Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Poland Thursday after lawmakers adopted a controversial reform of the Supreme Court despite the threat of unprecedented EU sanctions.
The rallies sprung up after the lower house of parliament, which is controlled by the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, voted 235 to 192 -- with 23 abstentions -- in favour of giving the government power to select candidates for the court.
The capital Warsaw alone saw up to 50,000 demonstrators, according to city authorities, rally in front of the presidential palace, waving Polish and EU flags and chanting "we'll defend democracy" and "free courts".
Under the current system, candidates for the Supreme Court are selected by an independent body consisting mainly of judges but also included a few politicians.
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said on state television that her PiS party, which began making judiciary changes after coming to power in late 2015, is "reforming the courts so that they work well and fairly and serve all Poles.
"We won't bow to pressure. We won't let ourselves be intimidated by Polish and foreign defenders of the interests of the elite," she added.
But Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the centrist opposition party Civic Platform (PO), denounced the Supreme Court reform as "a rampant coup", while his counterpart Ryszard Petru from the Modern party said "Today is a bad day for Polish democracy".
"The adoption of this reform violates the principles of the rule of law because it subjects the judiciary to political power. This paves the way for a non-democratic system in Poland," political analyst Stanislaw Mocek of the Polish Academy of Sciences told AFP.
"The situation is very serious and could get out of hand. We don't see a will for compromise on the part of PiS, and the opposition is too weak."
The European Commission's vice president Frans Timmermans on Wednesday bluntly warned the changes "considerably increase the systemic threat to the rule of law" in Poland.
"Collectively, they would abolish any remaining judicial independence and put the judiciary under full political control of the government."
He had warned Poland that if it did not suspend the reforms, the commission could move towards halting Poland's voting rights in the 28-nation bloc further down the line -- a so-called "nuclear option" that the EU had never invoked.
Poland would, however, likely escape such a measure as it would be vetoed by its ally Hungary, whose Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Thursday: "We stand by Poland, and demand that the EC (European Commission) stay within its own jurisdiction."
The reform of the Supreme Court, which supervises lower courts, still needs to be adopted by the senate, also controlled by the PiS, and signed by President Andrzej Duda to become law.
Duda, a lawyer-turned-politician who is closely allied with the PiS, on Thursday let it be known that he had refused a meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk, who had expressed concern over the situation.
Dilemma for the EU
The EU first warned Poland in early 2016 over reforms of the constitutional court, whose main role is to check that laws comply with the constitution.
Those changes resulted in tilting the make-up of the court in the conservatives' favour and installing a PiS ally as the chief justice.
Mocek, the analyst, said he believes the Supreme Court reform is "the result of a sin of omission by the European Union, which did not follow through regarding its reactions to the Constitutional Court affair."
"Now we are waiting for the decision of the president, who still has his veto. The EU has the dilemma of either acting now -- while the process is still ongoing -- or waiting. Sure, it's not over, but later it may be too late," he added.
Last week, both houses of parliament adopted two other contested pieces of judicial legislation, including a bill stating that the justice minister will name the chief justices of Poland's common courts.
The second bill stipulates that from now on the parliament, instead of an independent body, will choose the members of the National Council of the Judiciary, which is meant to protect the independence of the courts.