PART I: COVID-19 IN POLAND
(Some) Restrictions Lifted
After Easter, the Polish government announced its plans on how some of the restrictions introduced in response to the Covid-19 epidemic would be lifted. In the first period, parks and forest were open for the public. Bigger changes were planned for May 4th.
As part of the second stage of exiting the lockdown, Poland opened a number of facilities on the first day after the long weekend (May 1st and May 3rd are bank holidays in Poland). The list of facilities that were opened includes:
- shopping malls (although recreational and restaurant spaces remain closed and no more than one person for every 15 square meters is allowed);
- construction shops on weekends;
- hotels and short-term accommodation (terms apply);
- public cultural institutions, such as museums, libraries and art galleries;
- medical rehabilitation centers.
After May 6th nurseries and kindergartens were reopened, too, but only for those children, whose parents go to work and cannot take care of them during the day. The responsible authorities can limit the size of groups or the number of children accepted, while the local governments will be left to decide on the closure of nurseries, if necessary.
The calendar of further restriction lifts is not known. What is more, the reasoning behind the particular decisions is not known either. Oddly enough experts say that Poland is still before the pick of the epidemic and the limitations withdrawal might cause a significant increase in the number of infected persons. The decision-making process is not transparent at all since the parliament is working in an online mode and discussions and consultations are extremely limited. It is said that the position of lobbyists is now stronger than ever and that they shape the final version of legislation in their bilateral relations with the executive.
The Polish economy is set to be the least affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in the EU. According to the economic forecast by the European Commission (EC), the Polish economy might fall by 4,25% in 2020 as consumer confidence weakens, unemployment rises and the country battles the falling demand for its exports. But the EC added that Poland should bounce back in 2021 with growth predicted to rise by 4%.
The Polish economy has already lost PLN 79,3 billion due to the restrictions on economic and social activity from March 16th to April 20th, according to the trade bodies of the Federation of Polish Entrepreneurs (FPP) and Lewiatan Confederation. These organizations have indicated that efficient and effective actions are needed to defrost the economy. The costs of the current methods on fighting the coronavirus – although necessary to bear in the early stages of the epidemic – will ruin the Polish economy in the long run. “The organizations have jointly launched a counter for losses caused by restrictions associated with the fight against Covid-19. They translate into a loss of livelihoods of a growing number of people and the severity of health problems not related to the coronavirus,” a press statement jointly released by both associations says, adding that the Polish economy has been losing almost PLN 2 billion a day.
Polish core inflation index grew by 3,6% y/y in March, the National Bank of Poland (NBP) announced.
Given that the central bank cut the interest rates aggressively and launched a large-scale quantitative easing, the recent PLN performance is a positive surprise, particularly its stability against the euro and CEE currencies.
The initial Polish anti-crisis program, called Anti-crisis Shield 1.0, announced in mid-March was modest, amounting to just 6% of GDP. It covered both: above-the-line (direct budget spending) and below-the-line fiscal measures (not burdening budget immediately etc.) in equal proportions. The first included public revenues and expenditure measures, the latter public loans and equity injections and public guarantees. Later measures including Shield 2.0. (0.8% of GDP) and in particular, the recently announced financial shield of 4.5% of GDP, increased the size of the package to 11.3% of GDP. Now it is thus comparable to measures undertaken by Spain. Public spending amounts to 60% of the total value of this program. This is because the liquidity loans to all size enterprises, guaranteed by the Treasury, will be remitted after meeting the required criteria of keeping firms afloat and employment unchanged.
Poland and Germany
In late April hundreds of commuter workers living in Poland, who cross the borders every day to go to work in Germany, or vice-versa, protested in border towns, e.g. Zgorzelec/Gorlitz or Gubin/Guben. In the first one ca. 300 people joined the protest at the Polish side and another 100 cross-border workers took part in the protest at the German side. Many of them were holding the posters reading “Let us work, let us home”. Despite that both groups were protesting against the same rules, they were separated by a provisional metal fence that has been established in the middle of the bridge to prevent people from crossing the border.
Poland was one of the first EU members that closed its borders in a bid to curb the spread of the Covid-19 and imposed a mandatory two-week lockdown for those who enter its territory (Read more in the previous issue of the Newsletter).
