Protesters Claim Gains in Poland Court Tussle as Walesa Fizzles

(Bloomberg) -- Lech Walesa stormed into Warsaw this week aiming to bring 100,000 Poles into the streets to protest growing government influence on the judiciary. The former president got a fraction of that -- a few hundred at best -- but the organizers of the demonstrations nonetheless claimed a victory in their opposition to an overhaul of the court system.

“I can’t see 100,000 here,” Walesa said in a short speech Wednesday evening at the Supreme Court headquarters, where a small crowd had gathered in the sweltering summer heat. “Believe me, there’s a danger. When we give up on the courts there will be a next stage. We need to gather our strength.”

Walesa’s visit capped two tense days in which thousands of protesters across Poland sought to block the dismissal of the head of the Supreme Court, Malgorzata Gersdorf, before her six-year term ends in 2020. On Wednesday, Gersdorf showed up at her office and continued working as usual, to the cheers of a raucous crowd at the building at the edge of Warsaw’s Old Town. With Gersdorf apparently able to stay in her job, the protests were suspended.

“We drew the world’s attention to the attempted constitutional coup,” said Bartlomiej Przymusinski, a leader of Iustitia, the independent professional association of judges in Poland that organized the protests. “We supported Gersdorf. The next step will be a legal complaint to the European Court of Justice. And we’re ready to come back and protest at the court at any time.”

The reform, which the ruling Law & Justice party says will improve efficiency, is at the center of a conflict that’s turned an exemplar of communist Europe’s transition to democracy into one of the EU’s biggest headaches, jeopardizing billions of euros in aid. The European Commission has recommended disciplining Poland for failing to uphold the bloc’s values, an unprecedented process that could strip the country of its voting rights in EU organizations.

The new law introduced a retirement age of 65 for the Supreme Court as of July 3, which would require as many as 27 of the 73 justices to leave their jobs. The law allows justices to petition the president to stay beyond that time, and at least 16 of them have done so. But Gersdorf refused to recognize the change and has vowed to keep working until her term ends.

“From their point of view, the demonstrators have reached their goal, as the Chief Justice wasn’t dismissed,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “The situation seems to be under control for the time-being, so the protests are on hold.”

The court has five chambers and various other divisions, each hearing cases in specialized areas such as civil law or labor matters. The units have panels of several justices that have the final say on legal matters in the country.

President Andrzej Duda considers Gersdorf officially retired and named Jozef Iwulski as her interim successor. Gersdorf countered that move by invoking a clause that says she can appoint a temporary chief justice while she’s away. She then announced she would go on vacation starting Monday, and said Iwulski would be her replacement -- though she said she’ll be back on the job after her holiday.

The president “sent a letter telling all the judges who have reached retirement age, including Gersdorf, that they must retire,” Andrzej Dera, an aide to Duda, told reporters in Warsaw. Asked whether Gersdorf is still the Supreme Court’s chief, Dera responded, “Does a retiree have the right to come to work?”

Walesa, the 74-year-old leader of Poland’s fight against the communism in the 80s, hasn’t been politically active in recent years. But the fight over the court system has re-energized the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and he traveled from his home in the port city of Gdansk to Warsaw to help rally the opposition.

“Anyone who opposes the separation of powers is a criminal,” Walesa told the energetic crowd. “We must hold these people accountable because they’re acting against Poland’s interests.”

The latest available polls, taken at the end of June, show support for the Law & Justice party stable at about 40 percent, and investors appear unconcerned about the brewing fight over the court system. The zloty extended a rebound to a third day as the euro’s rise against the dollar boosted the Polish currency.

But Piotr Matys, a strategist at Rabobank, cautioned that the rally may be short-lived if the conflict picks up again. The judicial overhaul “is a slow burning issue,” Matys said in an e-mail. “In the long term, the turmoil may have a negative impact on the Polish economy if it undermines confidence in the level of justice.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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