He was Poland’s answer to Andrew Marr – the face of current affairs on Poland’s public broadcaster, but this month Tomasz Lis quit his show in disgust, accusing Poland’s new government of a campaign to censor a free media and undermine democracy.
His resignation came amid a storm of controversy surrounding Poland’s new ultra-conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, which last October became the first party since the end of Communism to win an outright majority in Poland’s parliament.
Since taking office, the new Polish government has been accused of a travesty of democracy after instituting its plan to “remodel” Poland – sweeping away the placemen of the previous liberal government and implementing a raft of radical populist economic policies.
“If you express criticism then you are the enemy and you have to be destroyed”
Tomasz Lis, former Polish current affairs TV host
To achieve its ambitions, Law and Justice, is also accused of a legally questionable move to stack the country’s Constitutional Tribunal – effectively Poland’s Supreme Court – with five tame judges willing to help ram through it programme.
As he sits in his Warsaw office, puffing on a cigarette, Mr Lis, long the subject of a Law and Justice boycott, accuses the new government of orchestrating a purge of the public media using a new law that will give the government powers to hire and fire senior journalists.
Mr Lis says he decided to jump before he was pushed, but he is not going quietly, accusing Law and Justice of committing a “rape” of democratic norms by creating a climate of fear in which journalists no long dare to criticise authority.
The European Commission is seeking to “to exert pressure on democratically elected parliament and Government of sovereign Poland”.
Zbigniew Ziobro, Polish Justice minister
“With Law and Justice it is a case of ‘if you not with us, then you are against us. If you are not with us, then you are the enemy. If you have doubts, then you can be the enemy tomorrow’,” he told The Telegraph. “If you express criticism then you are the enemy and you have to be destroyed.”
The speed and scope of the changes in Poland – once the poster-child for democracy among former Soviet-dominated states – have surprised many, causing deep ructions in Brussels, where liberal voices now accuse Law and Justice of turning back the clock on democracy.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament from the German centre-Left, said events in Poland’s pointed towards a “dangerous Putinisation of European politics”, others have talked of a throwback to “Soviet-style” politics.
The European Broadcasting Union, which represents state broadcasters across the EU, including the BBC, also said that it was “monitoring” Poland’s behaviour leading to speculation – quickly squashed – that Poland could be thrown out Eurovision Song Contest.
After weeks of pressure and large opposition demonstrations in Warsaw, the European Commission announced last week that – in the first ever intervention of its kind – it would investigate whether events in Poland constituted a “systematic threat” to democracy.
Frans Timmermans, the EU’s first vice-president, said the Commission would conduct a “preliminary assessment” as to whether Poland was failing to meet the core EU promise of guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
Poland’s new rulers, and its supporters, have reacted angrily to the threat of censure by Brussels, summoning Germany’s ambassador over alleged “anti-Polish” comments and brushing off the criticism in Brussels and the international media as politically-motivated sour grapes.
Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s justice minister, said in a letter to Mr Timmermans that he was “astonished” by the Commission’s proposed intervention, calling it a blatant attempt “to exert pressure on democratically elected parliament and government of sovereign Poland”.
How much credence people place on these fears depends much on where they stand in an increasingly polarised political landscape – both in Poland, and across a Europe beset by economic and political challenges.
For the government’s opponents, it seems as if the political stability Poland has enjoyed for some eight years is being swept aside by a government determined to reshape Poland according to the vision of one man – Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
The party president and a man who presided over a chaotic Law and Justice government from 2005 to 2007, Mr Kaczynski has long argued Poland has been controlled and fleeced by a corrupt elite spawned during the country’s transition from communism to democracy after 1989.
The only way to give save Poland, he argues, is by cleansing the entire system. Although just an MP, the veteran politician is regarded by many as the real power in Poland, controlling Beata Szydlo, the prime minister.
However, even former supporters are worried that Mr Kaczynski is going too far, too fast. Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, who served briefly as prime minister in the 2005 to 2007 Law and Justice government, warned that even those who agree with Law and Justice’s ideas are alarmed by such an overt assault on Poland’s democratic institutions.
“I know Jaroslaw Kaczynski and I know he wants to change everything, to have a revolution in Poland,” he told The Telegraph.
“He thinks that if he changes everything and changes the people in government, changes the people in state institutions, he will reach the goal of a new Poland that will be stronger and cleaner. Sometimes these goals are not bad – but the way he is going about it is totally wrong.”
Whether Law and Justice succeeds may depend not on the outcome of the Commission investigation – EU diplomat sources told The Telegraph there was little support from member states, including Germany for the investigation – but on whether Law and Justice can deliver its economic promises.
These include reversing an unpopular plan to raise the age of retirement, increasing the minimum wage and meeting a manifesto pledge to pay a new universal child benefit of 500 zlotys (£87.50) per month to every family with two or more children.
“The politics is polarised, but if the government fails to deliver on these promises, then that is when the trouble will really begin,” says Prof Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the University of Sussex.
Already there are warning signs, with the Polish stock market down by 18 per cent since the election – more than the European average – and concerns among economic analysts that new taxes and charges will not deliver enough revenues to pay for the promises.
There are also signs that the electoral support that took Law and Justice to power – as Polish voters rejected the incumbent party for failing to meet economic expectations – is starting to wane, with the latest opinion polls showing the ruling party back down to rump support levels at 27 per cent.
Much is at stake. If Poland gives up the gains of the last eight years, the costs to Europe will be “very, very big”, according Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe, as splits between Warsaw and Brussels undermine attempts to forge unity on everything from refugees to Ukraine sanctions.
There may also be a sting in the tail for David Cameron, warns Prof Szczerbiak, as Britain tries to get Poland and other eastern European countries to sign up to some unpalatable measures on benefits as part of his EU renegotiation package.
“Poland is really keen for Britain to stay in Europe,” he said, “and they want to help as much as they can, but the opposition is looking for every opportunity to attack and that could make it harder for Mr Cameron to get that deal.”