Many Polish healthcare workers in Germany’s border regions had to make a difficult decision: return to their homes or stay on the front lines and fight against the pandemic. Polish healthcare staff account for a fraction of the 69.000 workers who commute across the border every day. Without them, German hospitals would have a problem on their hands. In some hospitals close to the border, Poles comprise more than one-third of the workforce.
A few days after the protests, Poland’s government has decided to exempt from the mandatory quarantine citizens who cross the Polish border for professional, business, economic or educational purposes, in Poland or neighboring countries. The workers, who need to cross the Polish border for work on a farm that is located on both sides of the border, were also exempted from the mandatory quarantine. However, the new rule will not be applied to citizens practicing medical profession and employed in social welfare centers.
PART II: BEYOND COVID-19
Two days before the planned presidential elections, on Thursday May 7th, the PiS majority approved a bill on mail-in elections in Poland. This vote happened after two weeks of speculations whether Jarosław Kaczyński still has the majority in the Sejm or not. How was such uncertainty possible in a country ruled for last five years with a heavy hand by Jarosław Kaczyński, in a country where state institutions do whatever the leader tells them to do? To answer this question, one needs to know that what is normally called PiS is actually a coalition of PiS and two small parties, namely Solidary Poland and the Alliance. They have 18 MPs each and without their support PiS do not have the majority in the Sejm. The May elections were opposed by Jarosław Gowin, leader of the Alliance, sometimes described as a softer wing of PiS, more focused on the economy and entrepreneurship (Gowin himself was a prominent member of the Civic Platform and even served as Minister of Justice in the cabinet of Prime Minister Donald Tusk). Until recently, Gowin was a Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Science but he quit opposing the most recent changes in the electoral law. Gowin negotiated with the opposition parties and there were even rumors that he was promised to become a new Speaker of the Sejm, formally second most important person in the Republic.
Only hours before the key voting in the parliament Kaczyński and Gowin announced their agreement. Gowin promised to support the mail-in elections under the condition that they will not be held in May, like PiS originally wanted. Moreover, the elections will be organized by the independent National Electoral Committee instead of the Ministry of State Assets together with the Polish Post, like PiS desired.
“After the deadline of May 10th, 2020, and the Supreme Court´s expected annulment of elections, given that they were not held, the Speaker of the Sejm will announce new presidential elections as soon as possible,” reads the statement. When exactly? Nobody knows yet, but a date that repeats itself in the media is July 12th. More details should be known soon.
PiS was extremely determined to hold the presidential elections by postal voting as soon as possible. Experts and the opposition however said there was no way the election would take place on May 10th as planned. OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) – that has its office in Warsaw – issued an opinion criticizing the bill introducing the mail-in voting as incompatible with international standards of democratic elections. Other institutions, both international (e.g. Council of Europe) and national (the Ombudsman) also voiced their criticism. The Supreme Court assessed the vote as unconstitutional. “In the proposed form, elections will be neither direct, nor equal, nor universal,” commented Professor Adam Strzembosz, the former Supreme Court president and one of the most respected jurists in the country. In mid-April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the response of EU countries to the spread of Covid-19. One of its points referred to the planned presidential elections in Poland as “steps completely incompatible with European values”.
The main criticism coming from the opposition was not of a legal nature though. It was about the threat for life and health of millions of voters that May elections would cause. The ballot envelopes can easily be contaminated with the virus, they said, and there are no provisions in the new legislation for their disinfection, or for how the ballots could be safely returned. After the ballots would be cast, they would have to be counted. However, due to fears of Covid-19, there is not enough people to do this work.
For last week every party and every candidate has own strategy vis-à-vis this electoral crisis:
Civic Coalition and its candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska were calling to boycott the May elections as they breach the constitution. Kidawa-Błońska made even her campaign hashtag #OniWyboryMyŻycie, or #ThemElectionsUsLife. However, it was very likely that this was exactly what PiS wanted, as polls suggested that in case of low turnout, Duda would win in the first round. Since majority of Civic Coalition voters agreed with Kidawa-Błońska and declared they would not vote, her support in polls is very low, ca. 5%. Moreover, some voters did not understand what the boycott exactly meant. Kidawa-Błońska was saying the only solution was to declare the state of emergency due to the pandemic and organize real elections in May 2021.
