Tusk rallies against ‘undermining of democracy’ in Poland as protests continue

European Council President Donald Tusk urged the EU leaders to renew the "declaration of faith" in the integration process in Rome. [Agencja Gazeta]

European Council President Donald Tusk weighed in on Poland’s political crisis on Saturday (17 December), urging the ruling party to respect the constitution, the voters and the democratic process, as two days of anti-government protests spread from Warsaw to two other cities.

Demonstrators continued their protests outside the presidential palace and the parliament on Saturday over the government’s plans to limit journalists’ access to lawmakers.

A large spontaneous demonstration erupted Friday (16 December) outside parliament against the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) Party’s policies under leader Jarosław Kaczyński.

Tusk, Poland’s former prime minister from the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), said that a democracy where media access is limited can become a dictatorship, and reminded his audience of Poland’s anti-communist protests that ended in bloodshed.

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Poland’s populist-dominated parliament has passed a law restricting public meetings which was slammed by the opposition as being anti-democratic, media reports said yesterday (14 December).

“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 said in southwest Poland, where he was attending the closing ceremony of the European Capital of Culture Wrocław 2016.

The Council president warned that whoever was undermining the “European model of democracy” in Poland was “exposing us all to strategic risks”.

Thousands of protesters in Warsaw chanted “Freedom! Equality! Democracy!” and waved Polish and European Union flags, a reflection of the pro-European views of many liberal, urban Poles who oppose the ruling party.

Thousands protest against Polish government on martial law's anniversary

Thousands marched across Poland’s capital yesterday (13 December) to protest the policies of the current government on the 35th anniversary of the martial law crackdown by the former communist regime.

Could Tusk be re-elected?

It is difficult to say to what extent the statements by Tusk in Wrocław would impact on the chances of Tusk being re-elected as Council president.

Tusk was appointed to the Council’s top job for a two-and-a-half year mandate that started on 1 December 2014. This means that his mandate expires in June 2017 and that a decision to keep him in the position or to replace him should be made by the end of this year.

The president of the European Council is elected by a qualified majority for a term of two and a half years, which is renewable once. Former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy was the first president between 2009 and 2012, and was then re-elected for a second term until 30 November 2014.

Although treaties say nothing on the matter, it is assumed that the candidate for president of the European Council is strongly supported by their own country.

Mediation talks

Polish President Andrzej Duda launched mediation talks Sunday (18 December) to try to diffuse the nation’s seething political crisis, as protesters continued with a third day of mass anti-government demonstrations.

Opposition lawmakers were also continuing to occupy parliament in a defiant show of anger in the latest popular action against moves deemed anti-democratic by the PiS since it took office after the October 2015 elections.

EU gives Poland three months to address rule-of-law concerns

The European Union today (27 July) handed Poland a three-month deadline to reverse changes to its constitutional court to meet EU concerns over the rule of law and democracy.

In an unprecedented night of unrest on Friday, dozens of opposition MPs seized parliament’s main chamber and protesters blocked the exits to the building.

Prime Minister Beata Szydło and Kaczyński only managed to leave the building by forcing their vehicles through the crowd with the help of police.

After meeting with Duda on Sunday, opposition leaders told the press they had demanded the proposed media limits be dropped and called for a re-run of the parliament vote on next year’s budget.

The opposition claims the spending plan was approved illegally when the vote was held in another area of parliament after the opposition takeover of the main chamber.

“The president has asked for a legal analysis relating to the part of the parliamentary session” dedicated to the budget vote, said spokesman Marek Magierowski.

Duda is to meet on today (19 December) with Kaczyński and Marek Kuchcinski, president of the parliament’s lower house.

Since taking office, the PiS has come under fire for a string of controversial measures including tightening the abortion law, a crackdown on the media and changes to the constitutional court that led to a standoff with the European Union.

Abortion protests rock Polish government, prompt backtrack

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has looked firmly in control since sweeping to power a year ago but it may have pressed its conservative agenda too far by initially backing a virtual ban on abortion.

‘Impossible to function’

Demonstrators on Sunday gathered outside the court in a show of support for outgoing president Andrzej Rzeplinski, a symbol of resistance to the government.

The controversial changes to the court’s decision-making rules alarmed Brussels, which demanded the government reverse the measures or face sanctions.

Rzeplinski’s mandate ends on Monday and the question of his successor has become another bone of contention between the court and the PiS-dominated parliament.

Smaller protests were held in other parts of the country, including Krakow, where demonstrators attempted to prevent Szydło and Kaczyński getting through to his twin brother’s tomb.

A pro-government rally drew about 1,000 people outside the presidential palace in Warsaw.

Emerging from a long silence, Duda had on Saturday called for calm, expressing his “worry” over the turmoil and offering to mediate.

“I think a deal of some kind is necessary because it is impossible to function in a system where the parliament cannot debate,” his spokesman told news channel TVN24.

The prime minister’s spokeswoman has denounced the occupation of parliament as a “a violation of the law”.

The latest opposition outcry was triggered by PiS plans to grant access to the parliament’s press gallery to only two journalists for every media outlet, and ban them from shooting still pictures or video.

The moves prevent the media from recording images of lawmakers when they break the rules, for example by voting for an absent colleague.

The PiS has defended the measure, saying it was seeking to ensure a comfortable working environment for both lawmakers and journalists.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed about the latest attack on media freedom by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) – a plan to restrict media access to parliament from next month onwards. It comes one year after the government seized control of public radio and TV broadcasting.

Under the new regulations, only five officially-approved TV channels will be allowed cameras inside parliament to film its debates, while each media outlet will be limited to two accredited parliamentary reporters. Until now, there had been no limits on TV cameras and reporters had unrestricted access to parliamentarians within the parliament building.

Ever since the Law and Justice party’s return to power in late 2015, RSF has been condemning its moves to tighten control over the public broadcast media and weaken the constitutional court, Poland’s highest judicial body.

“What with public media now taking orders from the government, journalists subjected to economic constraints and the stifling of privately-owned media outlets, media independence has been badly eroded by this parliament’s measures,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk.

“These are very grave violations of the values on which the European Union is founded, in particular, those of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and pluralism, which are supposed to be common to all member states. With these new rules, the government is attacking not only the work of journalists but also the public’s right to be informed about the work of the parliamentarians they elected.”

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