Poland’s political shifts and their impact on democracy, judiciary, and media

Poland is currently experiencing a political shift that could have far-reaching consequences for the country’s democracy, judiciary, and media. Pro-EU leader Donald Tusk is set to return to power, with his coalition government expected to gain a majority of seats in the Sejm, Poland’s parliament. This follows an election in which a record number of voters turned out, motivated by concerns about the erosion of democratic principles under the right-wing PiS government.

One of the key issues at stake is the independence of Poland’s courts. The EU has withheld over €30bn in Covid recovery funds due to concerns about the politicization of the judicial system. Tusk and his coalition partners have promised to prioritize restoring the system’s independence, but progress has been slow. The PiS government argues that its reforms aimed to improve efficiency and break up old elites, but critics argue that they have politicized the judiciary and targeted those who speak out against the government.

The battle over the judiciary has had consequences beyond the loss of EU funds. Analysts predict that the new government will struggle to meet promises on raising teachers’ salaries, improving healthcare, and maintaining social spending without the recovery funds. The process of implementing reforms and resolving the issue of the judiciary is likely to be fraught, with divisions over whether the newly appointed judges should remain in their posts. President Andrzej Duda, who is aligned with PiS, also holds the power to veto any legislative changes.

Another headline promise from Tusk’s coalition is a radical overhaul of state media, which they describe as a “factory of lies and hatred.” Under PiS, Poland has seen a decline in press freedom rankings, and high-profile cases of political interference in public media have emerged. Radio 357, launched by staff who resigned or were sacked from public radio’s Channel 3, is a testament to the changes in the media landscape. The station operates mainly on listener donations and aims to provide independent news and content.

The new government will face a long list of promises to fulfill, including reforming abortion laws. Women’s groups, such as Strajk Kobiet, have led protests against the near-total ban on terminations in Poland and expect Tusk to take action to legalize abortion up to 12 weeks and end the prosecution of individuals providing abortion advice or morning-after pills. The engagement level of voters remains high, as evidenced by the demand for tickets to Kinoteka’s screening of parliamentary proceedings.

The outcome of Poland’s political shifts will have a significant impact on the country’s democracy, judiciary, and media. The restoration of an independent judiciary, addressing concerns of politicization in the courts, and ensuring press freedom will be key challenges for the new government. Additionally, fulfilling promises on social spending, education, and healthcare without the EU recovery funds will require careful planning and decision-making. The government’s handling of these issues will shape the future trajectory of Poland’s political landscape and its relationship with the European Union.