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Posts tagged ‘Protests in Poland’

Protests across Poland over law to control judiciary

July 22, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Outrage over plans by Poland’s governing party to put the judicial system under its political control sparked another day of nationwide protests Saturday, with some people gathering outside the home of ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and accusing him of being a dictator.

Polish democracy icon and former President Lech Walesa addressed a protest in Gdansk, urging young Poles to fight to preserve the separation of powers that his Solidarity movement helped to achieve more than a quarter century ago when Poland threw off communist rule.

Later, thousands of government opponents gathered in Warsaw, Krakow and other cities to urge President Andrzej Duda to reject legislation that would give Law and Justice, the conservative ruling party, control of the Supreme Court and the judiciary.

“We are all in danger. Every citizen is in danger now,” said Tomasz Gromadka, a 32-year-old playwright protesting in front of the home of Kaczynski, who is the power behind the government and presidency. “Because now they are taking the courts, then they will take the media, they will take everything. But we still have the streets. This is our power. I think we should do whatever we can.”

The European Union and many international legal experts say the changes would mark a dramatic reversal for a country that has been hailed as a model of democratic transition over the past quarter century, and move Poland closer toward authoritarianism.

The party “is about to finish democracy,” said Ewa Krasucka, a 32-year-old photographer. “Honestly I don’t think we will stop him now, but at least in 10 years, in 15 years, when we will still be with these people in the government I will feel good with myself for being here now.”

Many of the protesters then moved to the Supreme Court, where people sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” and held up candles. Law and Justice won parliamentary elections in 2015 with nearly 38 percent of the vote, which translated into a slim majority in the parliament. It has maintained support of about 35 to 40 percent of voters, according to recent polls, with many supporting its cash handouts for families and its conservative and pro-Catholic worldview.

The party says the changes are needed to reform a justice system that Kaczynski says was never purged of former communists after that system collapsed in 1989. In Warsaw, 29-year-old lawyer Marzena Wojtczak disputed that logic, saying many judges working today had actually been anti-communist dissidents and others are too young to have been communists.

Demonstrations have taken place almost every day in Poland over the past week as lawmakers pushed forward with the legislation to impose greater control over the courts. “This will sound strange, but this is the worst and best moment in Poland since 1989,” Tomasz Lis, the editor of Newsweek Polska and an outspoken government critic, said on Twitter. “A great nation is defending democracy and its own freedom.”

The Supreme Court’s powers include ruling on the validity of elections, and government critics fear the ruling party could use friendly judges to falsify future elections. They also fear the courts, under political pressure, will prosecute political opponents.

After winning power in 2015, Law and Justice has acted quickly to cement its power, prompting numerous street protests. The party has asserted control over government-owned media, purged the army of most of its leadership and has neutralized the power of the Constitutional Tribunal to block any new legislation that might violate the constitution.

On Saturday, presidential spokesman Krzysztof Lapinski said Duda sees some flaws in the new legislation on the Supreme Court. But he stopped short of saying whether the president would reject the bill or seek the opinion of the Constitutional Tribunal.

Duda has 21 days to sign the bill into law. The European Commission has expressed its concerns about Poland’s judicial changes and recently threatened to strip Poland of its EU voting rights, but has so far proven powerless to do anything. Any sanctions would require unanimity of the remaining 27 EU members.

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Poles protest their populist govt with large rally in Warsaw

May 06, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Poles marched through Warsaw on Saturday to protest the policies of the populist ruling party under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, describing them as attacks on the country’s democracy.

Speakers at the “March of Freedom” said the government under the conservative Law and Justice party has eroded the independence of Poland’s courts and other institutions to such an extent that the country would not be accepted into the European Union or NATO today if it didn’t already belong.

“We will not allow Kaczynski to take us out of Western Europe. Together we will defend freedom,” said Jacek Jaskowiak, the mayor of Poznan, a city in western Poland. The event was organized by the opposition Civic Platform party, but other opposition parties and the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a civic organization, also took part.

They are concerned about how Law and Justice has consolidated power since taking office in 2015. The party has eroded the independence of the courts and the public media in a way that has also alarmed the EU.

Kaczynski said Saturday that the protesters were misguided. “Freedom exists in Poland and only those who do not perceive reality can question that,” he said. City Hall, which is under the control of Civic Platform, estimated that 90,000 people took part in the protest. The police, under the government’s command, put the number at 12,000.

Either way, it was much smaller than the 240,000 who protested against the government in May 2016. Separately, a yearly pro-EU parade called the Schumann Parade also took place Saturday in Warsaw.

Poland police forcibly remove anti-nationalist protesters

April 29, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Police in Poland used force Saturday to remove a few dozen protesters who tried to block a march in downtown Warsaw by a nationalist organization celebrating its anniversary. The protesters chanted “Poland, free from fascism!” and sat down in the street as they waited for marchers from the National-Radical Camp to arrive.