Two center-right candidates, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz from PSL and independent Szymon Hołownia, were trying to take runner off’s position left by Kidawa-Błońska. They also called the Prime Minister to declare the state of emergency and organize elections later this year but they would not boycott any elections now. Both saw their chance of becoming on the second ballot against Andrzej Duda to strengthen their political movement. Robert Biedroń, the candidate of the Left, was talking about elections in the fall but with a very weak campaign, he had no chances in this race.
Social distancing makes the electoral process unequal favoring the incumbent head of state. Andrzej Duda is the only one who can travel across the country, shaking hands with medical staff, visiting factories, etc. His opponents can run only on-line events and limited press conferences. Elections in the fall or in May 2021 lower Duda’s chance for reelection since Poles will feel negative consequences of the post-Covid-19 economic crisis, including the increase of unemployment. Jarosław Kaczyński can’t afford to lose the president now. Already without the Senate and with only a slim majority in the Sejm, it is becoming difficult for him to adopt all his revolutionary changes.
According to the latest survey conducted by IBRIS for Rzeczpospolita, 32% of Poles would postpone elections by a year. More than a quarter of respondents opted for the current date, given the choice of May (25,4%), August (5,6%), September (5,8%), October (10,4%), November (5,9%) and December (3,7%). Now only a few of those options are again on the table. Will the elections be in July, August or September? We can’t know for sure. Today we can’t even exclude that Kaczyński won’t honor the deal with Gowin and won’t organize the voting later in May. And even if he keeps his word this time, the coalition is bursting at the steams and may collapse just after the pandemic. Will the new candidates be able to run? Most probably, and there are rumors that the biggest opposition block – Civic Coalition – will look for a new representative. This will be the longest campaign ever. Literally.
Biebrza on fire
Around 6.000 hectares of the Biebrza National Park – roughly 10% – were in flames. It is the largest national park in Poland, located in the north-east of the country, close to the border with Belarus. A low-lying area is famous for its peat bogs and wetlands, inhabited by rich birdlife, beavers and elks. For some waterfowl species, Biebrza marshes are among the last refuges for the survival of their population in Central Europe.
A major obstacle to firefighters’ efforts is the Biebrza National Park itself as most places cannot be reached by vehicles. Firefighting planes have been drafted in and have dropped water several times on the area covered by the flames. Each plane takes 1.800 liters of water. Nearly 6.500 liters of water have been dropped on the fire so far. Drones were also being used to identify outbreaks of the fire.
Park management has received nearly PLN 1,2 million (EUR 260.000) in donations after setting up a special bank account for the cause.
“Fires in the Biebrza National Park break out every year, but such a large one has not been there for years. The situation is very serious,” Environment Minister Michał Woś said. The fire was most likely caused by farmers illegally burning grass.
Environmentalists say that the fire reflects the ongoing climate change and urge the government to change its water management policies to fight the drought. “We regulate rivers, straighten their banks, conduct harmful maintenance works, which accelerate the outflow of water, we build dams and hydrotechnical barriers, dry marshes. We forget that it is natural rivers and their valleys that counteract drought, and wetlands are the best areas for natural retention,” said World Wildlife Fund Polska in its latest report on drought in Poland.
Visit the park online: https://www.biebrza.org.pl/142,the-biebrza-national-park
Chief Justice Leaves
Professor Małgorzata Gersdorf, Poland’s Chief Justice, ended her service in the Supreme Court. Małgorzata Gersdorf, who became the first woman to hold the position of “First President” of the Supreme Court on her election in 2014, left office at the end of April. Unwillingly, she became a symbol of a fight for the independence of the justice system in Poland. At the same time, she became “the target of both petty and brutal attacks” as a result of her criticism on the ruling national-conservative PiS.
The Poland’s top court under Gersdorf has recently questioned the legality of the new legislation allowing the upcoming presidential election to be held by mail. The court has the authority to question the legality of elections.
