Observations of an expat: Enemies of the people

“Enemies of the People” that is how The Daily Mail described the UK Supreme Court Judges who ruled that the government could not bypass parliament in implementing Brexit.

The same cry is being taken up by populists and autocrats the world over. Increasingly they are either attacking, packing or controlling the courts.

It is a core principle of democracies that the actions of politicians are subject to the same laws as everyone else and those laws are based on centuries of tradition and legal precedent. The laws are ineffective if the courts are controlled by political diktat.

The courts are a brake on unbridled political power. Which is why populist politicians seek to control them.

In Turkey and Hungary the populist governments have in recent years packed the judicial benches with government supporters. Israel has suffered months of demonstrations against a government attempting to do the same there.

The Russian courts are a farce. An estimated 90 percent of the defendants brought to trial are found guilty. And in China, the constitution makes it clear that the judiciary is subject to the whims of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Polish legal system has become the latest victim of a populist government’s attack. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party has had an uneven relationship with the law since gaining power in 2015—especially EU law. But its latest moves have brought half a million protesters onto the Warsaw streets.

Not surprisingly, the proposed legal changes are rooted in a fear of losing power. Elections are looming in the autumn and the polls show the PiS neck and neck with the opposition Civic Platform led by former Prime Minister and EU Commission President Donald Tusk.

In the wake of anti-Russian hysteria, the PiS-controlled parliament has passed a law which bans from public office anyone who is deemed to have helped Russia. The law is clearly aimed at forcing Tusk out of the running because while he was prime minister from 2007 to 2014 he negotiated a gas deal with Moscow.

If signed by President Andrzej Duda the law could have repercussions far beyond blocking Tusk’s political ambitions. It is worded in such a way that anyone who has “control of public funds” would be banned from office for ten years. This could include civil servants, teachers, local government officials, military officers….

The decision on who would be subject to the ban would be made by a special nine-member commission appointed by parliament, which is controlled by PiS.

The government’s attack on the legal system does not stop with what has been labelled “Lex Tusk.” Also working its way through parliament is a law which criminalises the release of all—not just confidential—information which the government determines could cause damage to Poland if disclosed. This includes sharing facts with foreigners about corruption, violations of the rule of law and human rights, investment risks or even opinions about history.

The Polish government’s justification for these draconian laws is Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. But how much of it is actually an opportunity to use the emergency to override democracy and the rule of law.

If it is the latter than the ruling PiS should be made anywhere of the Ben Franklin quote: “They who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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5 Comments

  • Tristan Ward 10th Jun '23 - 2:13pm

    “It is a core principle of democracies”

    I would say – a core principle of liberal states.

    There’s a fashion out there for “iliberal democracies” (for example Hungary and Turkey) where there is voting but the other protections against authoritarianism that liberal states have are being whittled away.

    Let’s call “democracies” that have human rights and the rule of law by their proper name – liberal democracies.

  • Steve Trevethan 11th Jun '23 - 7:41am

    Might the decisions of Judge Silas Reid indicate that freedom of speech has been and is under judicial attack and repression in “our” country?

  • The courts are there to make sure the executive abides by the law as enacted by parliament.

    The courts are not there to make or veto policy or determine political questions. That is a matter for parliament.

  • David Garlick 12th Jun '23 - 9:49am

    Timely and spot on. Democracy is under threat worldwide and not least in the UK.
    The missuse of Social media, the frankly pooor national press and the lack of courage of the BBC and ITN et al is very worrying.
    We have seen damaging ‘elections’ under many systems where the rich and/or powerful have controlled the messaging oportunities and manipulated the outcome.
    All democrats need to work together, that goes for the left and center politicians in the UK too, if we are to stay truly democratically free.

  • Independence from the executive in the UK is a long tradition for the judiciary and other public bodies that requires constant defending. Democracy is best served when the 3 pillars respect the others’ jurisdictions. Parliament must not be overriden.

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