Poland’s Rulers Test Power With Media Law Opposed by U.S.
(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s governing coalition collapsed before a parliamentary vote on a controversial media law, testing the ruling party’s grip on power and raising the prospect of more radical nationalist forces having a greater say in where the country goes next.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki effectively ended a six-year agreement on Tuesday by firing his deputy, Jaroslaw Gowin, the leader of a small satellite party in the government. The tipping point was Gowin’s opposition to legislation controlling independent media that targets Discovery Inc., the U.S. owner of Poland’s largest private television network.
Gowin was increasingly isolated as the more liberal, pro-Brussels voice in Poland’s recent clashes with the European Union over the government’s undermining of the independent judiciary and the media. His exit leaves the governing Law & Justice party with minority support in parliament and opens the door to closer cooperation with far-right lawmakers who have questioned the merits of EU membership.
Wednesday’s vote on the draft media law will be an immediate test of strength for Law & Justice and its only remaining partner, a small group allied with hardline Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro. The bill has been criticized by U.S. senators, the State Department and the EU as an attempt to muzzle independent media.
The timing of the vote remains unclear after the lower house passed an opposition-sponsored motion to adjourn the sitting until next month. The chamber’s speaker, from the ruling party, may repeat the vote after a lawmaker said he made a mistake during the ballot. Opposition groups say that would break protocol.
Ziobro wanted Poland to veto the EU’s virus recovery package last year and has broached the topic of the country leaving the 27-nation bloc. The zloty was little changed against the euro on Wednesday.
“Gowin’s dismissal could radicalize the government,” said Barbara Brodzinska-Mirowska, a political scientist from Torun University. “The division of roles has been clear -- with Gowin being a pro-European and liberal voice in the cabinet and Ziobro to the contrary.”
Early elections are also possible, though Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- the most powerful politician in the country -- said in April that he doesn’t predict a new ballot before the regularly scheduled vote in late 2023. That said, a lot depends on how he assesses the revival of the opposition under Donald Tusk, the former EU president who returned to the front line of Polish politics this year.
Law & Justice is “certain” it has enough backers in parliament to implement its program, including the media bill on Wednesday, government spokesman Piotr Muller said.
Gowin said his party was open to cooperation with the opposition but that most likely Law & Justice would continue to rule with a minority administration, backed on an ad hoc basis by independent lawmakers as well as smaller political parties.
It’s not immediately clear if all of the 13 lawmakers in Gowin’s Agreement party will leave the coalition, which until now controlled 232 out of the lower house’s 460 seats.
Gowin had attacked Law & Justice for poaching his lawmakers and saw himself as pro-free market force in the cabinet. He said his party won’t support the media law forcing Discovery to sell its Polish unit, including a news channel that has unearthed graft and nepotism at various levels of government.
Thousands of people protested against the media law on Tuesday evening in about 100 Polish cities and towns, calling the legislation an attempt to muzzle critical journalists and reverse the country’s embrace of western democratic standards.
Poland has been the biggest net recipient of EU money, getting more than 130 billion euros ($152 billion) since it joined in 2004 that transformed the economy. Yet concern over the erosion of rule of law in Poland and Hungary have led to threats of delay payouts from the region’s pandemic stimulus fund.
Poland has slid in press freedom rankings since Law & Justice took power in 2015. Besides taking on the media, authorities have also picked fights with European partners over judicial independence and LGBTQ+ rights.
To gamble on an early election, Law & Justice would need to table a motion to dissolve parliament, which would pass only if it’s backed by 307 lawmakers -- meaning support from the main opposition parties.
The opposition could also propose a constructive vote of no confidence in the government, proposing their own candidate to run the administration, although that would require support from across the political spectrum, which remains unlikely.
Opinion polls show Law & Justice winning the next election, unless Tusk can marshall the opposition to form a unified pro-EU front. Kaczynski opted to stage a snap election in 2007 only to lose power for the next eight years to the Civic Platform party and ushering in Tusk as prime minister until 2014.
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