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Opposition MPs to continue Polish parliamentary sit-in into 2017

Opposition MPs will continue occupying Poland's parliament over Christmas and into 2017. Meanwhile, the leader of the governing party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has continued to mock the EU's attempts to bring Warsaw to heel.

MPs from the Civic Platform (PO) and Modern opposition parties - some of whom started a sit-in inside the parliamentary chamber last Friday - said they would go on until at least January 11.

"That is until a new session of parliament is scheduled to start," Marcin Kierwinski, a PO MP told the French agency AFP.

Thousands of people have demonstrated outside the building after the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party announced plans to restrict journalists' right to cover legislative proceedings.

"It's a symbolic and sad protest, a first for Poland's parliament," Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, an MP from the liberal Nowoczesna opposition party, told AFP.

Parliament held a vote last week on next year's budget in another part of the building because of the opposition takeover of the main chamber. The opposition claimed the budget had been approved illegally and has called for a re-run of the vote.

Polen Protesten gegen polische Regierung in Warschau (Getty Images/AFP/J.Skarzynski)

A caricature depicting Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of PIS, as General Jaruzelski, who imposed martial law in Poland in 1981

PiS has since scrapped the media proposals, which would have restricted access in parliament to only two journalists from each media outlet.

EU running out of ultimatums

The European Commission gave Warsaw a two-month deadline on Wednesday to address EU concerns about rule of law in the country.

Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS government has prevented three constitutional tribunal judges appointed by the previous administration from taking office. PiS has appointed new judges in their place - a move that the EU commission considers unlawful but President Andrzej Duda - who is attached to PiS - has defended.

"The independence of the judiciary is of paramount importance to the rule of law," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in a written statement. "The commission will not drop this matter," he added. A previous three-month deadline for Poland to address EU rule-of-law concerns expired in October.

Critics say the Polish government has sought to curtail the powers of the country's top court through judicial reforms over the past year.

Since coming to power in October 2015, PiS has changed the way the court operates - including the order in which cases are heard and how the chief justice is chosen - and has put forward its own judges instead of those approved by the previous parliament.

On Wednesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda named a PiS-backed judge, Julia Przylebska to head the constitutional court, succeeding Andrzej Rzeplinski, a symbol of resistance in the feud.

The foreign ministry said in its statement following Przylebska's nomination, "we consider the political dispute around the court to be over." But it added: "That being the case, we consider it all the more groundless that the Commission has maintained its view that there is a systematic threat to the rule of law in Poland."

EU pressure 'a joke'

Warsaw called the opinion "groundless," government spokesman Rafal Bochenek immediately responding that "Poland no longer has any problems with the constitutional court" and "saw no reason for the European Commission to get involved."

Kaczynsk this week ridiculed the EU inquiry into the state of Polish democracy as "an absolute comedy, because there is nothing going on in Poland that contravenes the rule of law." 

Kaczynski denied that curbs on the media and changes to the constitutional court were putting democracy at risk in the EU's biggest former communist state.

"Let them launch it," he told Reuters of the commission's decision this year to open an inquiry into the rule of law in Poland.

Of the reforms to the constitutional court, which critics say will compromise the judiciary's independence, Kaczynski said they were needed to ensure there are no legal blocks on government policies aimed at creating "a fairer economy."

Polen Präsident Andrzej Duda übergibt Julia Przylebska Vorsitz des Verfassungsgerichts (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Supernak)

President Andrzej Duda kisses hand of judge Julia Przylebska, who was appointed the new chairperson of the country's Constitutional Tribunal

A price worth paying?

Kaczynski said he would be willing to see some slowdown in economic growth if that was the price of pushing through his vision of Poland.

"We can pay the price, because previous economic policy had cost us tens of billions of zlotys a year," he said. "In short, we are seeing a revolt against the fact that we are simply taking away the money that the elites had looted and divided up somehow," he said.

"We are questioning the entire (economic) mechanism and want to end it," he said.

"People only have one life ... They are being told that you have to be very poor so that the Polish economy can develop, because 'we need to be very rich so we can invest'. The state has to take care of the entire society," he said.

"Sometimes my role is compared to that of the first secretary during communist times," Kaczynski said, referring to a post that typically wielded more influence than the prime minister under Poland's pre-1989 communist rule.

"Well, the first secretary had a huge building, with hundreds of workers ... I wouldn't be able to manage (that) even if I was incomparably smarter than I am now and had the mind of Einstein," he said.

Watch video 01:24

Anti-government protests in Poland

jbh/kl (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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