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Protests Erupt in Poland Over New Law on Public Gatherings

Poland crisis: Donald Tusk calls for respect of people and constitution

EU council leader calls for ‘consideration of constitutional morals’ as police forcibly remove protesters from outside parliament

European Union council president, Donald Tusk, called on the authorities in Poland to respect the constitution as a standoff between the opposition and the ruling party continued.

Polish opposition leaders called for days of anti-government protests and pledged to keep blocking parliament’s main hall after being accused of trying to seize power illegally by a government they say has violated the constitution.

Several thousand people protested in Warsaw and other cities after police broke up a blockade of the parliament building in Warsaw in the early hours.

“Following yesterday’s events in parliament and on the streets of Warsaw … I appeal to those who have real power for respect and consideration of the people, constitutional principles and morals,” Tusk told a news conference in Poland’s western city of Wrocław.

Earlier on Saturday, the head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, left parliament after police forcefully removed protesters blocking their exit, television footage showed.

Kaczyński left in a car that drove away in a convoy with the car of prime minister Beata Szydło and several other vehicles, footage from broadcaster TVN24 showed.

Opposition party MP Jerzy Meysztowicz told the television network that police used teargas to disperse the protesters who tried to prevent the cars from leaving.

Protesters had blocked all exits from the parliament on Friday after the opposition said PiS politicians illegally passed the budget for next year by moving the vote outside of the main chamber of parliament.

The protest marked the biggest political standoff in years in EU member Poland and the sharpest escalation of the conflict between the opposition and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party since it came to power in October 2015.

The police attempted in the early hours of Saturday to remove protesters by grabbing them and pulling them aside, but stopped as new protesters arrived at the scene. The police also called on protesters blocking the parliament to disperse, saying on loudspeakers that they might otherwise use force.

“Everybody sees that PiS has crossed a certain line and nothing will be the same any more,” Tomasz Siemoniak, deputy leader of the biggest opposition party Civic Platform said.

The parliament was surrounded by hundreds of police, some of whom were carrying rubber bullet guns.

The protesters chanted that politicians would remain blocked and called on Kaczyński to come out and face them. It was unclear how many people were inside waiting for the exits to be unblocked. Some opposition politicians said they would spend the night in parliament.

Polish opposition parties accused PiS earlier on Friday of violating the constitution after speaker Marek Kuchciński moved a key vote on next year’s budget outside of the main chamber of parliament and blocked the media from recording the vote. It was the first time since Poland’s transition from communism in 1989 that a sitting of the lower chamber of parliament was conducted outside of the main chamber.

“The ‘sitting’ was illegal. Period. This is a constitutional crisis,” Civic Platform head Grzegorz Schetyna said on social media.

Kuchciński decided to transfer the sitting and the budget vote outside the main chamber after opposition politicians occupied the parliamentary podium protesting against a plan to curb media access and against Kuchciński’s decision to exclude one lawmaker.

Ruling party politicians said the transfer of the vote was legal and the vote itself was valid. “What the opposition did was a scandal. And we were working,” said PiS’s Jarosław Zieliński, who took part in the budget vote.

Opposition parties Civic Platform and Nowoczesna, together with the PSL party, said in a statement that the speaker has violated the constitution. Opposition MPs also said they had problems in accessing the budget vote.

The parties demanded the parliament sitting be held once again next week. Since coming to power last year, the nationalist-minded, eurosceptic PiS has tightened its control over public news media and state prosecution and moved to weaken the country’s highest court.

PiS is the first party since Poland’s transition to democracy to hold an outright majority in parliament.


Protests Erupt in Poland Over New Law on Public Gatherings

WARSAW — When supporters of Poland’s governing party met for their monthly gathering last weekend outside the presidential palace to commemorate the 2010 plane crash that killed many of the country’s top leaders, they found that a group of protesters had already commandeered their usual spot.

The police quickly cleared them out. But it was a stark demonstration — along with larger dueling protests on Tuesday, the 35th anniversary of the imposition of martial law — of the disquiet over the right-wing government’s recent moves to restrict public gatherings.

“They are destroying everything I fought for,” said Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity leader, in an interview. “Free and democratic Poland is in danger.”

A year after roaring into office with a majority in the Polish Parliament, the governing party, Law and Justice, has embarked on a new round of what it calls necessary reforms to strengthen the power of the executive branch. Opponents call it a troubling slide toward authoritarianism.

Shortly after assuming power, the party — led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president killed in the 2010 crash in Smolensk, Russia — passed laws that effectively hobbled the highest constitutional court and firmed up government control over public news media and state prosecutions.

Now, the government is cracking down on public gatherings as well as moving to regulate and monitor civic, nongovernmental organizations.

