Poland's Democracy Row Deepens as Highest Court Rejects New Law

  • Tribunal says amendment includes many breaches of constitution
  • Majority of Poles say democracy is threatened, survey shows

Poland’s revamp of the nation’s highest court is unconstitutional, the tribunal ruled on Wednesday, deepening the country’s biggest conflict over democratic rule since communism collapsed 26 years ago.

Regulations passed by the Law & Justice government’s majority in parliament last month breached the constitution on multiple counts, the tribunal said in an official ruling in Warsaw. It sided with a group of opposition lawmakers, the country’s human rights ombudsman, its chief prosecutor, the National Court Council and the head of the highest administrative court. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said the previous parliament illegally appointed judges to the tribunal and that it’s simply seeking to return to the rule of law.

Since taking power in mid-November, Law & Justice’s administration has forced out the head of the country’s anti-corruption agency, limited the opposition’s oversight of secret services and outlined plans to overhaul public media, raising concerns about the system of checks and balances written into Poland’s constitution. An opinion poll last month showed a majority of Poles believe there’s a threat to their democracy after Law & Justice won unprecedented power in this year’s general and presidential election.

“Law & Justice is seeking to gain control over the institutions it deems necessary to implement its agenda,” including sway over the Constitutional Tribunal, said Olgiert Annusewicz, a political scientist in Warsaw University. “This style of rule has led to lost elections in the past and could snowball a fall in their public support.”

Law & Justice’s contested law cut the terms of the tribunal’s chief justice and his deputy as well as paved the way to replace judges who were elected to the panel by the previous parliament. Under Polish law, parliament is obliged to alter legislation deemed in breach of the 1997 constitution by the tribunal. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said on Wednesday, however, that the ruling will change “nothing.”

Legal Repairs

“We are only repairing the law and President Duda is protecting the constitution,” Szydlo told reporters in Warsaw on Wednesday.

Weeks before the previous government lost October’s general election, its majority in parliament appointed five judges to 9-year terms in the court, filling vacancies coming due in November and December. In a separate ruling last week, the top court said only three of these judges were legally chosen and should be sworn in by Duda without delay.

President Duda has declined to do so, saying the previous parliament broke the law. In the meantime, he has sworn in five justices appointed by the new parliament, drawing criticism from Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary Generale of human-rights group Council of Europe, who called on full implementation of the tribunal’s ruling.

According to a survey by IBRiS conducted among 1,100 people on Nov. 27-28, 55 percent of Poles believe the country’s democracy is threatened, while 35 percent say the nation’s post-1989 democratic order isn’t being eroded.

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