Poles keep up pressure on bill to curb courts’ independence

Poles-keep-up-pressure-on-bill-to-curb-courts'-independencePOLAND: Mass protests throughout Poland extended into a seventh day after the parliament, defying allies including the US, approved legislation giving the nation’s ruling party extensive control over the judiciary.

Tens of thousands of opposition-backed protesters in more than 100 Polish cities marched peacefully to urge President Andrzej Duda to veto the legislation, which they and the US have framed as a threat to Poland’s democracy. The 100-seat upper chamber followed the lower house and passed the bill early Saturday with 55 votes.

“Our generation, in an unbelievable situation, managed to steer Poland to freedom and place it on the three-legged division of power. It’s our greatest achievement,” Poland’s former president and legendary Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said at a Saturday rally in his hometown of Gdansk.

“Whoever wants to disturb this greatest victory, you, especially young people, cannot allow him to,” he said adding that “it’s like the 1980,” referring to the beginnings of the Solidarity movement.

The battle over changes to the courts is becoming one of the biggest political standoffs in Poland since communism fell in 1989. Shut out of the legislative process, the opposition has been mobilising supporters on the streets. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling Law & Justice party (PiS) that’s been criticised by the EU for rolling back democratic norms, said he won’t back down. His party controls parliament and backed Duda for president.

The European Union has warned of possible sanctions and the U.S. has expressed concern, causing the zloty to plunge.

Duda, who is to meet Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf on Monday, has refused to meet with EU President Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister from 2007 until 2014 when he led governments backed by the current opposition. Tusk told 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.

Zloty pain

The zloty ended the week down 1.5 percent against the euro, its largest weekly decline since November. That includes a 1.3 percent drop Friday, the second-worst performance among 24 emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

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

Support for PiS fell by four percentage points to 32%, with two largest opposition parties, Civic Platform (PO) and Nowoczesna, sporting joint backing of 33%, or three percentage points more, according to a poll by Kantar Millward Brown showed on Saturday by private broadcaster TVN. An earlier poll by Kantar for TVN showed 55%wanted Duda to veto the court overhaul.

Duda spokesman Krzysztof Lapinski told reporters on Saturday that all options are open in terms of the president’s decision, saying Duda will take into account that part of the new court bill “infringes the rules of proper legislation.” Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said Thursday that he’s sure the president wouldn’t veto the bills.

US ‘concerned’

“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 Friday 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 US administration had urged a veto from Duda, who hosted President Donald Trump in the Polish capital this month. The Polish Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday that it was “surprised” the spokeswoman “has taken a public position regarding pending legislation in Poland.”

“The fact that the legislative process is still underway makes any such pronouncements premature,” according to the statement. “The judicial reform bill in question will not affect the independence of courts or judges and seeks only to regain the citizens’ respect for the judiciary. Reforms proposed in Poland are in the spirit of judicial systems in other European countries.”

Poland’s ambassador to the U.S., Piotr Wilczek, used Twitter to chide the Trump administration. “I can’t imagine the Polish government making comments on pending legislative process in any country,” he said. “I don’t know why the U.S. government feels authorised to do so.”

No surrender

“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 criticised by the bloc 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, adding to comments by Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who said the bloc is waging a “witch hunt.”