Top Judge’s Departure Adds Risks to Polish Political Crisis

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  • Ruling party increases power through top court appointment
  • Former foreign minister says democratic rule has ended

As of today, Poland’s democracy is sailing without its rudder.

Andrzej Rzeplinski, the Constitutional Tribunal’s chief justice who for the past 14 months was the biggest obstacle for the ruling party’s drive to consolidate power, on Monday completed his nine-year term on the panel. After passing six bills to help sideline the court and clamp down on dissent by justices, the Law & Justice party is finally set to gain control over the body that decides if new laws are constitutional.

“Markets should be aware of potential domestic institutional crises,” Peter Attard Montalto, an economist at Nomura International Plc. in London, said Monday. “Rule of law issues seem to be morphing into a wider crisis of democracy.”

Law & Justice changed rules to give President Andrzej Duda, who won the 2015 election as the party’s candidate, the right to pick the panel’s new leader, instead of the judges deciding themselves. Poland is in the midst of its biggest domestic political crisis in years and the government is facing increasing criticism from western allies that it’s undermining the rule of law.

The authorities, who rose to power railing about a need to “fix Poland” and get rid of “corrupt elites,” have clashed with the independent judiciary that they see as an impediment to their social mandate for change.

New Acting Chief

Just before midnight as Rzeplinski’s last day in the court ended, Duda signed into law three bills overhauling how the panel is run, including one that gave him the power to appoint an “acting” chief justice, a rule whose constitutionality has been questioned by critics.

This morning, he appointed Julia Przylebska, a judge picked by Law & Justice to the panel, for the interim post, allowing her to organize the panel and choose the justices she wants to sit in on various cases. Duda told public television that he wants the Constitutional Tribunal to “regain respect and credibility” after the Rzeplinski era.

“The Tribunal has been taken -- with the president, the government and the ruling majority breaking the constitution,” Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister from 2007 to 2014 and a leading critic of Law & Justice, said on his Twitter account on Tuesday. “For me, this is no longer democratic rule.”

Read More: What’s at stake in Poland’s democratic crisis?

The change of guard at the top court removes a crucial check on the government’s power amid the worst domestic crisis of Law & Justice’s rule. Opposition lawmakers have occupied the podium in parliament’s main assembly hall since Friday. Their supporters picketed the streets outside until they were dispersed by police overnight. They were demanding a re-vote of the 2017 budget and a halt to any moves by the ruling party to curb media freedom.

“I’m terrified,” Jerzy Stepien, who headed the Constitutional Tribunal between 2006 and 2008, told Bloomberg by phone on Monday. “It’s a new era in which the tribunal, which guards the rule of law, is practically gone."

Concern over Law & Justice’s power grab in January triggered Poland’s first ever downgrade by S&P Global Ratings. The zloty, until recently seen as a regional haven, is the second-worst performer this year among European emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg. The additional yield investors demand to hold Polish bonds over similar German securities widened the most since 2012 this month.

Opposition lawmakers said some of their representatives were barred from entering an auxiliary room where the budget vote took place on Friday and that they weren’t able to ask questions. In an unprecedented move, the media wasn’t allowed into the chamber and the proceedings were broadcast on a website.

While markets showed little immediate reaction in light holiday-week trading on Monday, longer-term implications of such political maneuvering are negative, according to Anders Svendsen, an economist at Nordea Bank AB.

“Political risks are high,” Svendsen said in an e-mailed research note. “In the short term, this is mostly reflected in financial markets. In the longer term, foreign involvement is likely to be on a clear downward trajectory.”

Read More: How Law & Justice tried to #DrainTheSwamp

The political shift hasn’t gone unnoticed by Germany, Poland’s biggest trading partner and the EU heavyweight with a leading voice on issues such as the bloc’s energy policy and whether it maintains economic sanctions on Russia, which Law & Justice want.

“How the constitutional court is respected and taken seriously in Poland is a source of grave concern,” Manfred Weber, who chairs the European People’s Party caucus in the European Parliament, told reporters in Berlin on Monday. “On issues involving Russia, Poland can expect solidarity only if it upholds EU principles of the rule of law and democracy.”