European Report Slams Polish Government for Imperiling Democracy

  • Ruling party dismissed criticism from `foreign institutions'
  • Opposition leader warns of Polish `Maidan' if crisis escalates

The Council of Europe condemned Poland’s government for endangering democracy by overhauling its highest court, deepening a standoff between the administration in Warsaw and its European partners.

The report from the council’s Venice Commission said changes by the four-month-old government to the Constitutional Court had imperiled rule of law in the EU’s largest eastern member. Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said Friday the government would take the recommendations “very seriously,” although the ruling Law & Justice party dismissed the findings as foreign meddling when they were leaked to Polish media earlier this month.

The feud, which also involves a shakeup in public media and the government’s rejection of rulings by the constitutional tribunal, has triggered the European Union’s first-ever probe into the state of a member nation’s democracy. While ruling-party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said this week the criticism amounted to “foreign institutions” seeking to undermine the “dignity” of his countrymen, opposition leaders are planning to step up anti-government protests this weekend.

“Poland should settle its constitutional crisis by respecting judgments of its Constitutional Tribunal,” the Venice Commission said in an e-mailed report. It added that the ruling party’s changes to court procedures “have endangered not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system.”

Court Overhaul

The Venice Commission probe is focused mainly on the Constitutional Court, which the government overhauled last year, making it harder for it to overturn laws. The governing Law & Justice party stacked the court with justices it selected and President Andrzej Duda, a former member of the party, is ignoring a ruling that ordered him to swear in three judges picked by the previous cabinet.

The Constitutional Court on Wednesday ruled that the changes were illegal and breached its independence. In response, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski likened the head of the court, Justice Andrzej Rzeplinski, to an “Ayatollah who is above the law.” The government has dismissed the verdict as a mere “position of a group of justices” rather than a legal ruling and therefore can’t publish it, Beata Kempa, the head of the Prime Minister’s office, said in parliament Thursday.

The Venice Commission, which said the previous parliament shared some responsibility for the crisis, condemned the government’s refusal.

It “would not only be contrary to the rule of law, such an unprecedented move would further deepen the constitutional crisis,” the commission said. “Not only the Polish Constitution but also European and international standards require that the judgments of a Constitutional Court be respected.”

‘Legal Chaos’

The country of 38 million people will slip into “legal chaos” if the government continues to refuse to publish the court’s ruling from Wednesday, ombudsman Adam Bodnar told TVN24 television Thursday. It will also undermine human rights and disrupt 170 cases pending in the tribunal, he said.

“We haven’t had such a constitutional crisis since 1989, we’re dealing with breaking of the law by a legally chosen government, which is unprecedented,” Ryszard Petru, leader of opposition party Nowoczesna said Friday. The opposition plans to stage a march to defend “rule of law and constitution” in Warsaw on Saturday.

Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the opposition Civic Platform told RMF FM radio Friday, said the demonstrations may intensify into something similar to the months-long protest, known as Maidan, that toppled a pro-Russian government in neighboring Ukraine two years ago.

“If we don’t find a solution to this crisis, it will lead us to the streets,” Schetyna said. “And if we move our activities to the streets, we could be talking about Maidan in Warsaw, but that’s the last stage.”

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