itself as a pro-European party, focusing on integrating Poland into Western European institutions. This approach garnered them support among those who sought economic prosperity through association with stronger European economies. However, critics argue that this stance can sometimes come at the expense of national sovereignty.

PiS, founded in 2001 too, draws its ideological lineage from the Solidarity movement that opposed Communist rule. PiS advocates for a strong, independent Poland and often adopts a sceptical stance toward European integration. While their approach has appealed to a large segment of the population who value national sovereignty, it has also led to accusations of isolating Poland from its Western allies.

This political division can be interpreted as a continuation of Poland’s historical struggle against foreign influence, with one side advocating for stronger ties with international organisations as a safeguard, and the other insisting on independence and national sovereignty as the path to security and prosperity. The tension between these viewpoints are rooted in centuries of political polarisation.

This situation creates difficult conditions for democracy and the risk for one political party to go too far in its fight. This is why the Polish democracy is endangered today, but not by those who are usually accused by foreign powers of undermining it.

Those who accuse PiS of engaging in anti-German rhetoric or conducting a hateful campaigns against PO are omitting a fact, which the Western press as a whole ignores: PO’s political trials programme. Yes, you read correctly.

PO has accused PiS of various forms of malfeasance, labelling it as authoritarian. These allegations, however, are incongruous when viewed against the backdrop of PO’s own proposed measures — measures that could be described as punitive and targeted against political rivals.

PO has announced its intent to prosecute several high-profile members of PiS, through both the State Tribunal and criminal proceedings.

For instance, they aim to bring Andrzej Duda, the President, to the State Tribunal for allegedly refusing to accept the oaths of three Constitutional Tribunal judges and for the application of presidential pardons to certain individuals.

Additionally, they target Adam Glapiński, President of the National Bank of Poland, suggesting he has failed in his obligation to combat inflation — despite inflation being a multifaceted issue not solely under the purview of the central bank.

Moreover, the Civic Platform’s plan extends to filing criminal charges against various other individuals — ranging from Jarosław Kaczyński, accused of attempting to change the political system, to lower-level officials like those accused of procuring faulty respirators.

The expansive list of individuals and the nature of the accusations levelled against them indicate a strategy aimed at incapacitating the effective functioning of PiS. This method of systematically targeting political opponents for legal scrutiny bears resemblance to political purges rather than democratic oversight.

Contrary to what some may think, such tactics diverge significantly from Western political norms. In democracies, political disagreements are generally resolved through electoral competition and parliamentary debates, not through legal actions that might be perceived as politically motivated.