Polish Battle Over Court Revamp Turns Into Shouting Match

Updated on
  • S&P warns erosion of rule of law may weaken Polish economy
  • EU to discuss Polish justice system overhauls on Wednesday

Protesters raise candles during a protest in front of the presidential palace, as they urge President Duda to reject a bill changing the judiciary system, in Warsaw, on July 18.

Photographer: Alik Keplicz/AP Photos

Polish ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski accused his political opponents of “murdering” his brother seven years ago, as a debate over his party’s contested judicial overhaul turned volatile.

The court revamp, which gives politicians more say over the judiciary, is set to push Poland deeper into conflict with the European Union regarding its adherence to the bloc’s democratic principles. It may also hurt economic growth and raise concerns over the protection of investor interests, according to S&P Global Ratings. So far, the row hasn’t impacted the zloty, which traded near a one-month high to the euro on Wednesday.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski

Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

Lawmakers resumed work on the measure on Wednesday, after a heated debate during which the opposition proposed more than a thousand amendments in an attempt to block the legislation at least temporarily. The ruling Law & Justice party, which considers itself a flag-bearer for the interests of ordinary Poles and a political ally of U.S. President Donald Trump, argues its revamps strengthen public control over a judiciary run by a “caste of unaccountable judges.”

Lawmakers scuffled in parliament during a session that ran past midnight, while thousands of anti-government demonstrators gathered outside, chanting “Freedom, Equality, Democracy.” Crowds dwindled to several dozen on Wednesday morning amid a heavy police presence.

“Don’t wipe your treacherous mugs with my late brother’s name,” Kaczynski told opposition lawmakers from the parliament’s podium. “You destroyed him, murdered him. You’re scumbags.”

‘Political Revenge’

The comments came after Borys Budka, from the opposition Civic Platform, said that Kaczynski’s brother Lech, who as Poland’s president died in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, wouldn’t propose bills that “ruin democracy” by eroding the constitutional separation of powers. Polish and Russian investigations both blamed the disaster mainly on pilot error, but members of Kaczynski’s party have said the incident was probably an “assassination.”

Kaczynski has said before that his brother was probably “murdered.” Ewa Kopacz, a former premier from the Civic Platform, said the fiery comments, which have gone viral on social media, show that the country’s most-powerful politician, who hand-picked the president and prime minister, has “gone crazy with hatred.”

Read More: Poland’s Turn Toward Populism

The justice-system revamp, proposed without consultations with the judiciary and debated on a rushed schedule, would force into immediate retirement all Supreme Court judges and its president, whose term is set in the constitution. The overhaul triggered dozens of demonstrations in larger Polish cities last weekend, bringing tens of thousands out on the streets.

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a lawmaker from the opposition Modern party, told Bloomberg that Law & Justice was preparing the court overhaul to get “political revenge” for Lech Kaczynski’s death. She said it’s rushing with the process to change the Supreme Court before it has a chance to rule in cases that may prove troublesome for the authorities, such as President Andrzej Duda’s pardon of the country’s secret services boss and the appointment of a new chief justice in the Constitutional Tribunal, which critics say was carried out illegally.

Investors’ Interests

“Unbiased enforcement of contracts and respect for the rule of law correlates closely with respect for creditors’ and investors’ interests,” Felix Winnekens, associate director for sovereign ratings at S&P, said by email on Tuesday. “A weakened rule of law is one of the key risks stemming from a judiciary which is not independent.”

S&P’s comments come before the EU’s executive, which has accused the Polish government of a “persistent” erosion of the rule of law, discusses the matter on Wednesday. The zloty weakened 0.1 percent to 4.2061 per euro at 11:24 a.m. in Warsaw, while the yield on the nation’s benchmark 10-year bonds increased 1 basis point to 3.25 percent.

In a final push to overhaul the judiciary, the ruling party last week passed the laws that gave parliament the right to choose who sits on the National Judiciary Council, a body that decides which judges are promoted and how courts are run. It also gave the government control over appointing court heads.

Read More: Polish authorities blur line between church and state

The government made a minor retreat on Tuesday by saying it will amend the draft legislation on the Supreme Court so that the new National Judiciary Council would appoint justices, rather than the government. Meanwhile, President Andrzej Duda said that although he supports the overhaul, he won’t sign the Supreme Court bill unless regulations are tweaked to ensure that judiciary council members are picked with a three-fifths rather than a simple majority.

“The rule of law will be extinguished when this Supreme Court law is passed,” former ombudsman and Constitutional Tribunal Judge Ewa Letowska told private television TVN24. Once the ruling party gains control over the courts, it will change the way that politics function, undermining the free media and the idea of holding free and fair elections in Poland, she said.

— With assistance by Adrian Krajewski

(Updates with market developments and politicians’ quotes from second paragraph.)
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