Polish judicial reforms pass amid mass demonstrations

Critics say new law increases political influence of ruling party over new judges

Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo: her ruling party has mounted a long-term campaign against existing judges. Photograph: Jacek Turczyk/EPA

Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo: her ruling party has mounted a long-term campaign against existing judges. Photograph: Jacek Turczyk/EPA

 

Poland’s ruling national conservative government has said it stands by controversial court reforms and will not be “scared” by domestic or foreign pressure.

Strident remarks by prime minister Beata Szydlo in a special television address came amid mass demonstrations in Warsaw on Thursday evening, with another rally planned on Friday night.

The new legislation package forces supreme court judges to retire and, critics say, increases political influence over their successors.

“We will not give in to pressure, we will not allow ourselves to be scared by Polish and foreign defenders of the interests of the elite,” said Ms Szydlo.

Her government says its reforms will increase democratic control of the Polish legal system and put it on a new basis of “moral and Christian values”. The ruling party has mounted a long-term campaign against existing judges, accusing them of being inefficient members of a self-serving clique.

Opposition leader Grzegorz Schetyna attacked the laws as a “state coup” and a “black day in the history of Poland”, aimed at eliminating judicial independence.

The judicial reforms have prompted a statement of concern from the US state department and threats of legal action from the European Commission.

Czech judges warned on Friday the reforms in neighbouring Poland “threaten the very essence of the principles underlying the democratic rule of law”.

Audible protests

Inside the Sejm parliament chamber, the final reform debate took place amid audible chants of protesters outside. Police said about 15,000 took part in protests on Thursday night. City officials estimated more than three times that.

The reform Bill passed the lower house with 235 votes of the ruling Law and Justice party, 192 votes against and 23 abstentions. About 1,000 amendments by opposition MPs to the judicial reform bills were voted down en masse.

The new arrangements, when signed into law by President Andrzej Duda, will force judges to retire from the supreme court aged 65 unless the justice minister says they can stay on. And, 30 days after the Bill comes into effect, the mandate will expire on all existing members of a national body that appoints judges.

After Mr Duda expressed concerns that new judicial appointments required only a simple parliamentary majority, the government said it would increase this to three-fifths of MPs.

But Polish analysts have accused Mr Duda of staging a phoney revolt against his colleagues in the ruling party. The three-fifths majority will only apply to nonpolitical nominees in one of the appointment committee’s two chamber. These nominees will still require backing of a second, politically appointed chamber. Its nominees will only require the simple parliamentary majority enjoyed by the Law and Justice party.

For critical Warsaw watchers, the judicial reforms bode ill for the future as the supreme court is the body that rules whether national elections are fair.

“If the government mismanages or falsifies elections, but the court filled with their appointees says everything was all right, then [Law and Justice] get the outcome they wanted,” said Eugeniusz Smolar, a Warsaw-based political analyst. “They are going in for the kill.”