Polish Leader Marks Crackdown With Plans to Curb Opposition

(Bloomberg) -- Thirty-five years to the day after a bloody communist crackdown on pro-democracy activists, Polish ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski brushed off concerns that he’s curbing freedoms and vowed to pursue laws to make the opposition “more orderly.”

Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday to commemorate the 1981 declaration of martial law crackdown and tell the Law & Justice party to “stop devastating Poland,” according to the organizers at the Committee for the Defense of Democracy. Kaczynski, who has raised concern among fellow European Union leaders over a rise of populist forces across the continent, said the Polish opposition group’s call for civil disobedience is “anti-state” and amounts to “criminal” activity.

“We will try to make opposition actions more orderly,” Kaczynski told public radio. “I’m afraid it will be interpreted as an attempt to curb freedoms. Nonetheless, we will put these proposals forward.”

The power behind Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s year-old government, Kaczynski has led the ruling party to adopt laws to take direct control of prosecutors and public media, while also trying to sideline the country’s Constitutional Tribunal. He didn’t elaborate on which measures he might pursue in what has become the biggest overhaul of the Polish state since its transition from communism in 1989.

The EU has already responded with an unprecedented probe into a member state’s democratic order, while Poland suffered its first ever downgrade by S&P Global Ratings. The zloty is the worst-performing currency among emerging European peers this year after the Turkish lira, having weakened 4 percent against the euro and more than 6 percent to the dollar.

Symbolic Timing

Asked about these comments, Law & Justice spokeswoman Beata Mazurek told reporters that the proposals will be published when ready, adding that they will be similar to “those functioning elsewhere in the world.” Opposition leader Grzegorz Schetyna said it was “symbolic” that Kaczynski presented these views on the anniversary of the imposition of martial law .

  • Poland’s communist leaders in 1981 ordered the army to deploy tanks on street corners, set a curfew and jailed dissidents 
  • More than 120 people were killed
  • Within two years, the communists started to repeal emergency measures and by the end of the 1980s brokered a peaceful transition to democracy with many dissidents, including Solidarity trade union leader Lech Walesa

Kaczynski, a minor dissident figure in communist times who wasn’t detained during the Martial Law, says the deal that brought democracy to the nation of 38 million was rotten and benefited the elites that his government is seeking to bring down a quarter century later.

Kaczynski has joined a growing number of European politicians who has announced his opposition to deeper integration and oversight from Brussels. Last month he said Poland would battle his country’s allies to restore “full” sovereignty.

Poland’s parliament, where Law & Justice commands a majority, will debate a bill this week on public gatherings that places limits on demonstrations and has been criticized by the Council of Europe human rights watchdog. Lawmakers are also working on legislation that would allow the president and prime minister to pick an interim chief justice of the Constitutional Tribunal, breaking with rules that allow judges to choose their own leader.

Protesters set off from the former central offices of the communist party and marched through downtown Warsaw to reach Law & Justice’s headquarters.

“History has made a turn,” said Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, one of the organizers and a former Solidarity leader. “That’s why we have to tell Mr. Kaczynski about our rights.”