Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's most powerful politician, has said 'radical changes' are needed to 'heal' the nation's judiciary. Critics claim his government is attempting to politicize the judicial branch of government.
Speaking at a news conference in Warsaw on Friday, Jaroslaw Kaczynski – who is not a public official but heads the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – spoke about recently unveiled proposals to give law makers powers over the National Council of the Judiciary, the body which selects and oversees judges.
"You cannot change that without far-reaching moves, without radical changes," Kaczynski said. "What we need to do, we will do."
The council's tasks include drawing up and enforcing ethical guidelines for judges, reviewing judicial candidates and seeking opinions on new rules and regulations to ensure they are constitutional.
Kaczynski said that "far-reaching, radical actions" were required in the judiciary, which he said had not been reformed since communist times. He insisted the changes were in the public interest and fulfilled the party's election campaign promises.
Defending the proposed rules, Deputy Justice Marcin Warchol said the change meant an "end to a corporation system, a system where the third power (the judiciary) was outside any control."
PiS' muscular democracy
The judiciary has been a key locus of the political struggle in the first 20 months since PiS came to power.
PiS is accused of placing party loyalists on another top court, the Constitutional Tribunal, soon after winning the September 2016 election.
The tribunal is the body charged with ruling on whether laws passed by the parliament are in accordance with the constitution.
But what started out in late 2015 as a spat between opposing politicians about the political balance of the tribunal developed into something more serious in 2016, with the government effectively deciding to ignore its rulings altogether.
Poland is already subject to an EU procedure reviewing the government's dedication to European values.
On Wednesday, the party proposed a separate draft law that would force current members of the supreme court to retire, except for those with the backing of the justice minister.
Many argue the party is deliberately attempting to hobble the work of the judiciary and in the meantime run through a series of reforms that strengthen its hold on power, strip away remaining checks and balances - while also simultaneously reorienting the civil service, media, army and education systems.
This goes hand in hand - they argue - with a set of regressive social policies on abortion and sexual education, restrictions on rights to demonstrate and a so-called 'Polonization' of the country's banking and other strategic sectors.
The domestic opposition and several European politicians said the recent move undermines judicial independence and violates democracy and the rule of law.
All is rosey in PiSland
PiS refutes such allegations, arguing it is acting on the will of the people, and that the current set of judicial structures were already heavily politicized.
The party has also been adamant in its promotion of a far more muscular and executive-driven democracy, which critics argue undermines the separation of powers and the rule of law.
Kaczynski has said he believes in 'getting things done' and has called for several years for an end to the Third Republic, which was set up after the fall of communism.
PiS supporters argue that the 1989 agreement that led to a gradual - and peaceful - end to communism in Poland didn't go far enough and in effect shielded ex-communists from prosecution after 1989. The judiciary, it contends, is symptomatic of this malaise.
PiS never short of critics
Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP Christian Democrats, the biggest group in the European Parliament, said the Polish government had "gone one step too far" on the changes to the National Council rules, "putting an end to the rule of law and democracy in Poland and leaving the European community of values."
The new rules had already been criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international and domestic legal institutions.
"This is a kind of an accumulation of power and it changes the system of power in Poland," judge Michal Laskowski, spokesman for the Supreme Court, said on Friday.
Nils Muiznieks, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, said the Polish government had neglected "compelling contrary advice" before voting to give parliament, rather than judges, the power to choose members of the National Council of the Judiciary.