Poland is ‘on road to autocracy’, says constitutional court president

Law and Justice party is trying to destroy system of checks on government power, says head of highest constitutional court. The outgoing president of Poland’s highest constitutional court has accused the ruling rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS) of a systematic attempt to destroy oversight of government activity, describing the country as “on the road to autocracy”.

The departure of Prof Andrzej Rzepliński, whose term expires on Monday, is expected to pave the way for PiS appointees to assume control of Poland’s most important institutional check on executive power.

The expiration of Rzepliński’s term comes amid signs of the most serious political crisis in Poland since PiS won presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015.

Protesters on Friday night attempted to barricade MPs in the parliament building after the government sought to restrict media access to parliamentary proceedings. Opposition MPs accuse PiS deputies of holding illegal votes outside the parliamentary chamber after an opposition MP was expelled for protesting against the media restrictions and opposition leaders occupied the parliamentary podium in protest. Protests continued in Warsaw and other cities over the weekend.

Speaking to the Guardian, Rzepliński defended his attempts to uphold the independence of the tribunal, which rules on the constitutionality of legislation and decisions taken by state authorities.

He said the government’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of a number of the court’s rulings threatened to “create a double legal system, with some courts upholding our rulings, and others not. Judges really don’t know what is the law, and without that, in a continental system, courts cannot operate.”

PiS has been engaged in a stand-off with the constitutional tribunal ever since Andrzej Duda, the country’s PiS-aligned president, refused last year to swear in a number of judges appointed by the previous government and appointed five new judges of his own. Three were ruled unconstitutional.

The PiS-controlled parliament has also passed eight separate pieces of legislation regarding the role and functioning of the constitutional tribunal, the majority of which, critics argue, appear designed to minimise the ability of the court to hold the government to account, and to maximise the influence of the government’s own appointees.

“The aim of the legislation is to destroy the court, to disintegrate it, to create a kind of private council for our ‘beloved leader’,” said Rzepliński, a reference to Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS.

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