Analysis: Ombudsman term of office expires, but he is staying in office

By Chris Mularczyk

Adam Bodnar, Poland’s Ombudsman, will see his term of office expire on Wednesday. However, it is not clear who will succeed him. The politics of this appointment are complicated by the fact that the new occupant of the office must be elected by the Lower House of Parliament, and that election must then be approved by the second chamber, the Senate, in which the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) does not have a majority.

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The legal position is that until a new Ombudsman is appointed through completion of the parliamentary process Adam Bodnar remains in office until his successor is appointed. As of now, the matter has not even made Parliament’s agenda. The only candidate who has come forward, proposed by civil society organisations is Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz, a lawyer very much in the Adam Bodnar mould, therefore unacceptable to a majority of MPs in the Lower House.

The justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro has put forward one of his deputies at the ministry, Marcin Warchoł, as a potential candidate. However, he is from the Solidarity Poland, a satellite party within the ruling PiS block. Relations between PiS and Mr Ziobro have cooled of late and therefore it is unlikely that PiS as a whole would back Mr Warchoł. Moreover, PiS has the problem of getting the candidate approved by the Senate.

The fact that PiS no longer controls the Senate where the opposition holds a 51-48 majority is visibly delaying the resolution of who is to be a successor to Mr Bodnar. The ruling party is considering its options for dealing with the situation.

One of the options on the table is to produce a legislative change by which a candidate may be appointed by the Lower House who would be “acting Ombudsman”. However, the ruling party recognises that this would be seen as by-passing the constitution and many within it feel that the post is not worth such manoeuvers.

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Compromise with the opposition?

This is why the Agreement party, one of the two smaller satellite parties allied to PiS, has suggested making a deal with the opposition for finding a candidate who would be agreeable to both sides of Parliament. The argument is that this would be a good way of reaching out in the post-presidential election environment and would give the lie to the charge that PiS is trying to monopolise the state.

The former Deputy PM Jarosław Gowin, who left the government after an argument over the date of the presidential election, was encouraged to seek this position by those in the ruling party who would gladly see the back of him in front-line politics. He was not interested in such a move, and looks to be committed to returning to the government in the autumn as Deputy PM.

Finding a compromise candidate in the current climate is extremely difficult. The legal profession has been deeply divided by disputes over judicial reform and there are few likely compromise candidates around.

Turning the Senate around

One candidate who might seem to be agreeable to the ruling party and who would have a chance of winning a vote in the Senate is Senator Lidia Staroń. She is an independent who is known for being sympathetic to the ruling party but totally uncompromising in defending consumer and individual rights. The problem with her is not so much that she is very independent-minded. The bigger problem for the ruling party is that if she departed her seat would go up for a by-election and could be won by the opposition, thereby making PiS recapturing the Senate even less likely.

So the search for a potential candidate who might win a majority in the Senate and would be agreeable to the ruling party continues. They need to “turn“ two Senators on this issue to get their way. But this sounds easier than it actually is in the highly polarised atmosphere of Polish politics.

The post of Ombudsman is highly visible, but it does not in any way constrain the government. PiS has governed with a hostile Ombudsman for the past five years. This explains why the party is in no mad rush to replace Mr Bodnar.