The group, supported by Poland’s nationalist government, was celebrating 83 years since its foundation. A few hundred members marched with white-and-red flags, chanting anti-migrant slogans. Police detained and handcuffed some in the group protesting the march, since they had not obtained authorization for it. The new law regulating public gatherings was introduced by the conservative ruling Law and Justice party. Police also used force on journalists reporting about the event, pushing and even kicking them.

The nationalists’ march was directed down a different route in the Polish capital to avoid clashes with their opponents. Every march now must be authorized or face sanctions.

Poles protest plans to expand Warsaw in apparent power grab

February 11, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Hundreds of protesters with flags and banners marched in downtown Warsaw on Saturday against the ruling party’s plan to enlarge the Polish capital by incorporating 32 neighboring municipalities.

The ruling populist Law and Justice party says the move will help the neighborhoods develop by linking them closer with the capital, which provides jobs, education and entertainment for the region. Opponents say the move will deprive local governments of decision-making powers but is chiefly designed to help the ruling party win control of Warsaw in the 2018 local election. Warsaw voters largely support the opposition pro-business Civic Platform party, while Law and Justice has more backing in the suburbs.

Under the plan, Warsaw, a city of 1.7 million, would have more territory than New York City or London. Currently at 517 square kilometers (200 square miles) it would swell to 2,514 square kilometers (970 square miles).

The protesters marched from the Town Hall to the Presidential Palace. The march was organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, which has been staging protests since the conservative Law and Justice party took power in late 2015 and embarked on sweeping changes to many walks of life.

“We want to protest against Law and Justice taking over local governments, which goes against good practice,” committee leader Mateusz Kijowski told The Associated Press. “It would destroy Warsaw’s self-government and those of the neighboring communities.”

But Sylwester Puchala, the administrative head of Prazmow, a small community south of Warsaw, said its incorporation into the capital would help develop it and would also help Warsaw, which needs more space.

Following protests, the ruling party said the plan will be open for public consultations before it is debated by lawmakers.

Polish lawmakers occupy parliament in holiday protest

December 24, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish lawmaker Michal Stasinski arrived at parliament pulling a suitcase and carrying a bag filled with his mother’s homemade cabbage-and-mushroom stuffed dumplings. While most lawmakers were home for Christmas, Stasinski on Friday was joining a group of opposition lawmakers hunkering down in the dimly lit and chilly building to protest what they consider backsliding on democracy by a populist government whose anti-establishment and nationalistic views echo those of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

The protesting lawmakers have vowed to stay in the main assembly where laws are voted on, taking turns in shifts, until parliament returns on Jan. 11. In its 13 months in power, the ruling Law and Justice party has moved to weaken the Constitutional Tribunal — the country’s highest legislative court — tried to limit certain press freedoms, supported criminalizing abortion and approved some restrictions on public gatherings. Opponents fear that the constitution and free elections might be next.

“What they are doing is building a kind of velvet dictatorship, step by step,” Stasinski, a member of Modern, a pro-business party involved in the protest, told The Associated Press. “I cannot agree to what they are doing and this is why I have decided to spend Christmas here.”

The way the ruling party is cementing power has unleashed off-and-on street protests in Warsaw and other cities. However, the party’s support remains strong in small towns, boosted by cash bonuses paid monthly to families with at least two children and poorer families that have only one child. The party also lowered the retirement age to 60 for women and 65 for men, a popular change but one economists say the aging society can’t afford.

Stasinski’s family in Bydgoszcz were sorry he wouldn’t be home for Christmas, but even his ailing 86-year-old father supports his decision to protest. The 48-year-old lawmaker planned to get through the holiday on his mother’s pierogi, along with food from his fellow lawmakers and supporters, and some warm clothing. Anti-government activists were planning to organize a meal outside the parliament for the protesting lawmakers on Christmas Eve, the most important moment in three days of Christmas celebrations in Poland.

Poland has been in a state of tension since Law and Justice swept to power, winning first the presidency and then a majority in parliament — the most power any party has had in the democratic era. Party leaders argue they have a mandate to rebuild Poland in line with their traditional, Catholic and patriotic worldview. They say they have had to exert greater control over some institutions to remove the continued influence of political opponents who would stifle their agenda — including former communists and members of Civic Platform, the party led by the former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council.

The European Union, while accusing the government of eroding the rule of law, has proven powerless to reverse the course of a nation long seen as one of the most successful democracies to emerge from the ashes of Eastern European communism.

Many of the ruling party leaders accuse the protesting opposition of trying to destabilize the state, saying that they represent an establishment that will not accept its loss of privileges. The reason for the sit-in goes back to events Dec. 16, after news broke that the ruling party planned to impose some restrictions on media access in parliament.

Opposition lawmakers, seeing an attack on democratic freedom, occupied the area around the speaker’s podium in parliament, blocking work on legislation. Ruling party lawmakers then moved the session to another room and voted on the 2017 budget.

