Poland’s top court has ruled that the country’s human rights ombudsman must leave office, clearing the way for the removal of a figure who has often been a thorn in the side of the ruling Law and Justice-led coalition.
Adam Bodnar’s five-year term as ombudsman expired in September. But he has continued in the role – where his responsibilities include ensuring that state institutions respect citizens’ rights – because the ruling coalition and opposition parties have been unable to agree on a successor.
On Thursday, Poland’s constitutional court, which had been petitioned by MPs from Law and Justice (PiS), ruled that the provision that allowed Mr Bodnar to stay in office until a successor took over was unconstitutional.
It added that the provision would cease to apply after three months, whereupon Mr Bodnar will have to step down even if no replacement has been agreed. A vote on a new ombudsman was due later on Thursday.
The constitutional court’s ruling comes amid broader concerns about the erosion of checks and balances under the PiS-led coalition, which came to power in 2015 pledging a radical reshaping of the Polish state.
Since then it has reduced Poland’s public media to a claque, and carried out a series of far-reaching judicial changes that critics say erode judicial independence, including by effectively neutering the constitutional court and appointing loyalists to its ranks.
Announcing the decision on Thursday, Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a former PiS MP and Communist-era prosecutor who was nominated to the constitutional court by PiS in 2019, said that a term of office was a “strictly defined period, exceeding which cannot be allowed”.
“The legislators set the term of office of the ombudsman at five years, which means that it cannot last longer,” he said.
However, Mr Bodnar said ombudsmen had previously served longer than their term, in one case for 7½ months, without this being questioned, and expressed concerns that the government could use the ruling as an opportunity to install a more malleable successor.
“The judgment, after this three-month period, will mean the destruction of the independence of the office of the ombudsman” he told the Financial Times, adding that the “ultimate risk” of the ruling was that it would allow the need for parliament to agree on a compromise candidate to be circumvented.
Sebastian Kaleta, deputy justice minister, backed the court’s ruling, saying Mr Bodnar’s term had “ended long ago”.
“The opposition would like him to sit in the office longer, but this is unconstitutional,” he said, adding that he hoped parliament would soon break the impasse.
PiS insists that the judicial changes are necessary to overhaul an inefficient system that had not been sufficiently reformed since the collapse of communism. But the changes have sparked a series of law suits from Brussels, and Christian Wigand, a spokesman for the European Commission, expressed further “concern” over the ruling on the ombudsman.
“It is of paramount importance to ensure that this institution, which defends citizens’ rights, and plays an important role for upholding the rule of law, remains independent, that its activity is not hindered, and that its effective operation is preserved,” he told a press conference.
“Our overall concerns about the rule of law developments in Poland are well known, and we will continue to address them with the means at our disposal.”
The constitutional court’s decision comes just days after Bodnar’s office obtained a court ruling suspending the takeover of the local media group, Polska Press, by a state-controlled oil company. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021