The ombudsman: a watchdog, not a lapdog
The battle for the new, non-partisan Ombudsman has been ongoing in Poland for a few months now.
The governing coalition for a long time did not acknowledge the need to propose their own candidate, and naturally refused to back the candidate of the opposition. After finally coming forth with a personal choice of its own – Piotr Wawrzyk – a current MP who was elected to parliament from PiS’s electoral lists, it lost its candidate due to the Senate voting against his appointment. Soon the Constitutional Tribunal in its current, politicized state, might effectively rule against the current Ombudsman – Adam Bodnar – by taking away his right to stay in office until his successor is sworn in.
On September 9th 2020, Adam Bodnar’s 5-year term as the Ombudsman ended. Pursuant to Art. 3 sec. 6 of the Act on the Ombudsman, he is still expected to perform his duties until the new Ombudsman takes over. Due to the reluctance of the ruling coalition to submit its own personal proposals, for a long time there was only one candidate for the successor of the current Ombudsman – Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz – the Chief coordinator for strategic litigation in the Ombudsman’s office. She was supported by almost 1,200 social organizations from all over Poland.
On January 21st, 2021, more than 4 months after the end of Adam Bodnar’s term of office, the Sejm elected Piotr Wawrzyk, a current MP from the ruling Law and Justice party, to try his luck and be voted in by the Senate, which would name him the new Ombudsman. The Senate refused to back this candidate and the race returned to square one. Even though Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz decided to pull out, the fight for the ombudsman remains a key issue for civil society. The Ombudsman is the last public institution of a watchdog character that has not been staffed by a politically dependent person with ties to the ruling majority.
The Ombudsman is a constitutional body that acts as the guardian of democracy. It has the competence to effectively control the activities of public authorities, from which it remains largely independent. For several years now, we have been observing attacks on the Ombudsman, carried out overwhelmingly by politicians from the ruling majority.
In 2021, the budget for the Ombudsman’s office was reduced again by PLN 9.385 mln. This means not only the lack of the possibility of employing new staff members – which was recommended i.e. by the Supreme Audit Office in its recent reports, as well as by international institutions – but also a lack of 745,000 PLN to secure payments for current employees. Additionally, the Ombudsman filed 24 extraordinary complaints with the Supreme Court, despite the fact that he did not receive a budget for such activities.
All of the above shows that even though an independent watchdog body is needed to protect citizen’s rights, and yet the Polish civil society is facing an unprecedented attack on the Ombudsman.
The Constitutional Tribunal (CT) has been a frequent ally of the controversial and antidemocratic changes introduced into Polish law. Similarly, it may support the idea of amending the Act on the Ombudsman, ruling in accordance with the applicants’ intention in case K 20/20, i.e. a motion for declaring the provision which allows for Adam Bodnar to remain in office as unconstitutional. It is known that similar motions have already been submitted to the Tribunal in order to validate the government’s conduct – for example with regard to the payment of potential compensation for entrepreneurs who have suffered as a result of restrictions introduced by regulations.
In the event that the provision allowing the current Ombudsman to stay in office is declared unconstitutional, one would expect an attempt to justify the introduction of a political commissioner for the “interregnum” period. A similar move was made regarding the elections of a new First President of the Supreme Court.
When analyzing the existing possibilities of what might happen, one should not forget about existing institutions which areas of competence to some extent corresponds to what the Ombudsman is doing, i.e. the Government Plenipotentiary for Human Rights, and the changes introduced to the functioning of the Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment and Civil Society.
These institutions, unlike the constitutionally recognized Ombudsman, remain completely dependent on the government, both institutionally and personally. The actions of both plenipotentiaries may lead to a situation in which alternative assessments of the actual state of affairs in the field of protection of civil rights and freedoms will appear. The two may correspond almost entirely to a government position, while the other – of an independent ombudsman – may be effectively deprived of a platform for expressing its doubts, at best it will be significantly limited.
In an attempt to flag the dangers of the CT ruling which would lead to a de facto attempt to remove Adam Bodnar from office, Equinet (the European Network of Equality Bodies) has issued a letter in October of 2020, asking the Polish government to keep in mind the fact that the effectiveness of an equality body is linked to its independence. Vera Jourova, the Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, has also issued a letter to Polish authorities, in which she emphasized the important function of the ombudsman.
The non-partisan Ombudsman gives citizens the possibility of taking their case under independent assessment and control. They can count on the Ombudsman to join in the most important proceedings, support them in constructing independent complaints and undertake other actions. It is the Ombudsman who may, by consistently carrying out statutory tasks, obstruct the authorities’ road to introducing policies harmful to the protection of civil rights and freedoms, as well as the rule of law. After all – the Ombudsman should be a watchdog, not a lapdog.