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Polish Law & Justice party bends to protest wave over media crackdown

  • Maciej Martewicz
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Warsaw: Poland’s government sought to defuse a confrontation over media freedom that European Union President Donald Tusk criticised as a threat to the continent’s democratic order.

The ruling Law & Justice party shelved a plan to limit journalists’ access to legislative proceedings after three days of protests on the streets and inside parliament. While the government pledged to meet with media representatives to discuss new coverage rules, the opposition urged its supporters to keep up the pressure with daily demonstrations.

People shout slogans as anti-government protesters gather in front of the Constitutional Court in Warsaw, Poland. Photo: AP

Since winning power a year ago, Law & Justice has been accused by EU leaders of eroding the rule of law, a concern that helped trigger Poland’s first credit downgrade by S&P Global Ratings. Mr Tusk, who served as prime minister before taking the bloc’s top job in 2014, warned that democracy was being threatened across Europe.

“Democracy in which one deprives people of access to information and imposes one style of life becomes as unbearable as a dictatorship,” Mr Tusk said during a rare speech dedicated to Polish politics on Saturday. “Today, the European tradition of freedom is being undermined and attacked for various reasons and from various places. That’s why, in this critical moment, it requires our special care, even tenderness.”

Lawmakers passed next year’s budget late Friday, hours before police used force to remove activists from outside the building. Thousands more attended anti-government protests on Saturday and Sunday. Seeking to limit the fallout, Law & Justice pledged to discuss any future rule changes with journalists, Senate Speaker Stanislaw Karczewski said after meeting with reporters on Saturday. More talks are scheduled this week.

Prime Minister Beata Szydlo criticised the opposition for provoking “extreme emotions” in a public address, while President Andrzej Duda started mediation talks with all parties.

The ruling party’s steady backing and the opposition’s inability to sustain momentum from earlier protest movements suggest that the government will be able to ride out the current crisis, according to Ernest Pytlarczyk, an economist at MBank SA in Warsaw. The cabinet also stands to benefit from investors’ focus returning to the economy, he said.

“If markets fall tomorrow based on what happened over the weekend, it will be a buying opportunity,” Mr Pytlarczyk said. “It may be a game changer” for economic growth “when EU funds start to flow again in two quarters”.

Supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party with a portrait of the leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party with a portrait of the leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: AP

Opposition lawmakers delayed proceedings to approve 2017 budget on Friday by blocking the podium to support for their colleague Michal Szczerba, whose suspension for holding a “free media” sign fuelled protests outside parliament. Law & Justice deputies held the ballot in an auxiliary chamber, where the votes were counted by hand instead of the usual electronic system.

While three opposition parties said the vote on next year’s fiscal plan was illegal and should be repeated, Law & Justice asserts it was in line with procedures. The president had asked for legal analysis of the vote, his spokesman said.

Supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party at a pro-government rally in front of the presidential palace, in ... Supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party at a pro-government rally in front of the presidential palace, in Warsaw, Poland. Photo: AP

Ms Szydlo, in her televised address to the nation, also focused on the economy, rather than the freedom of the press. She stayed on message about the government’s achievements, including an increase in family benefits, that help keep support for the ruling party above 30 per cent.

Next year, the government is preparing further handouts and the re-introduction of a lower the retirement age. Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also promised to make sweeping changes in the tax code and overhaul the pensions system.

European Union Council President Donald Tusk fears for democracy. European Union Council President Donald Tusk fears for democracy. Photo: AP

“Once the Morawiecki plan kicks in, investors won’t focus that much on the constitutional crisis any more,” said Peter Attard Montalto, a London-based economist at Nomura International. “Now you have Trump, you have Brexit and Law & Justice fits in this trend.”

Bloomberg 

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