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On Anniversary of First Constitution, Polish President Calls for Referendum

May 3 is a reminder of Poland’s European, liberal roots -- and of the political reality of its present.

By , a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.
polish constitution
polish constitution

On this day 226 years ago, Europe’s first modern constitution was written, penned not by the boulevards of Paris but in the Polish Sejm.

On this day 226 years ago, Europe’s first modern constitution was written, penned not by the boulevards of Paris but in the Polish Sejm.

On this day today, Polish President Andrzej Duda called for a constitutional referendum, which many immediately understood as being more about politics than principles.

That the first modern written constitution on the continent comes from Poland says something about how “Europe” is traditionally understood. The parlous state of constitutionality and democracy in Poland today says something about the limits of national memory and identity in a nation’s present reality.

According to a statement released by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in honor of the day, the constitution, written by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, Ignacy Potocki, and Hugo Kollataj, “was based on the most progressive, reformatory enlightenment thought.” It was comprised on an introduction and 11 articles, and stressed the strength of the legislature over that of the executive. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that it was written shortly after the U.S. constitution, which also sought a weak executive. King Poniatowski reportedly said it was modeled after its American counterpart, though it sought to “avoid the flaws and errors.”

The constitution was used for just one year — in 1792, Russia militarily intervened in Poland. Prussia followed shortly thereafter, and the two agreed upon the second partition of Poland in early 1793. But when an independent Poland was reborn after World War I, May 3 was recognized as a national holiday in the Second Republic, and then again in 1990, after the end of communism in Poland. All of which is to say that, to the Polish people, the day and the constitution have carried plenty of historical meaning.

This is significant for two reasons. First, because, for all of the talk of Western and Eastern and old and new Europe, it was Poland that first put a liberal constitution to paper, long before those countries who today feel comfortable giving lectures in Brussels on democracy and democratic deficits.

And secondly, it’s noteworthy that, as signal a day as May 3 may be, it is not itself enough to protect constitutionality in Poland. In December, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party effectively took over the country’s constitutional tribunal. Around the same time, it tried to crack down on the media and freedom of assembly. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo has decried “liberal propaganda.”

What’s more, on Wednesday, Duda announced that he wants a referendum on the current constitution, adopted 20 years ago, in 2018. His stated reason was that the Polish people of the present should decide what sort of constitution they want, and how strong president and parliament are, and which rights and freedoms are emphasized.

But considering this has been a Law and Justice plan for a while — and that Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the power behind the party’s throne, criticized the current constitution just last month — one could perhaps wonder whether there is a chance that a referendum would be politicized.

And so the 1791 constitution is not only a reminder of Poland’s — and Europe’s — halting steps toward democracy. It’s also a reminder that, deep as the roots may go, the shoots of democracy need constant tending.

Photo credit: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews. She was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2016-2018. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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