Wednesday

20th Feb 2019

Judicial dispute prompts rallies, counter-rallies in Poland

  • Warsaw: Kaczynski's new dawn (Photo: Giuseppe Milo)

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated over the weekend in Poland after its recently elected government installed five judges in the top court.

The competing rallies highlighted a deepening political division in the country, where half the population feels democracy is under threat, polls say.

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On Saturday (12 December), opposition forces joined up to denounce the decision, made by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, to install five pro-PiS judges on the 15-member Constitutional Tribunal.

Figures vary, but according to Warsaw officials, 50,000 people took part in the demonstration, waving Polish and EU flags. Smaller rallies also took place in other cities, such as Poznan.

Protestors chanted “this is Warsaw, not Budapest!”, by reference to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who is, like Kaczynski, a eurosceptic populist.

"Today, it's an assault on the Constitutional Court. Tomorrow, it could be an assault on our freedom,” said Ryszard Petru, a former World Bank economist, now leader of pro-market Modern party, the fourth largest in the Polish parliament.

The opposition says Kaczynski’s court move is illegal.

The tribunal can overturn legislation, and forms the last obstacle to PiS reforms, after the party won an outright majority in October. It plans to raise the retirement age, boost welfare, and curb foreign ownership of banks and media.

But Kaczynski says the former government, led by the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) party, broke the rules by trying to appoint five judges, instead of the usual three, moments before the election, which PO knew it would lose.

The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, a close ally of Kaczynski, declined to swear them in, paving the way for the PiS nominations.

“The current constitutional court is a stronghold of everything that's wrong with Poland,” Kaczynski told Republika, a private broadcaster, according to Reuters.

“All of our moves can be undermined [by it] in an arbitrary way,” he said.

Counter-rally

On Sunday, PiS supporters went out on the streets waving Polish flags and party banners, while chanting Kaczynski and Duda’s names.

The rally, which attracted tens of tousands of people, was, in part, designed to mark the anniversary of 1981, when the then Polish Communist authorities imposed martial law.

“We won the election, but we have no right to set laws and remodel Poland,” Kaczynski, a former anti-Communist activist, told the crowd, sarcastically.

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