Poles Rally for Eighth Night Backing Court Independence

Updated on
  • Both houses of parliament clear measure; fate up to president
  • Bill may trigger EU sanctions, has drawn criticism from U.S.

Mass protests extend to an eighth straight night across Poland after the parliament, defying allies including the U.S. and the European Union, passed legislation giving the nation’s ruling party more control over the judiciary.

Tens of thousands of opposition-backed protesters in dozens of cities marched peacefully on Sunday, holding flags and constitution booklets in their hands. They urged President Andrzej Duda to veto the legislation, which they’ve said is a threat to Poland’s democracy. The 100-seat upper chamber followed the lower house and passed the bill early Saturday with 55 votes.

Protesters demonstrate in front of Parliament on Jul 21.

Photographer:Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

“Protests take place in many cities. It shows that the issue is key,” Grzegorz Schetyna, head of Civic Platform, Poland’s largest opposition party, said at a rally in Legnica in western Poland. “Poles are protesting day after day. This should give Duda something to think about.”

The zloty weakened 1.5 percent last week amid mounting political risks, including the threat of EU sanctions over Duda’s legislation. The battle over changes to the courts is becoming the biggest political standoff in Poland since communism fell in 1989, turning the government against its partners in western Europe and the U.S. 

The court revamp is “one step back for democracy,” U.S. Senator John McCain tweeted on Saturday.

Shut out of the legislative process, the opposition has been mobilizing supporters on the streets, but Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling Law & Justice party, said he won’t back down. His party controls parliament and backed Duda for president.

Duda’s Choice

Duda, who’s scheduled to meet Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf on Monday, has refused to see EU President Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014 when he led governments backed by the current opposition. Tusk told the private television station TVN24 on Friday that the “logic of the overall changes in Poland implies a departure from the liberal model.” Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said the EU has no grounds for any sanctions, according to the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant.

Law & Justice, claiming it’s “giving the courts back to the people,” has rushed through its reform -- which forces all Supreme Court judges into immediate retirement -- with little or no debate and without consulting the judiciary. Parliament this month also passed bills giving politicians control over lower courts and the National Judicial Council, with only Duda’s signature needed for final approval of the Supreme Court overhaul.

Pro-government weekly wPolityce reported on Sunday, without saying where it got the information, that Duda will probably send the Supreme Court legislation to be vetted by the Constitutional Tribunal and approve the two other measures. Such a move would let the Tribunal -- which Law & Justice took over in 2016 in a series of overhauls that triggered EU accusations the government isn’t respecting the rule of law -- to determine if the legislation adheres to the country’s 1997 Constitution.

Public Support

Support for Law & Justice fell by 4 percentage points to 32 percent, with the two largest pro-EU opposition parties, Civic Platform and Nowoczesna, jointly backed by 33 percent, a gain of 3 points, according to a poll by Kantar Millward Brown reported on Saturday by private broadcaster TVN. An earlier Kantar poll showed 55 percent wanted Duda to veto the court overhauls.

The government is seeking to battle back, with public television -- run by a former Law & Justice lawmaker -- claiming the protests are “Astroturf” or a fake-grassroot movement funded by non-governmental organizations that manipulate and distort media messages.

The government is taking on “huge corporations” and foreign governments, which have “crafted Poland into a place from which they take out huge sums of money,” Jacek Sasin, a Law & Justice lawmaker who heads parliament’s powerful public finance committee, said on public television.

U.S. ‘Concerned’

The U.S. weighed in on the situation on Friday. “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,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in Washington.

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 EU for democratic infractions. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Saturday that his country would use “all legal tools available” to defend the Polish government in the EU dispute.

Lech Walesa, Poland’s former president and leader of the Solidarity movement that helped bring down communism, said during a rally in Gdansk on Saturday that his generation’s “greatest achievement” was to win freedom and build a democratic system where the judicial branch was independent of politicians.

“Whoever wants to disturb this greatest victory, you, especially young people, cannot allow him to,” Walesa told the crowd in the Baltic Sea city. “It’s like 1980,” he said, referring to the beginnings of the Solidarity movement.

— With assistance by Marek Strzelecki, and Dorota Bartyzel

(Updates with new comment, protest details.)
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