Authorities, amid the uproar, have since backed away from the plans for media restrictions in parliament. But the opposition parties are demanding a repeat of the budget vote, arguing that the procedure was highly irregular and that there is no evidence there was a quorum.

Ryszard Petru, leader of the Modern party, said if that vote is allowed to stand, it could set a dangerous precedent for the ruling party to hold other votes that violate procedures, “perhaps even changing the constitution.”

“If this illegal vote is repeated, then they’ll be able to pass whatever they want. It’s dangerous. This is a real political crisis, and to some extent a constitutional crisis,” Petru told the AP. “We are going to stay here and show that this is unacceptable.”

Poland’s president talks with opposition, protests spread

December 18, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Police removed several protesters blocking a prominent Polish governing party member’s car Sunday in a southern city as the president met in the capital with opposition leaders to help solve a growing political crisis.

The demonstrators sat in a street in Krakow trying to prevent Law and Justice party member Ryszard Terlecki from entering Wawel Castle. He was joining party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was on a private visit to the tomb of his twin brother, the late President Lech Kaczynski.

Police officers dragged the protesters away and ensured safe passage. Later, people chanted “Shame! Shame!” at the car that was carrying Kaczynski out of the castle. Political tension is rising between Poland’s conservative government and the pro-European Union opposition over the ruling party’s plan to restrict journalists’ access to lawmakers in parliament. The wider conflict started building last year after the Law and Justice party took power and began introducing sweeping reforms.

The steps that the government has taken to gain influence over a top court have also put it at odds with EU leaders, who say Poland’s democracy and rule of law are threatened. On Sunday, a few thousand Warsaw residents rallied in front of the court, the Constitutional Tribunal. They were supportive of its outgoing head, Andrzej Rzeplinski, for having opposed changes that critics say are against the rule of law. The appointment of Rzeplinski’s successor is expected to create further tension in the coming days.

Carrying Polish and EU flags, the crowd then marched to parliament, where Poland’s most serious political crisis in years began Friday. Some protesters were still there late Sunday. “We have lost confidence in the government and only the media can watch the government, the lawmakers and tell us what they are really doing,” 56-year-old economist Ewa Cisowska said.

Former President Lech Walesa said that there was no easy way out of the crisis unless the Law and Justice party resigns from power. But the government has remained defiant. Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski told a huge crowd of supporters in front of the Presidential Palace that the government was defending democracy.

President Andrzej Duda, aligned with the ruling party, expressed deep concern over the crisis and held talks with four opposition leaders Sunday. He will meet Kaczynski on Monday. The ruling party has increased welfare spending and still remains popular with many Poles, particularly those outside of the cities and on modest incomes. But its declarations that some social groups have been unjustly privileged under previous governments have angered many, especially after government backers started chanting “thieves,” in reference to the opposition.

Polish lawmakers, Warsaw residents protest new media rules

December 17, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Warsaw residents joined in a spontaneous protest in front of Poland’s parliament against a plan by the conservative ruling party to limit reporters’ access to legislators.

Mobilized by the civic movement, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, or KOD, the crowd on Friday waved white-and-red national flags and chanted “Free media!” in cold winter weather. Radek Sikorski, a former foreign minister, was among the government critics who addressed the protest, harshly denouncing Poland’s political direction under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party that is introducing many sweeping changes.

Earlier Friday, inside the parliament’s session hall, a large group of liberal opposition lawmakers protested the new media rules by standing on and around the speaker’s podium for several hours. They blocked a vote on the 2017 state budget.

The budget vote was eventually taken by the ruling party’s lawmakers in another hall, but the opposition questioned its legality. It was the most serious crisis in Poland’s parliament in many years. “The political crisis has grown more aggravated,” Law and Justice lawmaker Tadeusz Cymanski said.

The crowd blocked lawmakers’ cars, preventing them from leaving the parliament area. After a few hours, police had to make way for them, as the crowd chanted “We will win!” A new protest was called for Saturday noon in front of the Presidential Palace.

At the heart of the issue was free access to information. In the 27 years of Poland’s democracy, journalists have been a constant presence in the parliament’s halls. Banned from the main assembly room, they can grab politicians for interviews in the halls.

The ruling party, which is under European Union scrutiny for policies deemed anti-democratic by opponents, plans new rules starting Jan. 1 that would drastically limit reporters’ access in parliament.

Ruling party leader Kaczynski denounced the obstruction of parliament as “hooliganism” and threatened protesters with consequences. “We will not allow ourselves to be terrorized,” he said. He said the proposed changes to media access are no different from those in many other European nations. Respected journalist Seweryn Blumsztajn, a dissident under communism, called the plan a “return to communist-era practices.”

Monika Olejnik of TVN acknowledged that journalists have gone too far sometimes, such as trying to accost politicians heading to the toilet. But she, too, denounced the planned new rules, saying ruling party lawmakers want “to protect themselves from uncomfortable questions by journalists.”

“But this is in violation of the constitution and of parliament rules,” Olejnik said.

Associated Press writer Vanessa Gera contributed to this report.

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