Polish Political Standoff Deepens as Opposition Questions Budget

Updated on
  • Law & Justice refuses to repeat contested vote on 2017 budget
  • Financial markets show little reaction in pre-holiday trading

People attemd the anti-government demonstration in Warsaw on Dec. 17.

Photographer: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Poland’s political standoff worsened as the opposition demanded a re-vote of the 2017 budget bill and a halt to any moves to curb media freedom in exchange for stopping its round-the-clock blockade of legislature.

Law & Justice, facing the biggest domestic crisis of its 14-month rule during which it’s been accused of backsliding on democracy by the European Union, shelved plans to reduce journalists’ access to parliament from Jan. 1 after a wave of anti-government protests over the weekend. But the ruling party has so far rejected calls to repeat Friday’s budget vote, which it moved to an auxiliary chamber in the legislature and counted by hand because opposition lawmakers occupied the podium of the main hall.

“Poland’s budget was approved illegally,” Slawomir Nitras, a lawmaker from the opposition Civic Platform party, told reporters on Monday. “This situation cannot continue. We expect Law & Justice to return to parliament and approve the budget in normal conditions.”

Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said on Monday the budget vote was fully in line with procedures and the opposition’s tactics were the result of their “frustration” over the government’s continued popularity. Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski will meet with President Andrzej Duda later in the day to discuss ways out of the crisis. Financial markets were little changed.

Opposition lawmakers said some of their representatives were barred from entering the room where the vote took place on Friday and nobody was able to ask questions because Law & Justice officials blocked their paths. In an unprecedented move, the media was not allowed into the chamber on Friday and the proceedings were only broadcast on parliament’s website. Official cameras did not catch all of the lawmakers as they voted.

EU Threat

The EU’s executive has launched unprecedented procedures against Poland for eroding the rule of law, a concern that helped trigger Poland’s first-ever credit downgrade by S&P Global Ratings. EU President Donald Tusk, who served as Poland’s prime minister before taking the bloc’s top job in 2014, criticized the events in Warsaw as a threat to the continent’s democratic order.

“Democracy in which one deprives people of access to information and imposes one style of life becomes as unbearable as a dictatorship,” Tusk said during a rare speech dedicated to Polish politics on Saturday. “Today, the European tradition of freedom is being undermined and attacked for various reasons and from various places. That’s why, in this critical moment, it requires our special care, even tenderness.”

The zloty, eastern Europe’s worst performing currency this year, traded little changed at 4.4120 against the euro at 1:16 p.m. in Warsaw, while the WIG20 stock index dropped 0.2 percent.

Muted Reaction

The muted reaction is linked to limited trading volumes during the holiday period as well as the global focus on incoming U.S. President Donald Trump, the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, according to Nigel Rendell, a senior analyst for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Medley Global Advisors in London. Poland’s government, which is fighting what it considers interference from Brussels, “will not rock the European boat” given the country’s dependence on EU funds, he said.

“From an external viewpoint, the Polish democracy is being watered down,” he said by e-mail on Monday. “That’s not good, but the extent to which this can continue is limited given Poland’s EU obligations.”

Read More: How Law & Justice has tried to #DrainTheSwamp

Opposition lawmakers started blocking the podium to support their colleague Michal Szczerba, who was thrown out of the budget debate after holding a “free media” sign. The events on Friday fueled protests outside parliament, which have continued non-stop for the last four days. Inside the assembly, opposition officials have been taking turns occupying the podium, even as the speaker turned off the lights in the main hall, turned down heating and kicked out journalists, according to Rzeczpospolita newspaper.

“We’re ready to stay here through Christmas,” said Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, a lawmaker from the Nowoczesna party.

— With assistance by Adrian Krajewski, and Marta Waldoch

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