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PiS forced to back down on health restrictions to secure majority in the Sejm?

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Poland – On Wednesday 15 September, a demonstration took place near the Polish parliament. The Warsaw demonstration, called by Konfederacja (Confederation, an alliance of nationalists and libertarians), followed successful demonstrations in several provincial cities, including Katowice and Toruń, to protest in response to announcements of possible vaccine segregation, with forced vaccination of certain categories of people on the French model. More specifically, the Wednesday demonstration targeted a draft law prepared by the Ministry of Health that would, among other things, allow employers to know the Covid-19 vaccination status of their employees.

The event did not attract the expected crowds. Only a few hundred people responded to the call, and the leaders of Konfederacja did not hide their disappointment, even if the lack of enthusiasm for their call was perhaps, at least in part, the consequence of a victory. The draft law, which was due to be reviewed on Thursday, had been withdrawn from the Sejm’s agenda the day before the demonstration. Among others, PiS MP Anna Siarkowska, who is notoriously hostile to mandatory health restrictions, informed about this fact on her Twitter account late in the evening.

It is not known when, or if, the bill in question will finally be presented. But in addition to its provision giving employers access to information about their employees’ vaccination status and allowing them to take action in terms of work organisation based on it, the bill would allow the National Sanitary Inspection (Sanepid) to impose fines of up to 30,000 zlotys (about €6,600) for withholding health-related information, for example concerning the identities of everyone with whom one has been in physical contact during the previous few days. Another provision would give health inspectors the power to impose immediate quarantines of up to 30 days in cases of “suspected contamination”. A further controversial point is that no compensation could be claimed by the family of the deceased in cases of death following vaccination. The bill would also give the authorities more power over vaccination programmes and to enforce mandatory vaccination, including of minors.

This draft law may have been withdrawn to avoid the large demonstration feared by the government, if the amount of police deployed around parliament on Wednesday is an indication. But another possible explanation could be the discreet negotiations initiated by PiS with… Konfederacja. The PiS group’s parliamentary majority has indeed become very fragile, and the support of Konfederacja’s eleven nationalist and libertarian MPs could be of great help. Such support would certainly mean abandoning the health minister’s draft law and overly strict health restrictions, as the Konfederacja group has preemptively tabled a bill against health segregation.

According to leaks reported in the Polish media, Minister of Education and Science Przemysław Czarnek, considered a representative of PiS’s most conservative wing, has been tasked with building bridges between PiS and Konfederacja. He reportedly invited Krzysztof Bosak, a nationalist leader and former presidential candidate, to dinner, which Deputy Minister of Culture, National Heritage, and Sport Jarosław Sellin seemed to confirm on Friday, saying there was no reason not to conduct talks with a political leader who had scored a significant 6.78% in the last presidential election, and who belongs to a political group representing a portion of the Polish electorate. An agreement with Konfederacja – which is still very hypothetical – would probably also involve hardening Poland’s attitude towards Brussels and renouncing certain parts of the PiS’ post-pandemic economic programme, especially with regard to tax increases for individual entrepreneurs.

Indeed, apart from being more conservative than PiS, Konfederacja is also much more Eurosceptic and liberal in regard to the economy. In the Sejm, it is the only group that is now defending civil liberties from health restrictions, as liberals and the Left are calling for more restrictions.

While PiS was fiercely criticized by Konfederacja leaders at the demonstration that took place on 15 September, some speakers mockingly pointed out that the liberals and the Left are even worse, since they call for even more repressive restrictions, “because otherwise we’ll all die”. At Wednesday’s demonstration, Robert Winnicki, leader of the National Movement (the nationalist wing of Konfederacja) welcomed the withdrawal of the health minister’s repressive bill, at least for the time being, as it meant an important victory. Nevertheless, he warned that “the battle will be long” while expressing the hope that it was possible to make PiS change its policy.

The day after the demonstration, an incident took place in the Sejm involving the filmmaker Grzegorz Braun, an MP for Konfederacja. It occurred following a speech in the gallery in which he had denounced the tens of thousands of deaths caused, according to him, by the health policy of Health Minister Adam Niedzielski (as access to the health system was made very difficult for many months), as well as the worrying rise in the number of suicides among teenagers after a year of remote schooling. Before returning to his seat, Braun addressed Minister Niedzielski, who was present, and said: “You’ll be hanged!” While Braun later explained that it was not a threat but a prediction to be taken figuratively, as the minister should, in his opinion, be tried and receive the maximum penalty provided for in the Polish criminal code, his words were condemned by all sides and earned him the highest financial penalty that the Sejm can impose. The Speaker of the Sejm informed the public prosecutor’s office of the incident, but Braun enjoys parliamentary immunity in the exercise of his duties as a member of parliament.

PiS MP Anna Siarkowska, while condemning Braun’s words, nevertheless made a point of recalling on Twitter that Minister Adam Niedzielski, whom she accuses of hypocrisy, had not reacted when, some time ago, Professor Andrzej Horban, head of the medical council responsible for advising the Morawiecki government on the fight against the pandemic, said in the media that if he had had a knife and knew how to use it, he would gladly have used it against Siarkowska and another member of parliament after they had intervened in a children’s home to prevent a series of forced vaccinations against Covid-19.

A secretary of state in the Prime Minister’s Office demanded on Friday that Grzegorz Braun be expelled by his group. Will the Konfederacja MEPs demand that Professor Horban be expelled from the prime minister’s medical council in return? One can dream… Two such exclusions would undoubtedly reduce the temperature of the health policy debate in Poland.