Should Poland’s opposition face trial for 2016 troubles?

President Trump is facing impeachment and some of his supporters may be looking at lengthy sentences for their part in the storming of Capitol Hill last Wednesday. Could this also be the fate of some opposition politicians and supporters for their part in the storming and occupation of the Polish parliament back in 2016?

Much has been written about how Mr Trump and his supporters should now be severely punished with long jail sentences for sedition. If this course of action is followed some in Poland will ask whether the leaders of Poland's opposition and those who stormed the parliamentary building in late 2016 should face being stripped of their parliamentary immunity and tried for sedition?

An attempted coup?

Just so we are all on the same page let's recall what happened in December 2016 In Poland. Parliament was just about to debate the new government's first own budget which included the social spending that the ruling party had promised during the autumn 2015 election.

Many opposition politicians protested that this budget would lead to huge indebtedness and economic crisis and that the government was 'bribing the people with their own money'. But the opposition parliamentarians opposed to the budget chose another issue to have a fight over that day. It was the issue of a proposal by the Speaker of the Parliament to reduce journalists' access within the parliamentary building on security grounds.

Opposition politicians began to disrupt parliamentary proceedings and the Speaker lost his rag, ordering one of the opposition MPs to leave the chamber suspending him from Parliament. In response most of the opposition MPs rushed forward and blocked the speaker's podium thereby leading to a suspension of the session.

Banners were unfurled which had already been prepared on media freedom and the opposition politicians refused to leave. The Speaker suspended the session and reconvened it some hours later in another hall. The opposition refused to attend that and continued to block the Parliament's main chamber.

Meanwhile, a crowd gathered outside for which the opposition had called through the social and traditional media with an organised stage from which opposition politicians started to make speeches. It turned out that a permit for a demonstration outside Parliament had been sought and secured some days beforehand. The speeches were pretty heated with the government accused of being illegitimate, breaking the constitution etc.

The protesters started blocking the entrance of Parliament and some tried to rush into the building. This the police managed to prevent as unlike their US counterparts they were expecting some trouble on the day. Angry protesters continued to block the building so that parliamentarians could not leave and the police had to take some action to clear them. The action was not particularly violent with no one hurt.

Police escorts were given to ruling party politicians leaving on foot as they were harangued by the demonstrators. In Parliament itself the main opposition party continued its sit in and occupied the whole chamber for some days but did not manage to secure control of the building as a whole because without the demonstrators inside they did not have the numbers.

The day after the storming of the Parliament Donald Tusk was in Poland giving a lecture and used the occasion to put out a call to the international community to support those fighting for democracy in Poland. The occupation by opposition MPs certainly gave the protest coverage around the world but that coverage and pressure would have been far greater had the opposition, with the aid of its supporters, actually taken control of the whole parliamentary building, as had clearly been the intent. Demands would then have been made for the government to resign and for fresh elections to be called. A democratically elected government might have been brought down.

Any consequences?

In the US we had a President attempting to overturn the result of a democratic election. In Poland we had an opposition attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government using force and international pressure.

The ruling party in Poland were of course outraged and accused the opposition of attempting a coup. However, no force was used to remove the opposition MPs from Parliament.

The protest petered out in mid-January and Parliament returned to normal. The ruling party made a concession of backing out of most of the proposals to restrict journalists from the building which enabled the opposition to cease to occupy the chamber without total loss of face. No prosecutions or moves to revoke parliamentary immunity were made. No significant charges were brought against demonstrators for blocking parliament. The ruling party chose not to give the opposition any oxygen of enjoying martyr status.

Could Poland now take its cue from the USA

Poland is a loyal NATO member which takes its cue from NATO's leader, the USA. If the Americans decide to prosecute Trump and his mob for insurrection they will not be able to complain if the Polish authorities do likewise for events that took place in 2016. And that should be food for thought for Poland's opposition politicians as they excitedly take to social media to defend US democracy and to argue that public media and right wing politicians in Poland should have their social media accounts suspended.

Over the last 50 years one of the key entities to come into being in the political firmament is the think tank. Hundreds of them have sprung up. Some of the radical ideas touted are more think than tank. Impeaching Trump and trying him for sedition may be one of those. Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The law can sometimes be a very blunt instrument. Is the current situation in the US or what happened in Poland in 2016 really a Nuremberg style moment? Trump can be accused of causing chaos and being a narcissistic bully, but he is no Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. Dealing with him should as in dealing with the Polish opposition’s outburst in 2016 should be subject to a sense of proportion.

A balance must be struck which will ensure the survival of both free speech and real political competition. And the US perhaps needs to take its internal security measures a little more seriously.

But it should not use security as an excuse to settle old scores. There is real suspicion that the FBI’s claims about an armed uprising being planned by pro-Trump militias is hyperbolic. The moment I saw these claims I thought of the WMD dossier from the CIA before the Iraq war. That dossier was compiled under pressure of expectation from the then President.

This FBI dossier is I suspect a product of self-inflicted or external pressure to please the incoming Biden administration. Is it really likely that the ragged band which invaded the Capitol building last Wednesday are capable of managing their way out of a paper bag, never mind planning an armed uprising? As a result of policing failures they got into the Capitol building and didn't know what to do there so ended up taking selfies, collecting trophies and leaving rude messages on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. It was more tragicomic farce than conspiracy or coup, it was farce. The US security people now seem to want to dress it up as some great conspiracy to excuse themselves from their own failings. We've been here before and I hope President Biden will see through it and get a grip on the security services who failed last week rather than play party politics of milking Trump's inability to deal with the bitter reality of electoral defeat. I write this in hope rather than expectation.

Politics of grievance

Trump’s supporters are aggrieved not only because their leader has told them the election was rigged. They are outraged how the Democratic party enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the mainstream printed and broadcast media which had been used during his term of office to attack him at every turn. How that monopoly ensured that Joe Biden was never subjected to close scrutiny throughout the election campaign and how the Democratic Party gained an advantage from the COVID pandemic scaring many voters, leading to Democratic administrations in cities and states bringing in lockdowns and wrecking the economy.

They were also outraged at the way race riots backed by the radical Black Lives Matter and Antifa organisations led to chaos and lawlessness across many American cities. No go areas for the police returned to America. Many shop owners saw their stores looted and some even burned down. Meanwhile mainstream media networks in the USA and across the globe reported the demonstrations as peaceful as cars burned in the background and shots from fire arms could be heard in the background.

In Poland the outrage was about a group feeling its status in society as well as economic position being under threat. Poland’s media, courts and public administration were working in harmony to implement a neo-liberal economic model and a foreign policy oriented towards ever closer European integration. When a political force turned up that upset the applecart a reaction was inevitable.

Dangers of over-reaction

The danger in America in the next few weeks is one of over-reaction leading to more trouble. If, for instance, President Biden and VP Kamala Harris agree to nominating enough Democratic nominees to seize control of the Supreme Court this could spark off violent revolt across the USA, But so could barring Donald Trump from standing for office ever again. Mr Biden and his VP may face an unpleasant choice of facing a civil war within their party or choosing to please it in order to punish and spit the Republicans but end up with a full civil war or a wave of repression across America. That is why what happens in America over the next few weeks is so vital.

As for polarisation in Poland, that would not be served by returning to the days of 2016 as long as anti-government protests do not turn violent. There was a moment during the pro-abortion protests in the autumn where it looked as this could be the case. However, the situation has calmed down as the worrying course the pandemic has taken has proceeded. What would be the point of settling old scores from 2016?

The big issue in Poland since the New Year has been the queue jumping by some of Poland’s celebrity VIPs. But that is not sedition. It's just elitist selfishness.