Katarzyna Batko-Tołuć, Civic Network “Watchdog Poland”

At the end of May 2021, an unexpected breakthrough took place after ten months of hanging around in the matter of choosing the Ombudsperson in Poland. For the first time, a candidate has been put forward who has a chance to be selected for this position and meets the standard that the Ombudsperson should meet. At first, I felt great relief and joy. Something finally worked out. However, the more time passes after this good news, the more my face falls.

To explain my disappointment, I have to go back to the beginning of July 2020, when there was no candidate yet, and many people approached me saying “Adam Bodnar is about to end his term, what are we doing?” I felt obliged to find an answer because in 2015 it was me and the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland that had the role of coordinating support for the civil society organisations’ candidate for the Ombudsman, Adam Bodnar. He challenged the Ombudsperson’s selection system. He announced his will to be an Ombudsmen supported by CSOs, he was young (38 years old) and had “only” a PhD (he was not yet a professor). All this contradicted the previous tradition. His six predecessors were much older when they entered office and nearly all were professors. They were also elected by political parties without any consultation with CSOs. Although all previous Ombudspersons were widely respected and appreciated, prof. Adam Bodnar revolutionised the office and set new standards. It has become a place of joint efforts to achieve change expected by CSOs from various fields.

Therefore, in July 2020, it was clear that we need someone who will meet the increased expectations. And so we came to the candidacy of Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz. She met the criterion of competence and commitment — she was an experienced attorney, who changed the well-paid job to public service as a coordinator of strategic litigations at the Ombudsman office. She was experienced and independent — her work gave her a good understanding of problems in various areas of rights and freedoms and she was not involved in politics. For the first time a young, thirty-eight-year-old woman had applied for this position.

The election of Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz turned out to be impossible. She run three times. Unfortunately. There was no way to jump over the strong glue of common interests uniting the ruling majority. Regardless of her will to overcome divisions. Regardless of the fact that 1,200 diverse organisations lobbied for electing her. There were no arguments that went to the ear of the United Right (three parties: Law and Justice, Solidarity Poland and Jarosław Gowin’s Agreement). Why now part of the ruling majority supported the opposition’s candidate — prof. Marcin Wiącek — as a candidate to the Ombudsperson? The answer is disappointing. One leader (Jarosław Gowin) proves his power to another (Jarosław Kaczyński). And although I know that this is politics, this pettiness is disgusting.

Prof. Adam Bodnar made his office a lively place and raised the level of aspirations of civil society organisations. His current possible successor’s main advantage is that, as an academic, he may be competent. He has advised various important bodies (the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Administrative Court, the Legislative Council of the Prime Minister). His first statements to the media were quite bland though. He said that he is going to defend everyone, regardless of ideological stand. Every candidate repeats it, including active politicians whose previous actions and achievements proved to be the opposite.

Yet we have to keep our fingers crossed for him to be chosen. This is the fifth round of elections. In Poland, the Ombudsperson is a constitutional body. According to the Constitution, the Ombudsperson is elected by the Sejm with the consent of the Senate. In the Sejm, the United Right keeps the majority. In the Senate, however, this is the opposition who slightly dominates. Thus, the ruling majority has a decisive role in the election but cannot finish the procedure without consent of the opposition. This is why the civic candidate Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz never went to Senate, as Sejm always rejected her. For the same reasons, active politicians who were selected by United Right in Sejm were never approved by Senate. This fifth round is the last one to be held before the final end of prof. Adam Bodnar’s service. His term of office officially ended on September 9, 2020. The established constitutional tradition in Poland is that the Ombudsperson remains in office until his successor is elected. Through the dependant Constitutional Tribunal ruling majority managed to change it. As a result, prof. Adam Bodnar must definitely leave his office in mid-July 2021.

Therefore, if a new Ombudsperson is not elected by that time, it may end with the office unappointed. So keeping our fingers crossed for the independent candidate means thinking on avoiding destruction of the next constitutional body. It is depressing that Poland cannot afford a candidate who would meet all the criteria — knowledge, independence and social sensitivity. But there is still a chance for a new opening. If prof. Wiącek was elected, civil society organisations can still play a significant role. Perhaps the new Ombudsman will be willing to engage in active protection of rights and freedoms. Perhaps he will go beyond his academic reserve. Everything is still ahead of us.