When the law is the violence you fear
In accordance with Art. 2 of the Constitution, the Republic of Poland is a democratic state ruled by law. This is linked to the separation and balance of powers, the rule of law, the supremacy of the Constitution, and respect for international law – in short, everything that is currently under attack. Therefore, if a de facto change to the constitutional system of the state is taking place in front of the public’s eyes, can we speak of a coup d’etat?
Any attempt at holding elections that remain in conflict with the current Constitution and the standards that elections should meet in democratic countries, and which essentially excludes the Electoral Code, can and should be considered as an attack on the democratic system of the state.
It should also be emphasised that in recent years, in a manner contrary to the principles of a democratic state ruled by law, these changes have been made as part of ‘reforms’ to the prosecutor’s office or courts.
This in turn has significantly affected the effectiveness of the law enforcement authorities, as well as numerous discontinuations and refusals to initiate proceedings in so-called politically inconvenient cases.
The Constitutional Tribunal has been politicised as a result of the constitutional crisis which has been ongoing since 2015. Meanwhile, the validity of any future elections will be pronounced on by the Chamber of Extraordinary Control and Public Affairs of a Supreme Court completely packed with nominees of the new KRS, a body which also fails to meet the criterion of independence.
It is worth recalling that, according to the historical interpretation of a coup d’état, a successful act of general treason (as coups are also called) gives power in the state, that is, all the tools of the state, into the hands of the perpetrators, thus removing any possibility of prosecution and punishment. In short, the coup leads to a kind of stalemate – legal, constitutional and systemic. The government is breaking the law, but there is nobody to whom it can be held accountable.
However, the concept of a coup d’état is understood differently in the contemporary criminal code. According to Article 127, § 1, anyone, who with the aim of depriving the country of its independence, detaching part of an area of the country or violently changing the constitutional system of the Republic of Poland, or who undertakes activities aimed directly at achieving this goal in consultation with other persons, shall be punished by imprisonment for no less than 10 years, a sentence of 25 years’ imprisonment, or imprisonment for life.
However, violence is a key feature of this crime. Until now, violence was understood as the actual incapacitation of the forces counteracting change, by physical force destroying resistance, by putting them in a state of vulnerability or inability to resist, or as the use of force exceeding someone’s strength, the use of physical advantage for unlawful acts, imposing power, control, something with the use of physical coercion or rape.
Thus, a de facto ‘physical breaking of resistance’ had to occur. This understanding of violence, if applied in the analysis of Art. 127 § 1 of the Criminal Code, leaves the citizens defenceless in the face of the legislative violence that we face today.
The Penal Code was not prepared for an attempt to change the constitutional system of the Republic of Poland in any way other than a classic, bloody revolution.
However, should the lack of free elections meeting the standards of democracy be classified as another type of violence – this time an act of legislative violence?
In criminal law, violence occurs as a type of behaviour that is a means to induce surrender. According to the criteria specified in Art. 127 § 1 of the Constitution, presidential elections must be universal, fair, direct and secret. They must also take place in accordance with the electoral calendar, which is initiated by a decree of the Marshal of the Sejm fixing the date of the first round. All other cut-off dates, such as the deadline for submitting candidates for election, depend on the above mentioned date.
Any changes in this matter which have not been dictated by the imposition of a state of emergency or the vacation of office by the current president should be considered unlawful. For example, they affect at least the passive voting rights of potential candidates, who would have more time to gather the required 100,000 signatures of support under their application.
Violence is a concept that is constantly evolving. Changes in its meaning have occurred over the years due to social and political changes. The same is true regarding the understanding of the idea of domestic violence.
At first, only physical violence deserved the attention of law enforcement. Then the catalogue was expanded to include psychological violence. A person who is a victim of violence by a spouse, for example, may not show a single bruise, but in connection with bullying and psychological abuse, he or she will follow the perpetrator’s instructions. The spouse imposes his or her authority not by dealing with resistance through a fist fight, but by denying access to alternative forms of support (e.g. help from third parties or specialised institutions) and the possibility of escape.
As citizens, we are dealing with a similar situation today. There is nowhere to run from the authorities – especially in the state of epidemic and a period of closed borders. There is also no access to justice, according to the current restrictions, or even a chance to receive public information in the normal way. Assemblies are prohibited. In such conditions, the electoral regulations will be changed, and attempts to hold the presidential elections in an unconstitutional manner are being continued.
Any potential resistance has been eliminated – this means that it has been dealt with bloodlessly. And if it has been dealt with, then – we have witnessed an act of violence by the state.
Does extending the concept of violence to include legislative violence contradict the principle of not expanding the interpretation of criminal law? As in the case of ‘violation of bodily integrity’, it is impossible to predict whether the perpetrator will hit or push us. The same goes for contemporary cases of coups d’etat.
It remains impossible to predict whether it will happen with the help of tanks or a majority in the parliament. What’s more, at present it is the latter version which remains the most likely. The coup of today is not an artillery bombing: it’s a signature on a piece of paper.
The article was published in Polish in Gazeta Wyborcza.