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Dangerous power plays in Poland, – DW

Poland’s parliament has passed a law that puts the formerly independent attorney general’s office under the control of the justice ministry. It is an unsettling move, says DW’s Bartosz Dudek.

Zbigniew Ziobro is now both justice minister and attorney general

It is a further step by the new conservative government on its path toward consolidation of power. After putting restrictions on the constitutional court, turning public broadcasters into state mouthpieces, and effectively doing away with the political neutrality of its civil service, the governing party in Poland has created another tool it can put to use in a variety of ways: The justice minister will, in future, also serve as attorney general.

Attorney generals often under political control

The law was passed in the manner that has recently become commonplace. Within the shortest possible timeframe, at night, and with no consideration of experts who spoke out against the changes. The opposition voted against the law.

Proponents argued that the separation of the two functions, first introduced in 2010, had not proved effective in fighting crime. Further, they argued that their solution is already being practiced successfully in one of the world’s foremost democracies, the United States.
Dudek Bartosz Kommentarbild App

Bartosz Dudek is head of DW’s Polish service

And while that may be true, it is also true that combining the functions of justice minister and attorney general remains a rare occurrence in the democratic world.

In many countries, including Germany, it is true that in terms of hierarchy, the attorney general is subordinate to the justice minister. Attorney generals are often little more than political civil servants, not representatives of an independent judiciary separated from the executive branch.

Let’s be honest: Even in developed democracies, there is always the temptation for politics to try and influence the judiciary via the attorney general’s office. The latest German example of that isn’t even from that long ago. In September 2015, the German justice minister made use of his supervisory rights to order the immediate retirement of Germany’s then chief federal prosecutor – as the office of attorney general is known there.

It was prompted by a treason investigation into two journalists – a case that had not gone down well with the German media, nor many politicians in Berlin. Even though the accusations against the journalists were pretty absurd, politicians did not want to await the results of a trial, and as a result, Germany’s chief prosecutor was more or less fired.

Democratic principles affected

But when you consider the larger context of Polish politics in recent months, the consolidation of these two offices offers grounds for concern. Especially if you consider that the Polish justice minister and attorney general will be granted the kind of wide-ranging powers that are not the norm in other democratic countries.

He won’t just have disciplinary power over ongoing cases; he will also be able to intervene with regard to content. In other words: He will decide who will be sued, and which cases should be dropped. This is an attempt to override the separation of powers, and it affects the principles that are the foundation of democratic states.

In the end, it will not be the theoretical powers of the new office so much as how these powers will be used in practice that will be decisive. But based on the experience between 2005 and 2007, when the current justice minister and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s “Law and Order” sheriff, Zbigniew Ziobro, previously held this office, it is hard to believe much good will come of it.

Rather, it seems likely that he will wholeheartedly exploit the new possibilities given him by merging these two offices. Those who believe in democracy should not accept a justice minister who is allowed to open criminal proceedings against his political opponents.

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