The biggest opposition party Civic Platform and the radical right Confederation would not agree to a change in the standing orders that would have enabled Parliament to work online.
Ruling Law and Justice (PiS) proposed that Parliament meet on Friday to change standing orders and to work online on legislation being proposed by the government to shield the economy from the effects of the Coronavirus crisis. Civic Platform (PO) and “Confederation” refused to agree to a change in standing orders by consensus. This means that Parliament will have to meet in full session on Thursday to agree a change in standing orders.
The stance taken by the PO and Confederation was slammed by Deputy Speaker and head of the PiS caucus Ryszard Terlecki. He said that the decision meant that there would be close to 1000 people potentially in the Lower House building on Thursday and that, in present circumstances, could endanger the health of both MPs and Parliamentary staff.
A reporter from commercial channel TVN asked Mr Terlecki why he was objecting to the Lower House having to meet when the German Bundestag is also having to meet. “But we are not in the Bundestag, we’re in the Polish Parliament”, came the terse reply from the Deputy Speaker. He reminded the reporter that the PO, which is part of the European People’s Party (EPP), agreed to the European Parliament holding its session online.
The PO’s stance was also criticised by the Left. Its presidential candidate Robert Biedroń said that “sometimes being a “total opposition” blinds one to reason. The Polish People’s Party (PSL) has also criticised the PO for its uncompromising attitude.
The PO presidential candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska along with her party argues that the Polish constitution stipulates that MPs have to be in situ in the Lower House and that the standing orders do not envisage online deliberation and voting. The leader of the Civic Platform, Borys Budka, signalled that he would table an amendment to the standing orders on Thursday that would enable online deliberations only during a state of emergency. The PO argues that it does not wish to give the ruling party the power to hold future parliamentary sessions online. The government has so far refused to declare a state of emergency arguing that they have the necessary legislative powers to deal with the epidemic.
This does not seem to be a good moment for constitutional and legal wrangling. The opposition wants to press its case for a state of emergency and the postponement of the presidential election.
But is being so legalistic in a real epidemiological emergency over a change in the standing orders really what the public expects of its MPs right now? Or does it expect them to pull together and get on with discussing and agreeing a package of emergency measures to salvage the economy?
The spirit of the law is sometimes as important, if not more so, than its letter. The constitution was written in an age when no one dreamed of something like online voting or debate. It is surprising to find a party that presents itself as liberal and pro-European to be adopting such an attitude.
The proposal of the PO that online deliberations be limited to a state of emergency only are clearly an attempt to force the government’s hand in declaring a state of emergency that would then automatically lead to the presidential election being postponed. But the government will not declare a state of emergency just to change the standing orders of Parliament.
The tentative truce between government and opposition over the Coronavirus crisis was never going to last for long during an election period. Moreover, even if the government does declare a state of emergency in the coming days do not expect any unity between the government and the PO. The PO is set on a course of criticising the government at every turn and also wants the bonus of being able to profit from the economic fallout caused by the crisis.
When the state of emergency comes, expect the opposition to be the first to cry foul about the draconian limitations on individual liberty which the government will be able to impose. And the government will be able to point to the fact that it was no other than the opposition which had pressed for the emergency.