During her last days in the office, Gersdorf said that the fight for judicial independence will eventually win out over the right-wing government’s attempts to gain the political control over the courts.
President Andrzej Duda has appointed Kamil Zaradkiewicz to act as a first president of the Supreme Court until the court’s new head is appointed in a standard procedure. In 2015 Zaradkiewicz supported PiS’s fight against the Constitutional Court, where he was employed. He was rewarded with a well-paid job in a state-owned company and later with a position in the Supreme Court. Retired Constitutional Tribunal judge Wojciech Hermelinski said that the appointment of Zaradkiewicz was to show “who rules here” and was a way of “humiliating the Supreme Court.” The critics are pointing out that according to the rules, the interim job should have been given to the court’s oldest judge, Józef Iwulski.
Zaradkiewicz’s main job is to organize the election of a new Chief Justice. A court General Assembly should soon shortlist five candidates to succeed Gersdorf. It might become a struggle between “old judges” and judges appointed by the political Council of the Judiciary created by PiS.
A new chapter of the story on the battle between PiS and women rights has been written during the pandemic.
Poland has one of the harshest abortion laws in Europe. Abortions are only permitted in Poland in cases of certain fetal abnormalities, rape, incest or a threat to mother’s health. The new legislation, which was recently passed in a preliminary vote in the Sejm, would prohibit abortions due to any fatal abnormalities or incurable illnesses of the child. And this is the most common reason for abortions in Poland according to the official statistics (ca. 95% of the cases).
This bill is a so called “civic initiative” led by the most known Polish anti-choice leader Kaja Godek. Godek’s “Stop Abortion” project, which secured 830.000 signatures, first arrived in the Sejm in 2017. It laid dormant in a standing committee until the government brought it up for vote on April 16th.
Polish lawmakers first rejected a similar piece of legislation — after weeks of large public demonstrations — in 2015. Another attempt to tighten the abortion laws followed in 2016, but it was again rejected after mass protests against what local women’s rights groups have called “a war on women led by the church.” On the other side, Kaja Godek says: “The choice is simple: Are you for murder or against murder.”
President Andrzej Duda expressed his support for the bill.
To the anger of many Poles, the vote came at the time when it was impossible to organize any mass protests. And protesters made history four years ago when crowds filled the streets, wielding black umbrellas, to voice their anger against a complete abortion ban. But Poles found very creative ways to demonstrate during the lockdown. Many protested online and by hanging up posters in the windows of their homes and cars. Others circumvented the ban by cycling around or standing in lines outside grocery stores, maintaining 2 meters between one another, holding posters with symbols of Poland’s feminism movement: lightning bolts, umbrellas, clothes hangers, and images of uteruses giving the finger. The hashtag #pieklokobiet (Women’s hell) began trending online weeks before the protests.
It is commented that after this preliminary vote that was supposed to please the conservative core groups, PiS will keep the bill untouched for months, or even years, in the standing committee not to provoke a public discussion on the highly polarizing topic.
The abortion ban bill was debated alongside a handful of other controversial civic initiatives, including the one criminalizing sex education. It was introduced by a group called “Stop Paedophilia” and would allow up to two years imprisonment for propagating child abuse — and up to three years imprisonment for any public sex education. The legislation has also been passed after a first reading and will now be debated by parliamentary committees before the final approval vote.
Letter of Formal Notice
On April 3rd the European Commission has launched an infringement procedure by sending a Letter of Formal Notice to Poland regarding the new disciplinary regime for judges. The Polish government has two months to reply.
The EC is of the opinion that Poland failed to fulfill its obligations under Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union read in connection with Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which enshrine a right to an effective remedy before an independent and impartial court.
Additionally, the EC considers that Poland failed to fulfill its obligations under Article 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which enshrines the right of courts to request preliminary rulings from the European Court of Justice. As developments in Poland show, the new disciplinary regime allows for judges to be subject to disciplinary proceedings for the content of their judicial decisions. This includes decisions to refer questions to the Court of Justice. As judges are not shielded from being exposed to disciplinary sanctions for exercising this right enshrined in Article 267 TFEU, the new regime creates a chilling effect for making use of this mechanism. The functioning of the preliminary reference mechanism – which is the backbone of the Union’s legal order – requires national courts to be free to refer to the European Court of Justice any question for a preliminary ruling that they consider necessary, at whatever stage of the proceedings.
