Thousands of Poles took to the streets over the July 15-16 weekend in protests against the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party's moves to dismantle checks and balances in bringing Poland's judiciary under political control.
PiS last week changed the law in regard to the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), giving the ruling party de facto control over nominations of judges to preside over Polish courts. Added to that, a new law was voted through to give the justice ministry broad powers in the disciplining of judges.
Meanwhile, a draft bill instituting government control over the supreme court, which rules on issues including the validity of elections, was introduced to parliament on July 12. If passed, the bill will end the terms of all current supreme court judges and leave the nominations for the required new line-up in the hands of the justice minister.
The carried out or planned changes whipped up a storm involving opposition parties, the media and ordinary Poles who fear the dismantling of the independent judiciary branch is a premeditated step prior to the establishment of authoritarian rule in Poland.
There is concern that, upon seizing control of the Supreme Court, PiS will next try to push through a constitutionally controversial election law and have an obedient Supreme Court rubber stamp a vote cementing the party's rule.
The biggest protests took place in Warsaw on July 16, where over 10,000 people gathered near the parliament building - although there was no sitting over the weekend - demanding that PiS back down on the changes. The crowd then moved to the Supreme Court building, in front of which candles were lit to show support. The day before, a smaller demonstration took place, organised by leftist groups led by the Razem (Together) party.
In a telling sign of how partisan Poland has become, PiS-controlled public TV called the protests an attempt at staging a “putsch.”
Given how profound the changes to the judiciary are, the protests – which also took place in some of Poland's other large cities – were not particularly substantial.
The rallying of large popular protests on the issue proved difficult because of the summer season and because the populist PiS has read the social mood well. Many people in Poland consider the judiciary an elite caste remote from the problems of rank and file Poles. Ending the branch’s corporatism is one of the main reasons for reform, the government claims.
The reform of the judiciary will likely add to the growing pile of problems the EU has with its sixth largest member state. Over 2015 and 2016, PiS engineered the law on the Constitutional Tribunal (TK) to ensure it does not block new legislation. The EU is now probing whether the new TK regulations violate the EU’s founding principle of the rule of law.
PiS’s plans might also have a galvanising effect on the atomised opposition, with the main parties now calling for a “united front” against PiS, focused on blocking the judicial reforms.
What the effect the reforms will have on the popularity of PiS will probably not be clear until new polls have been conducted in the following weeks or months. PiS, however, has been consistently polling at least 10pp in front of the biggest opposition party, the centre right Civic Platform (PO).