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Poland’s political war heats up

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WARSAW — Poland’s top two leaders met face-to-face Monday, but neither PM Donald Tusk nor President Andrzej Duda gave any sign they are prepared to retreat in their political conflict.

The dispute was sparked by the change of government, with Tusk’s new administration moving swiftly to purge people associated with the previous nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party government, to retake control of the public media, and to roll back changes to the justice system that set off a multi-year conflict with Brussels.

Tusk’s Justice Minister and Chief Prosecutor Adam Bodnar moved last week to replace the head of the National Public Prosecutor’s Office without getting Duda’s approval, prompting the president to denounce Bodnar’s actions as “pathetic.”

Tossed into that volatile mix is the fate of two PiS politicians, Mariusz Kamiński and Maciej Wąsik, who are in prison after being convicted of abuse of power, but who are being called political prisoners by PiS.

That’s poisoned relations between Duda, a former PiS member still seen as loyal to the party, and Tusk, who has pledged to return Poland to being a European liberal democracy, and to prosecute politicians and PiS nominees accused of wrongdoing over the past eight years.

In a news conference after their meeting in Warsaw’s presidential palace — where the prime minister had to cool his heels for a few minutes before being admitted to see Duda — Tusk said he wanted better relations, but was prepared to wait out the remaining months until Duda’s final term ends in 2025.

“If we can’t make it, we will survive this year and three months, we will look for different ways,” Tusk said, adding: “Politics is to negotiate, to seek compromise between political forces. But politics, good politics, cannot be about finding a compromise between lies and truth, lawlessness and law.”

He also said he had told Duda that the president “has had a hand since 2015 in the devastation of the rule of law and legal order in Poland.”

In his own press conference, Duda called for “deescalation” of the conflict, but also said: “I appealed to the prime minister to restore the situation in accordance with the law. Not only with the law, but also with the constitution.”

Prosecutorial trials

Duda is outraged over the changes to the prosecutor’s office.

“The dismissal of the head of the National Public Prosecutor’s Office … requires written consent from the president. What the justice minister did has no legal bearing and is worthless,” Duda said.

Some lower ranking prosecutors, many seen as loyal to the old government, have rebelled against Bodnar. Duda met with them earlier Monday.

But Tusk isn’t giving an inch, insisting that National Prosecutor Dariusz Barski was improperly appointed in 2022 so there is no need to fire him as he never officially held the post.

“I only confirmed to president that we’re going to adhere to law, court judgments and the constitution,” Tusk said. “There’s no room for negotiations here — we cannot adhere to law only a bit or to the constitution only a bit.” 

“I hope that in the future the president will lean to this interpretation,” Tusk added.

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, a top court that is viewed as being under control of PiS nominees, also waded into the fight on Monday by issuing a decree suspending the government’s nomination of Barski’s replacement and ordering Bodnar and “all public authorities to refrain from any actions hindering Barski’s exercise of rights, duties, and competencies.”

Krystyna Pawłowicz, one of the tribunal’s justices, made her views clear in a Sunday tweet, saying: “The neo-Bolshevik demolition of Poland is progressing.”

Imprisoned politicians

Duda is also incensed over the imprisonment of Kamiński and Wąsik. He pardoned the pair in 2015, but the Supreme Court later ruled that pardon was to no effect as it was issued before their final conviction. A lower court reopened the case and in December sentenced them to two years in prison for abuse of power while leading a corruption case back in 2007 aimed at destroying a party that was a coalition partner of PiS.

The two were arrested inside Duda’s palace last week and are now in prison, where they say they are on a hunger strike. Duda said last week he had initiated a pardon procedure to release them, but instead of simply issuing another pardon — which would free them from prison but also underline they had been convicted of a crime, which would strip them of their parliamentary seats — Duda tossed the matter to Bodnar.

He asked the justice minister to begin an amnesty procedure, which can take as long as two months and won’t necessarily return a positive finding. In the meantime, Duda wants the two released from prison, but the government fears if that happens, Duda will again claim that his 2015 pardon was effective and that the two are still MPs, despite a ruling by the speaker of parliament vacating their parliamentary seats.

Duda said he had called on Tusk, as Bodnar’s boss, to release Kamiński and Wąsik.

“I appeal once again to the minister. I have also made a personal appeal to the prime minister on this issue today, to influence his subordinate to make this happen,” Duda said.

So far the government has shown no inclination to release the pair.

“If he decides to grant clemency, of course, the detainees should be released the same day,” Tusk said, before adding another dig at Duda: “I was very keen to convince the president — unsuccessfully so far, I think — but to convince all politicians in Poland in general that they are not above the law, nor do they stand beside the law, that we should all be subject to the law to the same degree, even if some of its verdicts are not convenient for us.”

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