Jan Komasa whose Corpus Christi was nominated this year for the Oscar award triumphs again. His newest movie The Hater has won the Best International Narrative Feature award at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.
The first Polish film to ever qualify for the award is a thriller that shows how obsession for acceptance in a world of social media, fake news and the online paid hate industry can lead to revenge and individual downfall. The jurors were impressed by the way the film portrays a character that is not immediately empathetic but which really engrossed them in the journey and the story.
Commenting on the award, Komasa said that he was doubly pleased because although cinemas had been closed shortly after its premiere due to the coronavirus pandemic, the award had given the film the second life. In Poland, the film was moved to the VOD platforms directly after the premiere.
The Tribeca Film Festival was founded in 2001 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff in direct response to the attacks of September 11th. The festival’s goal was to show that US cinema was not only about Hollywood and to promote also New York as the centre of the film industry and the presentation of the most interesting productions from abroad to a large audience.
Watch a trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvjlYUzhijQ
King of Warsaw
Szczepan Twardoch’s The King of Warsaw became the book of the month in The Times.
“Warsaw in 1937 is a place of factions. Jew against Christian. Fascist against socialist. In this febrile atmosphere a 17-year-old Jewish boy becomes the unlikely sidekick of a boxer-turned-gangster. Jakub Szapiro, a titan of the boxing ring, is the brutal and charismatic enforcer for a notorious crime lord; he is also the killer of the boy’s father.” – With these words the enthusiastic review starts.
The narrator is Mojżesz Bernsztajn, as a teenager and decades later, when he is a retired Israeli general called Moshe Inbar. Inbar is trying to make sense of why the boy he was long ago in prewar Poland would make a hero of his father’s murderer. “The book is not about pre-war Warsaw, nor about Poles and Jews or the birth of fascism. It is and it was meant to be about violence. And about how people hurt each other in many sophisticated ways – not only with fists” – Twardoch explainded.
Over 120.000 copiers of the novel were sold in Poland.
Twardoch was born in 1979. A sociologist and philosopher by education, as well as an expert on arms and Silesian language and culture, he deals with the issue of identifying with one’s place of birth as well as with the problem of national identity: Polish, German, Silesian. He constantly ponders his identity and his Silesian roots. ”Who am I? Why do I ask myself this question all the time? Instead of simply existing I look for role models, paths and ways of being – why?” he asked in the catholic Znak review.
His novel Wieczny Grunwald (Eternal Grunwald) was honored with the distinction of Józef Mackiewicz Literary Prize. It was also nominated for the Gwarancja Kultury award. From among the few series of stories, the volume Tak jest dobrze (It’s Good This Way) was nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. In 2012, the writer received a prestigious Passport award from the weekly Polityka for the novel Morfina (Morphine). The latter one is a study of male weakness, in which three strands are artfully interwoven: psychological, historical and thriller. Twardoch’s novel shows that national issues are inextricably linked with sexuality, and are shot through with madness.
His other novel Drach written partly in Silesian language has been transformed into a libretto for an opera under the same name. The King of Warsaw is played in the Polish Theatre in Warsaw (directed by Monika Strzępka). Canal+ has finished filming a series based on the novel in Łódź. It was directed by Jan P. Matuszyński, author the most successful Polish TV series in recent years (Wataha).
The King of Warsaw was translated by Sean Gasper Bye. It was published in English by Amazon Crossing and is available also in a form of e-book.
Poland plans to introduce a 1,5% surcharge on the revenue of video-on-demand platforms such as Netflix.
“Thanks to the efforts of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński, a note regarding the 1,5% contribution fee collected from broadcasters of on-demand audiovisual media services has been incorporated into the new update of the anti-crisis shield,” announced the Polish Film Institute on April 28th, while adding that the decision was long-awaited by the film community. “This widely expected and necessary change was possible thanks to the consensus of the industry, which was a reaction to the crisis in the Polish film world caused by the current epidemiological situation. In addition, it’s a response to the challenges posed by technological development in the audiovisual market.”
