The President did not start the constitutional debate. An open society has on-going debates

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Professor at the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Warsaw, associated with the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies…

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The President doesn’t open the constitutional debate, he narrows it. Women who took the Black Protest to the streets, protesters against the assault on courts – that was the debate



It seems that President Andrzej Duda tries to redefine what a constitutional debate is by creating an impression that there is no such debate underway and that he has only started it.

 

Certainly, it is very convenient, because thus it may be said that the society believes in some dogmas not to be touched, that a constitution and its character are a taboo. And out of sudden, there is one intellectually open man who says: stop the silence, we have to discuss this issue.

 

I don’t like this version for several reasons.

 

First of all, it is not true that there is no constitutional debate underway. In an open society – and we are one – any statement about the constitution by a politician, by a scholar, by a judge, by people who take the streets because they believe the constitution has been broken – any such statement is a part of a constitutional debate.

 

For instance, women who protested about abortion laws at the streets in the Black March, people who demonstrated in the streets against the assault on courts – this was the debate. Freedom of assembly is one of the elements of freedom of expression, of manifesting one’s opinions.

 

I share Jürgen Habermas’ perspective on constitutional debates. This sociologist, researcher of communication in society, claims that discussion involves exchanging speech acts. Any behaviour which communicates my opinion about the constitution is a speech act and exchanging such acts is a discussion. The President acts as if before his declaration there was a perfect silence. He redefines the debate, thus monopolising it.

 

It seems like he wants to set themes and issues which must not be discussed.

 

What I find the most striking in this situation is that in the President’s opinion one of the major disappointments with the constitution came with the dispute between President Lech Kaczyński and Prime Minister Donald Tusk in 2008.

 

Why, this is absolutely natural in constitutional practice that there are disputes and the constitution serves as a framework for settling such disputes. And the constitution did provide such a framework, finally there was no stalemate preventing functioning of the Polish state. According to the constitution, responsibilities disputes are settled by the Constitutional Tribunal.

 

So how can one say that the constitution was revealed as flawed by a situation of dispute described by the constitution and settled by a constitutional court? This is exactly a situation when the constitution worked.

 

It should be noted that this minor incident which had been solved was recognised by the President as a grounds for a constitutional debate, while the major constitutional crisis and conflict concerning relations between all three powers lasting for two years now was not mentioned by the President, as if it was not a reason for a discussion.

 

For the President, a one-time incident is reason enough to discuss relations between the powers of president and prime minister, but a two-year crisis is no grounds for a discussion on how to ensure independence of the judiciary.

 

This is what I mean when I say that the very narrow definition and monopolisation of the constitutional debate is hardly an opening. It actually closes the debate for subjects the President doesn’t like to discuss.

 

The President says: “I am the one to set themes of the debate and I do not consider street demonstration as a debate”? And the issues the President approves for the debate shall be discussed not by us, but by people selected by the President.

 

Strikingly, all the participants of the discussion about “Constitution for citizens, not for elites?” were male professors. Who are they, if not an elite?

 

The terms of the debate will be defined by the President and it will end in one year with questions for the constitutional referendum. I’m afraid it won’t be a broad debate, but an intentionally narrowed one. Meanwhile, the basic question concerning our constitution is not whether the president or prime minister should have greater power. The key question is how to enhance independence of the judiciary power.

 

In 2008 nobody took to the streets to support broader competencies of President Kaczyński or Prime Minister Tusk. But in 2017 several hundred thousand people protested to protect judiciary independence.

 

This was a stand in the debate, but it went completely unheard.

 

A constitutional debate must not provide in advance that the constitution must be changed. An opinion that it should not be changed, that it should be enforced, is also an element of the debate. This is another attempt to narrow the debate: an attempt to reduce it to the question: “what should be changed?” without facing the more important one: “should anything be changed?”

 

Translated by Małgorzata Madej



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Professor at the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Warsaw, associated with the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies…


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November 14, 2017

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