“This is sort of the second wave of their revolution,” said Aleksander Smolar, president of the Stefan Batory Foundation, which promotes civic issues. “Or rather, I would use the term Kaczynski used himself. This is cultural counterrevolution against all those liberals. This is a time of reaction.”

Supporters of the governing party, meanwhile, say opponents are overreacting wildly to what is simply an attempt to keep public order at a time of growing discord.

“The reactions to this project are absolutely blown out of proportion,” said Tadeusz Cymanski, deputy chairman of Law and Justice’s parliamentary bloc. “The opposition is clueless about what it should look like or what it should do. This new bill is not a reason, but an excuse, to clamor.”

Under the bill passed in early December by the lower house of Parliament, applicants could reserve a specific site for regular gatherings for up to three years while any counterdemonstrations had to be kept 100 meters away. In addition, government and church organizations were to be given priority for the use of any site.

The groups that have been staging regular antigovernment protests erupted. “This ends the period of the right of assembly in Poland as a civic liberty,” said Andrzej Potocki, deputy chief of the Freedom, Equality, Democracy protest coalition.

Poland’s Supreme Court ruled last week that the law, as passed by the lower house, was unconstitutional. It ruled that “the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is universally granted.”

A group of 77 nongovernment organizations issued a statement saying the proposed law “seems to be dictated by political considerations and by what is convenient for authorities.”

After top officials at the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe echoed those concerns, Poland’s governing party decided to amend the law before its passage in the upper house of Parliament last week.

The provision giving the government and the Catholic Church priority at any protest site was removed, but party leaders retained rules allowing groups to reserve sites for regular gatherings and preventing counterdemonstrators from getting close to them.

Witold Waszczykowski, the Polish foreign minister, defended the bill in Brussels last week.

“We have not violated any international conventions,” he said. “We simply want to introduce some order, seeing as there seems to be a fashion for demonstrating lately.”

At the memorial gathering outside the presidential palace on Saturday, Mr. Kaczynski defended the police action to remove the protesters, even though they had a permit to be there.

“Today we have the first direct attempt to disrupt our ceremonies,” he said. “Those who are here say, ‘We are doing this legally.’ Yes, formally their actions are legal. But what about their goals? Are they legal or permissible? Is it legal to take away someone’s right to pray? It’s all illegal. We need to say it clearly.”

The government was stunned in October when thousands of people — most of them women dressed in black and carrying black umbrellas, the symbol of their movement — took to the streets to protest a proposed law that would have made all abortions illegal. The measure was withdrawn.

Many see this new law to regulate public assemblies as an attempt to stop such movements from spreading. “This is the sort of effort they are most afraid of,” Mr. Smolar said.

But while much of the attention on the new law has focused on its effect on government opponents, Kazimierz Kik, a political scientist at the Polish Academy of Sciences, said the governing party’s real worry may be its own extreme, right-wing supporters attacking opponents on the streets.

“That would be a shambles, and the whole of Europe would cry in outrage,” Mr. Kik said. “This new law is supposed to protect the government from some of its own supporters.”

In competing protests on Tuesday, thousands of pro-government demonstrators waited with Polish flags flying as counterprotesters from the Committee for the Defense of Democracy passed by.

“Use a sickle, use a hammer, smash the red rabble,” the government supporters chanted.

“Here people have their rights, here Warsaw is free,” the antigovernment protesters replied.

Halina Szymaszek, 74, a government supporter, scoffed at claims that democracy was threatened.

“Oh please, there’s no threat to their rights,” Ms. Szymaszek, a retired lawyer, said. “They are furious because they were broken away from the trough and so now they are squealing. They are not even real Poles.”

Soon after the opposition march arrived at the Law and Justice headquarters, Justyna Kowalczyk, 37, one of the protesters, said that “this is not going to end well for us.”

Mr. Walesa, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and a symbol of Polish independence for many around the world, has thus far steered clear of the antigovernment protests. But he does not mince words when discussing his disdain for the current government, whose leaders have also attacked him and tried to play down his role during the Solidarity years.

“In my opinion, this is the worst government Poland has ever had,” he said. “They are populists and demagogues. Even Communists were better.”

Mr. Cymanski said government critics should just calm down.

“We have another election in three years, and if we are as bad as everyone says we are, if we indeed pose a threat to any democratic freedoms, people will speak up by voting against us,” he said.

But not all government critics think Polish democracy can survive unscathed for that long.

“It’s not just Poland’s problem,” Mr. Walesa said. “It’s the world’s problem. Everywhere in the world, people turn either too far right or too far left, and in the U.S. they elected someone like Donald Trump. This is a completely new reality.”


Tags: poland, protest
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