Mothers of disabled children defy Polish government, camp inside parliament

Poland's Labour Minister Elzbieta Rafalska and vice minister Krzysztof Michalkiewicz talk to protesters inside the Polish Sejm on 11 May 2018. [Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Gazeta]

Can you imagine a wall manned by dozens of armed policemen outside the European Parliament? Or denying access to journalists, experts and advisers and cancelling trips at the last minute? It’s a reality in Poland. EURACTIV’s partner Gazeta Wyborcza reports.

Such a scenario is difficult to imagine in the European Union or, for that matter, in any democratic country. Parliaments – the temples of democracy – are usually open to citizens, limited only by security measures.

But Poland has broken these principles, the building of its lower house, the Sejm, has been closed to citizens for a month now.

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This is how PiS, the party in power since 2015, reacted to another political crisis following the protest in a parliamentary corridor by 10 mothers of disabled children. The mothers and their children in wheelchairs visited the Sejm in mid-April, invited by one of the opposition MPs for a tour and visit of the building.

Instead, they stopped in one of the Sejm’s corridors, spread mattresses, pulled out improvised placards and began protesting. The Sejm’s security and the government were completely taken by surprise. A month has passed and the government is still helpless against the ongoing protest.

The protesting mothers demand a monthly payment of 500 Zloty (€116) for their children’s rehabilitation and medical equipment.

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They argue that because the Polish economy is doing so well under the PiS government, with billions in the budget thanks to the tightening of the tax system and the government spending lavishly on things such as the promotion of patriotism and bonuses for ministers, there should be enough money for their children.

Though the protesters have met President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, their demands have not been heeded. As a result, the media controlled by the government have launched an unprecedented attack on the disabled and those supporting them, including Wanda Traczyk-Stawska, a 91-year veteran of the Home Army and participant of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

The media present them as puppets in the hands of the opposition. PiS politicians have also said that the mothers and their disabled children sleeping on mattresses in the Sejm corridors are a health hazard and should be removed by force.

When the protest began, the Marshal of the Sejm, Marek Kuchciński, announced the closure of the parliamentary building. This has affected journalists the most – only those with permanent Sejm passes are allowed into the building; those using one-time passes are turned away.

Kuchcinski’s thinking was probably that the fewer journalists there are to report on the protest, the better for his party. However, the media are not allowed to watch committee deliberations or meetings, and the work of the parliament – as the Constitution explicitly states – is public.

But as far as PiS is concerned, the constitution is not sacred, to put it mildly, and has been violated many times.

Experts invited to committee meetings are unable to enter the Sejm, important meetings have had to be cancelled and visitors are not allowed. Tours that have been arranged well in advance have been sent away unless they have been invited by one of the PiS MPs.

This means the Sejm will not host the parliament of children and young people on International Children’s Day (1 June), as it has done every year.

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Poland’s parliament resembles a beleaguered fortress. The building is fenced with police barricades, behind which police stand ready to stop anyone who might want to defy the Marshal’s ban.

More police will probably be deployed around the Sejm soon because the Marshal’s Guard, which protects the parliament, has recently been granted the right to use firearms, horses and armoured vehicles.

This is not the first time Marshall Kuchciński has imposed a blockade of the parliament.

In December 2016, Kuchciński decided to ban journalists from remaining in the Sejm and Senate. The opposition’s protest turned into a one-month blockade of the Sejm hall and major demonstrations outside the parliament, which was cordoned off by police.

The barriers and armed officers equipped with water cannons returned in the summer of 2017 to rein in protests against laws dismantling the independence of the Polish judiciary. But it turned out that the police were secretly monitoring opposition politicians. When Gazeta Wyborcza reported about it, the police said they were following the politicians for their own good.

But blocking the Sejm is not just about setting up a police cordon outside. Ever since Kuchciński came at the helm, the parliamentary debate has taken on a scandalous form. Work on key laws dealing with the PiS take-over of the Constitutional Tribunal, public media or common courts takes only a few days.

Discussions in committees are kept to the minimum, the voices of experts and the opposition are simply ignored and Kuchciński imposes fines on MPs who challenge this. The effects are deplorable. The new regulations need to be amended many times –  at the same pace.

Can you imagine such a set of perversions of democratic customs in the House of Commons, l’Assemblée Nationale, the Bundestag or the European Parliament?

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