European Parliament to debate state of Poland's democracy

AP News
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Posted: Dec 14, 2016 8:48 AM
European Parliament to debate state of Poland's democracy

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The European Parliament is preparing to hold its third debate on the state of democracy in Poland since a populist party won last year and moved quickly to cement its hold on power.

The debate Wednesday afternoon comes a day after the Polish parliament passed two new laws that are being denounced by civic groups and the political opposition as violations of democratic freedoms.

One law gives state authorities greater power to regulate public gatherings.

The other regulates how the Constitutional Tribunal works and the status of its judges. Its provisions are legally complex, but will give the executive branch greater control over the court and weaken the separation of powers envisioned in Poland's constitution.

The vote on public gatherings goes next to the president to be signed, while the law on the constitutional court must still be debated in the Senate, which could request some changes.

Since assuming power last November, the Law and Justice party under chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski has imposed greater control over state media, increased government control over prosecutors and moved to neutralize the constitutional court's ability to strike down its laws.

Party members argue they have an electoral mandate to remake Poland. The party, which has increased welfare spending, remains relatively popular, with 36 percent support in a recent poll, more than the top two opposition parties combined.

Ahead of the debate, the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament issued a statement saying it believes now is the time to trigger the EU's Article 7 against Poland, which allows the bloc to strip a nation of its voting rights.

Article 7 was envisioned to ensure democratic standards in EU members. But it requires unanimity among all other member states, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — who is also accused of violating EU democratic norms — has vowed to block any move against Poland.

The new assembly law increases the power of authorities to limit gatherings, allows groups to reserve a specific location for regular gatherings and requires at least 100 meters between protests and counter-demonstrations. Opponents say it will give authorities the ability to prevent some gatherings they don't want.

"This is really an unlawful limitation on our constitutional rights and freedoms," said Kamilia Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a lawmaker with the opposition Modern party.

Draginja Narazdzin, the director of Amnesty International in Poland, said her organization and others sent a letter to the Polish president on Wednesday asking him not to sign the "very problematic" bill into law.