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Scrutiny concerns as Poland’s new government legislates round the clock

European commission

Fast-paced reforms and late-night votes left one MP dozing during a budget vote and human rights groups complaining of lack of oversight. In another country – or in a different Poland – the smartphone video of Krzysztof Jurgiel sleeping in an armchair in parliament might cost the agriculture minister his job. The budget vote in the chamber had to be delayed while fellow MPs went looking for him at 2am last Saturday.

But Jurgiel’s nap has met with sympathy both inside and outside the Sejm, Poland’s parliament. In barely three months since the Law and Justice party came to power, Polish governance has moved out of hours, into late nights, weekends and holidays. Critics say the frantic new pace, which sees laws go from committee stage to enactment in record time, is being set by party founder and leader Jarosław Kaczyński.

“He is Poland’s most well-known late riser. He works at night,” said Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs. “Kaczyński famously avoided arrest during the overnight martial law round-up in 1981 because he slept through it. Now it seems the whole of parliament is expected to follow his clock.”

The nationalist Law and Justice government – sceptical of Brussels and Russia in equal measure, and close to the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic church – was sworn in in mid-November with Beata Szydło as prime minister. Its populist agenda so convinced voters that after the 25 October elections, it became the first party to able to govern alone in Poland since the end of communism in 1989.

But it also seems to be bringing back single-party memories, such as a “Bolshevik-style treatment of the people,” said Paweł Kukiz, a populist MP. The former rock star, who heads the third largest grouping in parliament, claimed the late-night sittings are a sign of government disdain for the political process.

Kukiz said that before Jurgiel fell asleep last Friday evening, the budget debate had been delayed for several hours so that Kaczyński, who is not a minister, could attend a man of the year ceremony hosted by a newspaper. “I can work from dawn to dawn, if there are good reasons, but not for the presentation of an award,” Kukiz told a radio station.

Another MP, Krzysztof Brejza, wrote to the speaker, Marek Kuchciński, asking where the money will be found for parliamentary staff who are currently owed 76,000zł (£13,200) in overtime payments as a result of recent late sessions.
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Kaczyński’s agenda is to lift Poland from “the ruins” he claims the country was left in by eight years of the liberal Civic Platform government.

First up: reform of the constitutional tribunal – the highest court in the land, which blocked many initiatives when Law and Justice was last in power between 2005 and 2007. Four out of five new judges chosen by the party – Henryk Cioch, Lech Morawski, Mariusz Muszyński and Piotr Pszczółkowski – were summoned to take their oaths before President Andrzej Duda at a pre-breakfast ceremony on 3 December at 7am.

Then came Christmas. But Kaczyński’s acolytes didn’t stop for long. In the early hours of 28 December, new rules for the constitutional tribunal were adopted. Late on 30 December parliament passed a media law, terminating the contracts of public service broadcasting chiefs and charging the Treasury with appointing new ones. By 7 January the media law had passed through the Senate and was signed by Duda. The legality of both laws is under review by the European commission.

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