Mon, Jul 09, 2018 - Page 7 News List

In Poland, protesters fight as ruling party dispenses with justice

By John Lloyd  /  Reuters

Demonstrators are out on Polish city streets, singing the national anthem and chanting “konstytucja” (constitution). They believe that their country’s constitution is being violated, and that the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party is degrading the law and dispensing with justice by sealing off the institutions that can hold a ruling party to account.

The protests are directed at the government’s attempts to purge Poland’s Supreme Court. The administration has already passed measures narrowing the court’s remit and increasing governmental control over the judiciary.

It is now trying to enforce legislation lowering the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, with the effect of forcing at least one-third of them into retirement. This includes the court’s president, 65-year-old Malgorzata Gersdorf, who still turned up for work at the court’s imposing Warsaw headquarters on the day after the law came into effect.

Her resistance makes Poland emblematic of the populist attacks on institutions that hold governing power to account, privileging “the will of the people” over all else. Increasingly, the institutions that liberal democracy relies on are under sustained attack.

The government says that Gersdorf and her fellows are communist holdovers who have not come to terms with the new Poland.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice Party and Poland’s de facto ruler, told the pro-government weekly Gazeta Polska that Gersdorf and her allies are “doomed to fail miserably” in their protests.

Gersdorf, the court’s chief justice, is not, on the face of it, a likely communist stooge. A member of anti-communist movement Solidarity in the 1980s, she was appointed after the collapse of Warsaw’s communist government to a commission that helped put political prisoners back to work.

She has resisted the pressure on the courts consistently, calling on her fellow judges last year to “fight for every inch of justice.”

That fight has met, so far, a refusal to compromise from the government.

When Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki took the battle to the European Parliament, he told the members that Poland, as a sovereign state, has every right to pass its own laws — adding that when Europeans “feel that they’re losing influence on the future of Europe and the world, then they’re going to oppose what’s happening. You can call that populism.”

“But at the end of the day, we are going to have to ask questions asked by citizens and their expectations,” Morawiecki added.

The EU, conscious of the Polish government’s touchiness about its rights, has long been cautious of confronting it on the judicial issue.

However, Brussels has reached a limit of its tolerance and launched an Article 7 process, giving Warsaw three months to back down or face sanctions, including possible loss of voting rights, for a serious breach of the bloc’s values.

I spoke earlier this week to Radek Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister. Sikorski was educated partly in the UK, studying at Oxford University before becoming a war correspondent, whose work included a perilous posting in Afghanistan during the mujahidin’s war against the Soviet Union.

Now in the Polish opposition, he is no automatic liberal; he thinks that liberal governments in Europe are in part to blame for the rise of the national-populists, since “they ignored or downplayed the problem of immigration on the EU’s southern borders.”

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