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In Poland, an Assault on the Courts Provokes Outrage

The drive to control the courts comes barely two weeks after President Trump paid a triumphant visit to Warsaw and praised the populist and nationalist Law and Justice Party, which controls the government. Now, if the party prevails, its success could be the final chapter in Poland’s long progression from a model Eastern European nation — and one of the first former Communist nations to join the union — to what its opponents are calling an illiberal democracy.

Three former Polish presidents, including Lech Walesa, have released a manifesto against the proposed changes, saying “we do not consent to taking away our basic civic freedoms.” And a coalition of more than 175 artists and scientists signed an open letter on Wednesday calling the government’s move a “coup d’état.”

With the legacy of the Solidarity movement, Poland entered the post-Soviet era with a head start on other post-Soviet nations politically, and its strong agricultural sector allowed it to quickly emerge as an economic success.

But its status as a regional star has been endangered by the rise of the Law and Justice Party. Since assuming power in late 2015, the party has moved to co-opt or weaken potential rivals, beginning with the Constitutional Tribunal, which could have declared its moves unconstitutional. Now dominated by government supporters, the tribunal provides a reliable rubber stamp for government initiatives.

Law and Justice supporters have been put in charge of public television and radio, which now adhere to a firmly pro-government line. Independent oversight was removed from the secret services. The justice minister was named chief prosecutor, formerly a separate and more independent post. New regulations were imposed on public assemblies.

Still, at least one previous step to pull Poland to the right, a nearly total ban on abortions proposed last fall, was defeated after mass protests.

“This is a call for a right-wing revolution,” said Jerzy Stepien, the director of the Institute of Civic Space and Public Policy at Lazarski University, and a former president of the Constitutional Tribunal. “If we have people in power who feel themselves above the law, we are in a revolutionary situation.”

In the lower house of Parliament this week, as opposition leaders struggled to beat back the governing party’s push to pass its legislation, people on both sides delivered emotional speeches frequently interrupted by chants.

“You could have been reformers of the Polish judiciary,” an enraged Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, from the opposition Peasants Party, said to stone-faced lawmakers from the Law and Justice Party. “But you have become its executioners wearing a mask of justice.”

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The Law and Justice party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in Parliament on Wednesday. Credit Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

Things turned especially ugly during a debate at midnight on Tuesday in Parliament when an opposition politician, Borys Budka, presumed to speak for the former Polish president from Law and Justice, who was killed in a 2010 plane crash. “If Lech Kaczynski were alive, he wouldn’t allow this,” Mr. Budka declared.

An enraged Jaroslaw Kaczynski — the former president’s twin brother and, as leader of Law and Justice, the most powerful political figure in Poland — seized the lectern and fired back: “Do not wipe your traitorous mugs with the name of my late brother. You are scoundrels.”

Law and Justice has long maintained that the 2010 crash was an assassination, perhaps involving Russia and members of the political opposition.

“You murdered him,” Mr. Kaczynski shouted.

Ewa Kopacz, the prime minister under the previous center-right government, declared herself flabbergasted. “This man is crazy with hate,” she said of Mr. Kaczynski. “He cannot control his emotions.”

The conflict over the judiciary has been simmering for some time. One proposed law, already approved by Parliament and awaiting President Andrzej Duda’s signature, would reconfigure the National Council of the Judiciary, which chooses those eligible to become judges, so that government-appointed members would essentially have veto power.

A second bill, introduced late last week, would force all current members of the Supreme Court to resign, including several who have been feuding with the government, and replace them with judges selected by the governing party’s minister of justice.

“Their goal is to create political control over the judiciary,” said Adam Bodnar, Poland’s official ombudsman, who has come out against the bills. “I don’t have doubts about it.”

Mr. Kaczynski and other Law and Justice officials contend that opponents are overreacting to an honest attempt by the government to reform a dysfunctional and highly unpopular court system and to root out corrupt judges and liberal ideologues who want to thwart the will of the people.

Law and Justice, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said, has “stood on the side of the people, and nobody will make us turn back from this way — not even by shouting here and stamping your feet!”

To become law, a bill must have three readings in the Sejm, the lower house of Parliament, then be passed by the Senate and signed by the president. The government’s decision to use procedural maneuvers to fast-track the Supreme Court bill appears to have caught opponents off guard.

“There were no public consultations, no public hearings,” said Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz of the opposition party Modern. “There should have been experts’ opinions, but there’s no time for that.”

President Duda tried to suggest a compromise in a nationwide address. He said he would sign the bill on his desk involving the appointment of judges only if an amendment were added so that new judges must get 60 percent of the vote in Parliament rather than a simple majority. Since Law and Justice has only a slim majority in the Sejm, this would force the governing party to find at least one other party to vote with it. If that amendment is not added, Mr. Duda said, he will refuse to sign the Supreme Court law.

It was a rare disagreement between Mr. Duda, a former Law and Justice member who became independent when he was elected president, and Mr. Kaczynski. Opponents were not sure whether this signaled a true split between the two leaders or was some sort of a trick.

“We don’t know if the president is acting really with some sort of noble intentions or whether he’s just playing a game,” said Mr. Stepien, the former president of the Constitutional Tribunal.

As opponents sought to slow the bill’s passage, opposition leaders asked Poles to continue to take to the streets. Some protesters have set up a tent camp outside Parliament, vowing to keep a round-the-clock vigil. “I had to be here,” said Lidia Leipert, a lawyer who joined the throng after work.

Agnieszka Wierzbicka, a nutritionist, said she was already resigned to losing this round.

“I think our protest is nothing but symbolic now,” she said. “Will it change anything? I highly doubt it. But that doesn’t make it invalid. It is important for history.”

Source: NYT > World

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