Mass protests continue across Poland as controversial court reform nears passage

Demonstrators hold candles and flags in a silent moment of protest before the Polish court in Krakow Wednesday evening
Demonstrators hold candles and flags in a silent moment of protest before the Polish court in Krakow Thursday evening (phot. Veronica Pagnani)

Massive demonstrations in Polish streets continued this week as thousands of people gathered Thursday night in more than 70 cities around the country. Standing before courthouses, they held candles, sang anthems, and chanted demands that President Andrzej Duda veto a proposed reform to the Supreme Court.

They were also joined by Poles living in other European capitals, who protested there in solidarity.

The bill, introduced last Sunday without previous consultation, is controversial because it would trigger the dismissal of all sitting judges on the Supreme Court and allow the government (currently controlled by the far-right Law and Justice/PiS party) to replace them. Under the present system, judges are chosen by a body of legal experts, the Council for the Judiciary. Critics say this would end judicial independence in Poland erode the separation of powers.

Defenders of the bill argue that the current selection process is an undemocratic legacy of the communist regime and that the court is corrupt and inefficient as a result.

The bill has been passed by the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, who voted in favor 235 to 192 (with 23 abstentions) after a parliamentary commission summarily rejected 1,300 amendments to it proposed by the opposition. In order to enter into force, it must be approved on Friday by the Senate, where the ruling party also holds a majority, and then signed by President Andrzej Duda.

Duda said he planned to sign the bill into law if the parliament agrees to increase the majority needed to appoint the panel that would nominate future judges.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans announced they were “very close” to triggering the EU’s Article 7 against Poland, an unprecedented procedure which could lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights within the EU institutions. However, this would require unanimous consent of all other EU member states, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has promised to veto any attempt to sanction Poland.

“We need help from outside,” said Jan Lic at the Krakow demonstration last night. Dr. Lic is a 60-year-old Law professor at University of Economics here and a member of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), a PiS opposition group. He recalled the days of demonstrations in the twilight days of Polish communism, wishing that there was a US president “like Ronald Reagan” who might lend them support and expressing some hope for EU sanctions.

Dr. Lic said he was encouraged by the number of young people at the demonstration. However, he expressed doubts that President Duda was listening or that the conflict could be resolved democratically. “It’s going to be a long fight,” he predicted.

Sisters Agata (29) and Urszula (31) also seemed pessimistic. They accused PiS of trying to rush the bill through passage before holidays and lamented what they perceived as public ignorance about legal issues. Agata called the bill “a horrifying threat to democracy.”

Urszula, a lawyer, expressed personal frustration as well. “It’s really hard to do your job when you’re not sure what the law even is,” she said. “This is important because, although it’s sometimes forgotten, the law is about people’s lives.”

Can the EU help? “Not much,” Agata said. Her sister agreed: “Just look at them.”

They seemed more hopeful that opposition from within Poland might thwart the bill. “In two years [PiS] has been able to ruin a lot of things,” said Agata, cupping her hands around her cooling candle. “But I believe we can still fight for our rights.”

“Yes,” nodded Urszula. “There are still a lot of people who stand for rules and laws.”

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16 thoughts on “Mass protests continue across Poland as controversial court reform nears passage

  • July 21, 2017 at 10:35 pm
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    our drunken pollock cousins have embraced hitler’s neo-nazi aryan white supremecacy dictatorship to combat the deadly scourge of islamic invasion into our fatherland! SIEG HEIL!…………sweet, drunk poland is still traumatized by the katyn forest massacre and the holocaust at auschvitz!

    Reply
    • July 22, 2017 at 1:39 am
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      I ty esteś też na pewno pijany, prostak!

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    • July 22, 2017 at 5:01 am
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      What point are you trying to make, sir?!

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    • July 23, 2017 at 9:30 am
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      Hi Wisniewski,

      you seem to have problems in understanding a simple context. For the last 5 days there were mass protests against the ruling party! People are defending democracy! Why are you trying to offen them? You are a “neighbour” from where? Germany? Then try to understand one thing: Nobody inside Germany protested against Hitler, but the Germans went to the streets and praised they Führer! In this case it is the other way around! But i think you can not be German… only Americans can be as stupid as you are ;-)

      Reply
      • July 24, 2017 at 11:33 am
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        Don’t feed the troll.

        Reply
  • July 21, 2017 at 10:38 pm
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    is krakow still surrounded by cherry orchards? our family name means drunk cherry tree brandy!

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    • July 22, 2017 at 5:05 am
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      You probably mean ‘wiśniówka’ which is quite different word than ‘wiśniewski’?! And what does it have to do with the topic of the article?

      Reply
  • July 22, 2017 at 1:11 am
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    Mass protests?

    What the few thousands? The government should continue. Poland needs a strong government, not a foreign bought government unable to defend the future of the people and country.

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    • July 22, 2017 at 6:12 pm
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      Exactly what Hitler did in III Reich with judicial system. Somehow III Reich is not considered a democratic country.

      Reply
  • July 22, 2017 at 3:48 am
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    Am I supposed to believe the New York Times?

    Fool me once…

    Reply
  • July 22, 2017 at 10:20 am
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    Here are one or two questions for PiS party members (and there are some honourable names among them):

    Why are you allowing yourselves to be led by the unelected Jaroslaw Kaczynski?

    What would Saint JPII have had to say to this man?

    How would Kaczynski have been viewed by people like Generals Sikorski, Anders, Sosabowski, Maczek, Bor-Komorowski, Fieldorf and even Marshal Pilsudski himself?

    Where is he taking Poland?

    What Allies will Poland be left with if he continues on his course?

    Isn’t it time for him to retire and write his memoirs?

    Reply
    • July 23, 2017 at 2:05 pm
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      More stuff from Karski:

      Normally I have a lot of time for the UK’s Guardian. Their coverage of Poland is mostly fair, with insightful contributions from people such as Timothy Garton-Ash and Christian Davies. A recent article by one of their journalists, however, effectively said that Poland was pursuing “state-sponsored Holocaust denial”. This was in the context of the attitude of the Polish government to the scholarship of Jan T Gross and others.

      The PiS government can be accused of trying to promote a vision of Poland which glorifies national heroism. They can even be charged with being on the slippery slope to historical revisionism in some cases. They can be charged with doing alarmingly little to combat right-wing extremism, but they cannot be charged with Holocaust denial.

      I am not a fan of Kaczynski and co but foreign journalists need to be accurate in their reporting. The Polish ambassador to the UK has already protested, I believe, and hopefully the Graun will see fit to apologise.

      Reply
  • July 25, 2017 at 5:09 am
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    I happened to be in Krakow last week to witness a very peaceful protest. I was impressed by the quiet determination of the people. As a Canadian, I wish you all of the freedoms that I enjoy every day. Keep pushing for change, keep being peaceful, together you will succeed.

    Reply

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