Poles protest government moves to neutralize top court

AP News
|
Posted: Dec 19, 2015 9:25 AM
Poles protest government moves to neutralize top court

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of people took part in demonstrations across Poland on Saturday to protest moves by the new right-wing government to neutralize the Constitutional Tribunal as a check on its power, something government opponents are calling a threat to democracy.

A rally in front of the parliament in Warsaw, which drew thousands, was disbanded early due to an anonymous bomb threat, which turned out to be a hoax. There were demonstrations in about 20 other Polish cities and in several cities abroad, including London, Brussels and Tokyo, organizers said.

The protesters, among them former anti-communist dissidents who were active in Solidarity, the Polish resistance movement of the 1980s, said they fear Poland's 26-year-old democracy is threatened again, this time by the government's moves against the court. The former foreign minister Radek Sikorski, a staunch anti-communist, took part in the gathering in Warsaw, holding up a Polish flag with his family by his side.

The Law and Justice party, which took power last month, controls both houses of parliament and the presidency, leaving the constitutional court as the only effective check on its power. In past weeks the government has moved to stack the court with its supporters and now plans legislation which would essentially make the court unable to work. A key provision of the law, scheduled to be passed Monday, would require a two-thirds majority by the 15-judge tribunal for any ruling to be valid, something almost impossible to achieve on contentious issues.

The result is that the court would not be able to strike down any new legislation that is challenged.

"The ruling party is going to destroy the Constitutional Tribunal. This is as bad as if you wanted to destroy the Supreme Court in the United States," said protester Marcin Skubiszewski. "This situation is really dangerous. Poland can go from democracy to either illiberal democracy or dictatorship."

Skubiszewki, a blogger and activist for democratic change in Eastern Europe, held up a poster that said, "We don't want Belarus in Warsaw," referring to the authoritarian state on Poland's eastern border. It showed a picture of Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski wearing a military cap of the type that Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko is known to appear in.

Last week European Parliament leader Martin Schulz, a German, said what is happening in Poland has the nature of a "coup d'etat."

That deeply angered the new Polish government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, but protesters Saturday agreed with that assessment.

"Martin Schulz is unfortunately right," said one poster, held high by a woman at the rally in Warsaw.

Last weekend protesters held a much larger rally in Warsaw to protest the way the new government is consolidating its power, followed the next day by large gathering of government supporters.