Poland protests in defence of democracy and an independent judiciary

Peaceful Assembly

In late July 2017, Polish citizens mobilised in mass protests under the slogan "w obronie sądów" (in defence of the courts), to oppose three controversial bills that would reform the judiciary and cause it to lose its independence as a separate branch of the government. The three bills were pushed through both chambers of the parliament, as the current ruling party - Law and Justice (PiS) - sought to consolidate its power and influence over the judicial branch. In response to the parliament's vote, thousands took to the streets of the capital, Warsaw, and more than 100 cities to demonstrate their discontent over the government's most recent anti-democratic move. The protests were shared on social media under #ObrońmyDemokracje (defend democracy) and #ŁańcuchŚwiatła (chain of light). 

If signed into law, the bills would allow the Ministry of Justice to choose which Supreme Court judges can stay and which can retire. The legislation would also reduce the number of Supreme Court judges from 87 to 31 and reduce the number of years required to become a judge. And ultimately, it increases PiS's power over the highest court in the country, as Monika Nalepa in the Washington Post reported:

"[H]ere’s the crowning blow in ending the independence of the judiciary in Poland: Since the justice minister simultaneously holds the position of prosecutor general, the ruling majority may now choose both the prosecutor AND the judge in every single court case".

The European Union spoke out strongly against the proposed bills, threatening to revoke Poland's voting rights should the president sign the bills into law. 

President Andrzej Duda was given three weeks to either sign or veto the laws. On 24th July, caving to popular and international pressure,  Duda announced that he would veto two of the three bills. Many commentators believed that the president's announcement reflected the EU's influence as well as the power of citizen action. As Wojciech Przybylski and Anna Wójcik from Visegrad Insight declared:

"The surprising change of heart of President Andrzej Duda is a testament to power of civil protest".

Though it does demonstrate that Polish citizens' voices can be heard and they can hold their government accountable, the third bill may still be signed into law. Paul Ivan, a Brussels-based analyst at the European Policy Center, cautioned:

“Duda’s veto surely offers a breather[...] But it depends a lot on whether the ruling party will continue with the attempts to control the judiciary or whether they’ll back down”.

Thus, at the time of writing, thousands remain vigilant on the streets of Warsaw and other cities throughout the country in an effort to push back on any sign of anti-democratic backsliding from the government.