Bodnar battles to pull Poland back from ‘rule-of-law collapse’

The new justice minister is leading an unprecedented democratic experiment

The gleaming white palace on Warsaw’s ministerial and embassy belt doesn’t look like a laboratory. But it is behind these walls that Adam Bodnar, Poland’s new justice minister, is leading an unprecedented democratic experiment: stopping an authoritarian takeover midway and pulling his country back from rule-of-law collapse.

Under his predecessor Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s justice ministry was ground zero of a national conservative push – led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party – to reshape courts, public prosecutors and state media.

Behind their professed aim – to oust a liberal, self-serving clique – critics in Warsaw and Brussels saw the planned capture of all state institutions. In his palatial office, Bodnar describes the plan in hindsight as an “omnipresent dream” to be the next Hungary.

“If Orban did it, it would also be the case in Poland,” he tells The Irish Times in his palatial office. “Things were constituted in a way that the system would last forever, that there would never be a moment of holding anyone accountable for what happened. It just happened that Polish voters decided differently.”

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After last October’s election, though PiS finished first, it failed to find a majority and was ousted by a new coalition headed by former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk.

Choosing Bodnar for the justice portfolio, Tusk secured a man who, in his previous role as public ombudsman, was one of the last remaining independent voices criticising the reforms.

With his mild exterior masking a sharp legal mind, Bodnar has established himself as a cabinet heavyweight and, according to the well-informed Gazeta Wyborcza daily, is one of two “safe” cabinet ministers alongside foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

Even with the right skills and sufficient stamina – 14-hour days are the norm – Bodnar says the legal tangle he inherited is “as messy as I predicted”. Possibly even worse.

Along with the known challenges such as politicised courts – more on which later – Bodnar and his officials stumbled on an elaborate slush fund allegedly operated by Ziobro and his cronies.

Prosecutors are investigating whether 285 million złoty (€66 million) from a fund to compensate crime victims was redirected by Ziobro for political aims and to friendly institutions, in particular the Catholic Church.

“Ziobro created a system that was confident that, even if they were responsible for abuses, it was impossible to hold them to account,” said Bodnar, a nod to how the last justice minister merged the general public prosecutor role into his own.

This gave Ziobro, through loyal regional prosecutors, absolute power over what cases were pursued, dropped or delayed – the full scale of which is only now becoming clear.

Next month Bodnar will present legislation to parliament to separate the prosecutor role from his own once more. He has already started sidelining public prosecutors appointed by Ziobro, and who Bodnar says “felt more responsible to the previous government”.

Will Bodnar pursue Ziobro, currently undergoing cancer treatment?

“Irrespective of his sickness or illness, we should go forward with cases,” he said, adding that procedures are under way to lift the parliamentary immunity of several MPs.

As well as the slush fund inquiry, parallel parliamentary and prosecutor investigations are under way into Pegasus: software, purchased by the previous government, to spy on the phones of political rivals – even Ziobro’s own coalition partners.

Bodnar describes the scandal as an “atomic bomb”, with fresh shock waves every week; early next week Bodnar says he will reveal the full number of people spied on.

“We are conducting the audit right now, the secret service is,” he said. “And if we show abuse of power it means a right to compensation.”

Given the scale of these challenges, Bodnar sounds sanguine on what was supposed to be his main task: judicial reform. The appointment of judges seen as loyalists to the PiS project was a major bone of contention with Brussels. In one of a series of searing rulings, the European Court of Justice said last year that a chamber of Poland’s supreme court does “not constitute a court or tribunal for the purposes of EU law”.

How does Bodnar plan to merge what are effectively two justice systems? With new judges appointed by a reformed, more politically independent judicial appointments body; sidelining problematic judges appointed in the PiS era in dubious circumstances, or simply ignoring – and running down the clock – on constitutional court allies of PiS. The latter court enjoys 25 per cent public confidence, he says.

But if, as Tusk and his allies claimed in opposition, the higher court is not fit for purpose: where are the checks and balances on his reforms? Who is controlling the controller?

Bodnar pauses briefly before suggesting he is “controlled by public opinion and by Polish voters”.

He adds that major reforms will have to wait until a major legal block is lifted: PiS-allied president Andrzej Duda whose term ends next year.

Beyond new appointments, Bodnar has gone on a national tour to urge a mental shift, telling judges and prosecutors “to do their jobs”.

“I don’t want to control them, I tell them: ‘if you see abuses, you should make people accountable’,” he said.

It’s a different tone to the PiS era, but the roots of that era spread wide and deep. Hundreds if not thousands of lawyers and other officials accepted a Faustian deal: expedited career advancement under PiS under dubious – if not outright illegal – circumstances. What happens to all of them?

Bodnar insists all must be vetted, before admitting the difficulty of “proper vetting and without sacrificing the stability of the legal system”.

For now, he says he will be happy if those who accepted PiS-era career advancement accept “that there is a new atmosphere around the justice system and new standards”.

“I am not going to promote any of these people to key positions,” he said. Bodnar’s backing, he says, is for “independent judges who fought for justice in the last years” as well as minorities excluded – or exploited – as political scapegoats.

Top of that list is Poland’s LGBT+ community, the subject of ruthless campaigns, incitement and violence from government officials and allies.

Given many such campaigns were steered from his ministry, Bodnar invited in LGBT groups last February and offered them a public apology “for the harm you have suffered from the state”.

“It was quite a change for them to come to this ministry and meet a friend, he said, “someone who is favour of LGBT+ rights”.

He also promised to expedite key legislative projects on hate speech, same-sex partnership and gender recognition.

Four months in, the ruling coalition is steady in polls but there is growing impatience at the pace of visible progress. And although Bodnar’s rule-of-law restoration has unlocked frozen EU funding, it is operating under a tight timetable from Brussels. Many there, and elsewhere in Europe, portrayed Poland’s recent dramas as typical for a young, struggling post-communist democracy. Poles see it differently: with anti-democratic forces rising across the West, theirs is a cautionary tale from our near future.

What lesson does Bodnar think others learn from Poland? He thinks for a moment. Democracies have to stop taking for granted the guarantee of freedom they offer, he says, and take seriously the many citizens who do not understand the role of key democratic institutions, in particular the judiciary.

“You should take care in building relations between the courts and citizens, invest in good communications and in NGOs that may serve as intermediaries,” he said. “Be careful not to leave courts alone, encourage them to take a supporting role in the democratic state.”

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