Democracy Deficit: Does Poland lack tolerance?

Photo: European Commission

Democracy standards are declining in many Central European countries - according to a recent report from the US based human rights group Freedom House. In this Insight Central Europe we're focussing on two of three of those countries - Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. First to Poland which Freedom House says is becoming less tolerant of alternative life-styles, particularly of gays and lesbians.

The Tolerance Parade - a march by Polish gay organisations was held in in Warsaw last year. It was controversial in Poland but it went ahead and was endorsed by Dutch and British members of the European Parliament.

"It's very cheerful, the people who're looking here on the side are warm and welcoming. It's a very important day, a day of celebration for the Polish people because it's about equal rights and equal rights are for everybody."

"The march has been a wonderful and positive surprise. The reception has been very good. I've always believed that the hate-speak that we've heard from some of the senior Polish politicians was not representative of the great Polish majority."

However a recent report by Freedom House took Poland to task for what it says is a failure to respect some democratic procedures. The document talks about increased government pressure on civil society, mentioning official statements and actions targetting gay rights organizations. It also criticizes the Polish government for failing to safeguard media independence. Journalist and media expert Andrzej Krajewski, who compiled the Polish section of the report, says there are other reasons why Freedom House is concerned..

Photo: European Commission
" A very sharp and abrupt change in the way the composition of the National Broadcasting Council was done; decisions about the allocation of EU funds which will not be taken by local councillors but by government representatives locally or even the prime minister."

Of all the 29 countries analysed in the report, Poland was the first to embark on the path of reforms, 18 years ago. The document speaks of reform fatigue and an erosion of democracy. Political analyst for the Fakt daily Lukasz Warzecha is critical of the report.

"It doesn't make any sense. This is only a matter of different visions of governing a country. We can have a very liberal view which is not what we have in Poland now, or we can have a more state-centred view which is what the Law and Justice party represents, and that's all. But we can't really speak about democracy being eroded or threatened."

Even those critical of the Freedom House report admit they're not happy with some actions by Poland's conservative government. Marek Magierowski, deputy editor-in-chief of the Rzeczpospolita daily, says things should be seen in perspective.

"If you watch developments in countries like Belarus, Cuba or China and you say democracy is eroded in China, Cuba and Belarus and that democracy is eroded in Poland as well, so what does democracy mean?"

Freedom House Poland liason Andrzej Krajewski hopes Poland will soon be back on the path to improving democratic standards.

"Poland is pegged into the European Union, and into its own history of freedom and democracy, and of course the pendulum is going left and right and back and forth. The report shows that the pendulum is now going more to the right and more backwards, but I'm optimistic and I'm sure that in a couple of years the pendulum will go another way."

Seven years ago Poland was at the top of the Freedom House democracy index among all post-communist states. It is now at number eight