A majority of Poles regard the government’s overhaul of the judiciary as an attempt to violate the rule of law, finds a new poll. It also shows that support for the measures has declined over the last three years.
The latest data reinforce previous polling, which has consistently shown that more Poles oppose than support the radical changes to the court system made by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).
The government has justified many of its changes – and in particular a recent tough new disciplinary regime for dissenting judges – by arguing that the judiciary is a privileged elite that has for too long been allowed to govern itself, resulting in systemic “pathologies” that need to be eliminated.
“We cannot tolerate the pathology…[of] a significant proportion of judges [who] do not comply with the law,” said PiS chairman, and Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński last month. “It is an obstacle to the development of Poland.”
President Andrzej Duda struck a similar tone in January, warning that “Black sheep among judges must be eliminated” in order to “repair the justice system”.
Yet a new poll by Ipsos for website OKO.press suggests that not only are few people convinced by such rhetoric, but that the proportion who are is decreasing. Respondents were asked to choose between two statements:
- PiS’s policy towards the courts is an attempt to limit the privileges of a group that does not respect any other authority and is unable to reform itself
- PiS’s policy towards the courts is an unacceptable attempt to violate the rule of law and give politicians control over the judiciary
- Don’t know/hard to say.
A majority of respondents (55%) said that the policy was an attempt to violate the rule of law and take control of the courts. Only 31% saw it as a justified effort to reform a privileged group.
Ipsos asked exactly the same question in March 2017, at a time when PiS had moved to take control of the Constitutional Tribunal but was yet to enact its reforms of the Supreme Court, common courts and National Council of the Judiciary (KRS) that sparked mass protests and intervention from the European Union.
Three years ago, the proportion who saw PiS as seeking to violate the rule of law (51%) was slightly lower, while those who agreed with its justification for overhauling the judiciary (39%) was higher than it is now. 10% gave no opinion in 2017, and 14% now.
In the current data, Ipsos found that even among supporters of PiS, 19% saw the party’s policies as an “unacceptable attempt to take control of the judiciary”. Among supports of the Civic Platform (PO), the main centrist opposition, only 8% believed PiS was trying to limit judicial privileges.
Attitudes were also directly correlated with age, with the youngest group (18-29 years old) the most likely to see PiS’s policies as unacceptable (72%). That figure then declined among each successively older group: 30-39 years old (58%), 40-49 years old (52%), 50-59 years old (51%), 60+ (46%).
Even among the oldest age group, however, the proportion who think the policies are justified (38%) was lower than those who do not.
Meanwhile, people in the largest cities (more than 500,000 people) were most likely to disapprove of the government’s judicial policies (66%). The lowest opposition was in villages, where PiS enjoys strong support. Yet even there, 50% said the policies were unacceptable and only 32% took the opposite view.
Similar polling throughout PiS’s time in power has found that, while the public do want the judiciary to be reformed, they are not supportive of the specific measures taken by the government, nor accepting of the justifications given for them.
In 2016, when PiS was in a dispute with the Constitutional Tribunal as it sought to engineer its own nominees into a controlling majority, a CBOS poll found that 45% supported the tribunal’s position, while only 29% took the side of the ruling party.
The following year, when attempts to overhaul the Supreme Court were underway, a Kantar Millward Brown poll for TVN found that half of respondents (49%) thought PiS’s reforms were designed “above all to subordinate the judiciary to the ruling party”. Only 28% said the aim was “to serve justice reform and improve the functioning of courts”.
Later that year, when parliament had passed legislation on the Supreme Court, an IBRiS poll for Rzeczpospolita found that 53% did not want President Duda to sign it and only 34% thought that he should.
Another IBRiS poll for the same newspaper in 2018 found that a majority (53%) thought that changes to the Constitutional Tribunal enacted by the PiS-controlled parliament had had a negative effect. Only 30% thought that the results of the reforms were positive. Likewise, 47% said that further changes to other courts being pursued at the time by PiS would reduce trust in the judiciary, while only 26% said they would increase it.
Poll: In the dispute between the Supreme Court and the president/government, who is in the right?
51% – Supreme Court
22% – President/government
3% – Neither
24% – Don't know https://t.co/Xc6hmJ9NUt
— Notes from Poland ?? (@notesfrompoland) January 28, 2020
Similarly, although the government has reacted angrily to the EU’s “interference” in Poland’s domestic judicial affairs, polling indicates that the public favour Brussels’s intervention. An Ipsos poll for OKO.press in 2018 found 56% agreeing that the “European Commission should continue to demand compliance with the rule of law in Poland”. Only 39% thought that it should stop.
In January this year, an SW Research poll found 48% wanting the EU to discuss Poland’s latest judicial reforms and only 33% taking the opposite view. Another poll by the same firm for the next month found that now 59% wanted the EU to involve itself in the issue, with just 27% opposed.
Asked in 2018 who was to blame for the dispute between Brussels and Warsaw over the rule of law in Poland, 48% of respondents told IBRiS it was the Polish government, while only 21% believed it was the European Commission. In a similar poll by Kantar Millward Brown the previous year, 38% put the blame on the government, and only 8% on the Commission.
PiS has also argued that its reforms are intended to improve the functioning of Poland’s inefficient judiciary. In December, however, 55% told SW Research that courts now functioned worse than before PiS’s reforms, with only 18% thinking they were better. This reflects data showing that the average length of court proceedings has increased, while the Constitutional Tribunal is dealing with fewer cases than before.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.