In September, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s controversial Law and Justice party (PiS) and the grey eminence behind the Polish government, warned his deputies (members of parliament) to prepare themselves psychologically for “dramatic sessions of parliament” toward the end of the year. On Friday, they discovered exactly what he meant, when a protest against the exclusion of an opposition deputy from parliament culminated in an occupation of the main hall and a mass protest outside the parliament building that threatened to turn violent.
The current government, nominally led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło but generally understood to be steered by Mr Kaczyński, has spent the past year enacting a series of reforms to Poland’s state institutions, civil service and public media in defiance of international criticism and domestic opposition. In recent weeks, amendments limiting the right of assembly have provoked widespread public protests, while a controversial set of proposals to restrict media access to deputies in the parliament building have incurred the wrath of journalists.
During Friday’s debate on next year’s budget, Michał Szczerba – of the opposition Civic Platform party – was excluded by speaker Marek Kuchciński from the day’s session after a dispute over a sign he displayed from the podium in protest at the media restrictions. Opposition deputies then occupied the platform, disrupting the session and forcing it to be adjourned. For several hours there was a standoff, with occupants refusing to disperse until their colleague’s ban was rescinded.
Following an intervention by Mr Kaczyński, the speaker opted not to reinstate Mr Szczerba but to restart parliamentary proceedings in a separate committee room. This led to chaotic scenes as PiS deputies attempted to secure a quorum by persuading individual opposition deputies to join them, while those who were not occupying the platform tried to gain access to the committee room. Videos circulated on social media showing furious deputies waving their passes at parliamentary guards who were blocking their path, and shoving matches ensued.
The session was eventually restarted just after 21.30pm local time. All individual amendments to the budget bill were combined into a few votes, and the bill was swiftly passed. The absence of electronic voting equipment in the conference room meant that votes were taken on a show of hands. The absence of a definitive list of deputies present, allegations of unauthorised people raising their hands to vote, and the signing of the official attendance register by several government ministers after the session had concluded further fuelled suspicions that the vote was illegal.
As events developed inside, a crowd of several thousand protesters massed outside the parliament building, blocking all exits and preventing deputies from leaving. The chaos that had reigned inside the parliament building moved outside, as protesters attempted to confront departing government ministers. With the atmosphere turning increasingly threatening, the police used force to move those blocking the exit routes.
While the initial protest was dispersed, the situation remains unresolved. Several opposition deputies still occupy the plenary hall, while the police have cordoned off the main building to prevent further protests disrupting proceedings. Public media – dominated by government appointees – spent the weekend warning darkly of “attempts to destabilise the state,” while PiS spokeswoman Beata Mazurek tweeted an inflammatory warning about expected “incursions” on party offices by enraged protesters.
The Polish president announced a climbdown on the media restrictions Tuesday, but last Friday’s events will have serious consequences in the longer term. The willingness of ruling-party deputies to participate in parliamentary proceedings of questionable legality – and the willingness of the President to let this proceed unchallenged – sets an unwelcome precedent for the rule of law in Poland.
Even if the current political crisis abates, Poland’s constitutional structure looks set to become increasingly dysfunctional. But it is hard, given Mr Kaczyński’s unyielding stance, to avoid concluding that this may be the point.