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Polish parliament adopts contested Supreme Court reform

Polish parliament adopts contested Supreme Court reform

3 min. 20.07.2017 From our online archive
The lower house of parliament, which is controlled by the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, voted in favour of the law giving the justice minister power to select candidates for the court.

(AFP) Polish lawmakers on Thursday adopted a controversial reform of the Supreme Court, despite days of street protests, concern from the opposition over judicial independence and EU threats of unprecedented sanctions.

The lower house of parliament, which is controlled by the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, voted 235 to 192 -- with 23 abstentions -- in favour of the law giving the justice minister power to select candidates for the court.

"The adoption of this reform violates the principles of the rule of law because it subjects the judiciary to political power. This paves the way for a non-democratic system in Poland," political analyst Stanislaw Mocek of the Polish Academy of Sciences said.

"The situation is very serious and could get out of hand. We don't see a will for compromise on the part of PiS, and the opposition is too weak," he said, as protesters were scheduled to rally in front of the presidential palace later Thursday.

The measure is only the latest in a slew of contested judicial reforms that the PiS says are necessary to make the judicial system more effective and fight against corruption.

But Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the centrist opposition party Civic Platform (PO), had denounced the Supreme Court reform earlier Thursday as "a rampant coup".

Sweeping judicial reforms

The European Commission's vice president Frans Timmermans for his part bluntly warned the changes "considerably increase the systemic threat to the rule of law" in Poland.

"Collectively, they would abolish any remaining judicial independence and put the judiciary under full political control of the government," he said on Wednesday.

He had warned Poland that if it did not suspend the reforms, the Commission could  move towards halting Poland's voting rights in the 28-nation bloc further down the line -- a so-called "nuclear option" that the EU had never invoked.

The measure still needs to be adopted by the senate, also controlled by the PiS, and signed by President Andrzej Duda to become law.

Duda, a lawyer-turned-politician who is closely allied with the PiS, on Thursday let it be known that he had refused a meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk, who had expressed concern over the situation.

The PiS came to power in late 2015 after eight years in the opposition and promptly began introducing changes in areas like the judiciary and the media that critics have called bids to consolidate power.

Dilemma for the EU

The EU first warned Poland in early 2016 over reforms of the constitutional court -- whose main role is to check that laws comply with the constitution.

Those changes resulted in tilting the make-up of the court in the conservatives' favour and installing a PiS ally as the chief justice.

Mocek said he believes the Supreme Court reform is "the result of a sin of omission by the European Union, which did not follow through regarding its reactions to the Constitutional Court affair."

"Now we are waiting for the decision of the president, who still has his veto. The EU has the dilemma of either acting now -- while the process is still ongoing -- or waiting. Sure, it's not over, but later it may be too late," he added.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Warsaw and other cities across Poland this week to demonstrate against the Supreme Court reform, as well as two other pieces of judicial legislation.

Last week, both houses of parliament adopted legislation stipulating that from now on the parliament will choose the members of the National Council of the Judiciary,  which oversees the selection of judges and is meant to protect the independence of the courts.

They also adopted a second bill stating that the justice minister will name the chief justices of Poland's common courts.