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Poland political standoff persists after media ban is lifted

People demonstrate against new restrictions for media at the Polish Parliament in front of the Parliament building in Warsaw, 16 December 2016. Agencja Gazeta/Franciszek Mazur/via Reuters

Poland’s lower chamber of parliament lifted a ban on media on Tuesday following mass demonstrations and a sit-in by opposition MPs. But if it the ruling Law and Justice Party appeared to be bowing to pressure, concerns over its way of governing are far from resolved.

Protests have drawn thousands to the streets around Poland over an allegedly authoritarian drift by the ruling the Law and Justice party since it came to power in October 2015.

The current and most serious standoff began on Friday, when parliamentary speaker Marek Kuchcinski announced plans to curb the access of journalists to lawmakers.

Opposition MPs staged a sit-in of the main chamber of the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament building, while protesters gathered outside the building.

Even after the Sejm’s press office announced the ban had been scrapped, protests continued over doubts about whether journalists had full access.

“It seems that not all the places inside the parliament are available for them,” says Hanna Hanna Szulczewska of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy.

“For example, they cannot go into the gallery in the main plenary room where they should be in order to record and register the debate.”

Opposition MPs likewise extended their occupation of the debating chamber into its fifth day over the speaker’s decision on Friday to hold a vote on the 2017 budget bill in a separate closed room with no media coverage.

“We consider that moving our session to another hall was illegal, the hall was not available for many parliamentarians, for members of the opposition, there was not enough space for all parliamentarians and we are not sure whether there was necessary quorum,” says MP Marcin Swiecicki of the opposition party Civic Platform.

“There were too many regularities in the voting of such an important document as the budgetary law, so we want to repeat this vote in normal conditions.”

Government takes control of constitutional tribunal

In a separate,but related, development coinciding with the standoff, the ruling party effectively took control of a reformed constitutional tribunal on Tuesday, with the appointment of a judge backed by the government.

Julia Przylebska takes over from outgoing tribunal president Andrzej Rzeplinski, who opposed new appointments and legislation that critics say obscured the tribunal’s functions and placed it under greater influence of political powers.

“The new law on the sanctioning of the constitutional law […] is not in line with the verdicts of the constitutional court issued over the last months,” says Piotr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The situation is completely unprecedented and will have tremendous and very negative impact.”

Reforms of the tribunal have already been the object of a rule of law procedure by the European Commission, which is theoretically in the position of asking European leaders to impose sanctions, including the loss of voting rights in EU institutions.

Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament last week that the body would soon reassess the issues, but there is doubt whether it would go so far as to seek sanctions.

“The Commission has been weakened by the fact that there is no compromise on the constitutional court,” Buras says. “The issue is now getting more and more political, and it is up to the political elites in Europe to decide how to react.”