Netflix is Poland’s most popular video streaming platform with 5.4 million users last month in the country of 38 million people. The payments are expected to boost the institute’s budget by PLN 15 million in 2020, and PLN 20 million annually in coming years.
Polish Aviation Group (PGL), the owner of Poland’s national airline PLL LOT, announced it had pulled out of a deal to buy its German rival Condor. Something that was presented by the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki as a great success of the Polish government only a few months ago (“Up until now foreign companies have been taking over Polish precious assets, now it is the other way round!”), was now given up and hushed up (read more in the January edition of the Newsletter).
“I confirm that PGL informed Condor today about its withdrawal from the purchase of this company. We don’t provide any more information at this stage,” PGL communications director Katarzyna Majchrzak said in an e-mail to Reuters.
The deal between the PGL holding and Condor was supposed to be closed in April. A few weeks before the announcement, the sources familiar with the matter said that Germany was ready to take over Condor as it expected the deal with LOT to collapse due to the industry turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Due to worldwide travel restrictions because of the coronavirus, Condor has been unable to fly passengers to their holiday destinations in recent weeks but has instead flown medical equipment, according to the German airline. Condor has also repatriated more than 78.000 Germans in close cooperation with Germany’s Foreign Office as well as private tour operators and cruise lines.
According to the German Ministry for Economic Affairs, Condor should receive a loan of EUR 550 million from the German government. The Commission approved the state-guaranteed loan from the German development bank KfW after a “quick and constructive procedure”.
The New York Times on milk bars: “In Poland, Communist-Era Restaurants Are Perfect for the Moment. The simple cafes known as milk bars have regained popularity in recent years. Under lockdown, they’re providing affordable food and the comfort of nostalgia.”
“There are few things more Polish than milk bars. After the 1989 transformation, they served pierogi and barszcz as unemployment skyrocketed and inflation ran rampant. A decade ago, as Poland weathered the global economic crisis that began in 2008, kompot and stuffed cabbage were still hot and ready at lunch. Now, even in a pandemic, these no-frills canteens are still open for business.”
Read full article: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/dining/milk-bar-mleczny-poland.html
Polls & Trends
IBRiS for Onet.pl, 27.04.2020
Andrzej Duda 49,7%
Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz 14,1%
Szymon Hołownia 9,2%
Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska 6,7%
Robert Biedroń 6,4%
Krzysztof Bosak 5%
Expected turnout: 43,1%
A Country with a Noticeable Problem
Once again Poland declined in the World Press Freedom Index. Now Poland is ranked 62, down from 59 in 2019. It classifies Poland as among the counties that have “a noticeable problem” with press freedom.
According to the Index organizers: “Partisan discourse and hate speech are still the rule within state-owned media, which have been transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces. Their new directors tolerate neither opposition nor neutrality from employees and fire those who refuse to comply. Many protests have been staged outside the offices of the management of the state-owned TV broadcaster TVP. After one of these protests in February 2019, the TVP evening news programme “Wiadomości” broadcast video footage and personal details of ten of the demonstrators. TVP also filed a complaint against Polish ombudsman Adam Bodnar, who said its references to Gdansk mayor Paweł Adamowicz amounted to hate speech and implied that this could have encouraged the person who murdered Adamowicz in January 2019.”
This is the fifth year in a row that Poland has recorded a decline in the ranking, all of which have taken place under the current Law and Justice (PiS) government that came to power in late 2015. In that year, Poland had reached a record high of 18th in the index. Now, five years later, it finds itself below Armenia (61st), Niger (57th) and Papua New Guinea (46th).
The World Press Freedom Index is compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a leading Paris-based NGO that seeks to promote and defend independent journalism and access to information.
About the author ____________________________________________
Expert at the Nowoczesna party. PhD, formerly a part-time teacher at Reykjavik University School of Law. His main areas of interest are comparative constitutional law and federalism. Board member of Projekt: Polska Association. Until September 2015, he worked as an expert within “Presidential Experts’ Programme” at the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland. He is member of the Board of Directors of the European Liberal Forum.