Polish ruling coalition collapses amid media law protests

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Poland’s ruling nationalist coalition collapsed Tuesday after Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired the leader of a smaller partner party over disagreements on tax policy and a controversial media law that’s set off a fight with the United States.

The fracturing comes a day ahead of a key parliamentary vote on a law that would bar companies from beyond the European Economic Area from owning a majority stake in Polish media companies. Critics say this is largely aimed at the popular TVN broadcaster, owned by Discovery of the U.S., which irritates the government with its independent news coverage. Thousands of protesters took to the streets Tuesday evening to demonstrate against the bill, complaining it endangers press freedom.

It’s still unclear if the United Right coalition, led by the Law and Justice (PiS party) can soldier on without the 13 MPs who formally belong to the Accord grouping of Jarosław Gowin.

The government has a one-vote majority in the 460-member lower house of parliament, but United Right might be able to cobble together a majority if some of Gowin’s MPs break from him, or if the coalition can attract independent MPs. If that fails, Poland could face a snap election.

United Right has been riven by growing tensions between PiS and its two smaller partners — the more liberal Accord and the hard-right United Poland of Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro.

The final break came over the government’s Polish Deal program, which promises to cut taxes for low and middle earners, increase pensions, boost health care spending and help young families buy homes. Most of the cost will be borne by the self-employed, who would see a big increase in their health taxes. Cities also complain that they face massive budget cuts under the proposal.

“We were uneasy about the actions taken by Jarosław Gowin; he’s undermining the work of the government and the Polish Deal,” Piotr Müller, the government’s spokesperson, told reporters after Gowin was fired as deputy prime minister and development minister.

Müller said he was confident the coalition would find enough MPs to avoid an early election; the next ballot is set for 2023. “I’m not convinced we’ve lost our majority,” he said.

Gowin said the tax proposals in the Polish Deal were “extremely bad” and accused PiS of becoming a leftist-populist party, at variance with his own conservative values.

“I could see that our roads were diverging,” he said.

Donald Tusk, leader of the main opposition Civic Platform party and a former Polish prime minister, seemed to cheer a potential downfall of the government. “This government is only good for one thing: To resign,” said Tusk, who also previously served as European Council president. “We’ll get there sooner or later.”

Media law fight

Gowin also tied his departure to the protests across the country over the media law. He said he would recommend that his MPs reject the law in Wednesday’s vote.

“This bill clearly undermines the principle of media freedom,” he said. “It creates the risk of pushing the legal owners out of the station … and leads us to a fight with our most important defense ally, the United States.”

Morawiecki rejected the claim that the law is targeted at any particular broadcaster. “Its aim is to prevent any potential merger or acquisition in the future which could be performed by an entity from the outside of the EEA,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday. 

He said earlier it’s aimed at preventing a company from “Russia, China or the Arab countries” from buying Polish media. Gowin had proposed an amendment that would allow purchases by companies from countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which includes the U.S.

On Saturday, Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS leader and Poland’s de facto ruler, denounced the OECD idea, saying Poland has to defend itself against investments from money launderers “and the entrance of narco-businesses into Polish media.”

TVN’s license expires on September 26; it has been waiting 17 months for its renewal.

The White House has made clear its displeasure at the legislation, which would undermine one of the largest U.S. investments in Poland as well as attack media freedom at a time when President Joe Biden is trying to consolidate democratic countries to face off against threats from Russia and China.

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A bipartisan group of U.S. senators issued a warning last week.

“Any decision to implement these laws could have negative implications for defense, business and trade relations,” said their joint statement. “We urge the Polish government to pause before acting on any measure that would impact our longstanding relationship.”

Protests against the law took place on Tuesday in front of the parliament in Warsaw and in more than 80 towns and cities around the country.

More than 750 editors and journalists also signed an open letter warning against the law.

“We declare that we won’t allow the destruction of media freedom in our country and we call for the international public to intervene,” the letter says. “Neutralizing TVN and making it subordinate to the state is one of the final stages of taking control over the last institutions that keep an eye on the government and defend democratic values … If the government silences an inconvenient medium, this will also be the fate of other free media. This battle can’t be lost,” the letter added. 

The government has long tried to put its stamp on the media. State-run TVP television is now a mouthpiece for the ruling party. Last year, state-controlled refiner PKN-Orlen bought out most of the country’s regional press, with many journalists subsequently being purged.

This year, Poland fell to 64 on the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, down from 18 in 2015 — the year PiS took power.

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