Photographer: Adam Cheltsowski/AFP via Getty Images

Poles Take to Streets for Protest as Senators Mull Court Revamp

  • More than 100,000 demonstrators turned out Thursday evening
  • U.S. ‘concerned’ about judiciary bill; EU sanctions possible

Poles took to the streets for another protest with parliament set to defy international allies and mass opposition protests by pressing ahead with legislation giving the government more sway over the judiciary.

The demonstration began at 7 p.m. Friday outside the Supreme Court in Warsaw after more than 100,000 people gathered in major cities the previous evening urging President Andrzej Duda to veto the legislation. The upper chamber aims to vote on the bill as early as Friday, defeating opposition attempts to delay it. The European Union has warned of possible sanctions and the U.S. has expressed concern. The zloty plunged the most in nine months.

The battle over the court reform is becoming one of the biggest political standoffs in Poland since communism fell in 1989. Shut out of the legislative process, the opposition has turned to mobilizing its supporters on the streets. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling Law & Justice party that’s been criticized by the EU for rolling back democratic norms, says he won’t back down. His party controls both houses of parliament.

“We are concerned about the Polish government’s continued pursuit of legislation that appears to limit the judiciary and potentially weaken the rule of law,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in Washington. “We continue to have conversations at the highest level with the government of Poland and express our concerns.”

Nauert wouldn’t say whether the administration had urged a veto from Duda, who hosted President Donald Trump in the Polish capital this month. Duda has refused to meet with EU President Donald Tusk to discuss the crisis. Tusk said Thursday that they should talk to prevent a “black scenario in which Poland is marginalized in the EU.”

“Authorities are tweaking laws to gain control over citizens and curb freedoms,” Tusk said in an interview with broadcaster TVN24 on Friday. Poland faces serious international consequences for politicizing courts, though nobody in Brussels wants to “assault” the country, he said when asked if the EU is likely to impose sanctions.

Currency Plummets

The zloty weakened 1.2 percent to 4.2636 against the euro as of 8:28 p.m. in Warsaw, the lowest level in three months.

“An increase in market volatility due to growing political uncertainty is very likely in the coming days,” Jaroslaw Janecki, chief economist at Societe Generale SA in Warsaw, said in a note. Fitch Ratings said political “noise” could hurt the investment climate.

Law & Justice has been rushing through its reform, which would force into immediate retirement all Supreme Court judges with little or no debate and without consulting the judiciary. Parliament has already passed bills this month giving politicians control over lower courts and the National Judicial Council. While Duda hasn’t signed any into law yet, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said Thursday that he’s sure the president won’t veto them.

No Surrender

Duda will meet Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf Monday, suggesting he won’t make a decision before then.

“Constitutional matters are being pushed through under the cover of night without debate -- the crisis is set to escalate,” Tomasz Siemoniak, a lawmaker from the opposition Civic Platform party, said by phone. “We won’t be giving an inch without a fight.”

Since regaining power in October 2015, Law & Justice has challenged democratic principles enshrined in the EU treaty and sparked warnings about a drift toward authoritarian rule. But it’s found support from Hungary, which has also been criticized by the bloc for democratic infractions. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Thursday that the EU should stay out of Poland’s domestic affairs, accusing it of a “witch hunt.”

— With assistance by Piotr Bujnicki, and Dorota Bartyzel

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