Poland’s government-controlled top court tells independent ombudsman to go

Poland’s government-controlled top court tells independent ombudsman to go
PiS leader Lech Kaczynski has led an attack on the rule of law in Poland.
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw April 16, 2021

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s formally independent top court, ruled on April 15 that Ombudsman Adam Bodnar must step down in three months’ time.

The ruling comes as the ruling United Right coalition is at loggerheads with the opposition-controlled Senate over electing Bodnar’s successor. The ombudsman's constitutional term ended in September but the parliament is yet to agree on a candidate that could win a majority in both houses.

Bodnar thus remains in office, his term marked by several interventions that opposed the government's decisions, which critics say were undemocratic and compromising human rights in Poland.

The ruling coalition, led by Law and Justice (PiS) has long disparaged Bodnar as an opposition politician, who is at the helm of one of the last institutions in Poland that is independent of the government. 

Most recently, the ombudsman launched a legal action that suspended the takeover of local media publisher Press Polska by the state-run refiner PKN Orlen. The takeover raised concerns over the government’s potential domination of a host of local media outlets ahead of general and local elections in 2023.

Bodnar also intervened on behalf of women protesting after the same court issued a near-complete ban on abortion in January or called for changing laws to protect politicians and “religious feelings” – mostly of the powerful Catholic church – from criticism.

The Constitutional Tribunal, which the government has fiilled with loyalists, said that it was against the Polish constitution for the ombudsman to continue his work after his term had ended.

The tribunal gave the lower house of the parliament, the Sejm, three months to pass a law that would regulate who becomes the ombudsman if there is no immediate successor – which is the situation now. 

That could be a way for the government to install an interim acting ombudsman to overcome the stalemate with the opposition-held Senate. 

“This ruling is not about how long I will be able to continue but about whether we are going to have the right for an independent ombudsman,” Bodnar told private broadcaster TVN24 in reaction to the ruling.

His case predictably drew the attention of the EU, already irritated by the Polish government’s policies, which, it says, endanger the rule of law.

“We are following closely and with concern the developments relating to the Polish ombudsman. It's of great importance to ensure that this institution, which defends citizens’ rights and plays an important role in upholding the rule of law, remains independent,” said Vera Jourova, the Commission vice-president in charge of values and transparency.

Meanwhile, the lower house of the parliament attempted once again to present Bodnar’s successor to the Senate. The lower house easily pushed through the government’s candidate, a conservative lawyer, Bartlomiej Wroblewski. 

The coalition now needs to poach three votes in the Senate for Wroblewski to become the next ombudsman – or the government could install one via circumventing the Senate with a piece of legislation.