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WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's ruling conservatives have introduced draft legislation that would replace all Supreme Court judges except those chosen by the justice minister, drawing protests from the judges, the opposition and rights groups.
The proposal marks the latest move by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) to gain more influence over the judiciary, which critics and the centrist opposition say violates the constitutional separation of powers.
"Its aim is to give the justice minister broad control over the Supreme Court," the court's president, Malgorzata Gersdorf, told a news conference on Thursday. "This is very dangerous for the political system we are living in."
The PiS says the party has a democratic mandate to make the judiciary more efficient and accountable to the public.
Since winning the 2015 election, the PiS has overhauled the constitutional court and given the Justice Ministry control over the prosecutor general's office. It is also in the process of giving parliament more say in appointing judges.
Threatening to take Poland to court, the European Union executive has said these measures undermine democratic checks and balances, a charge the PiS denies.
Despite criticism at home and abroad, the eurosceptic PiS government remains popular in Poland, benefiting from record-low unemployment, a robust economy and increased social spending.
An opinion poll this week showed the party's support rising by 4 percentage points to 36 percent, compared with a month ago.
The proposed legislation would force the sitting Supreme Court judges to resign a day after it goes into force.
It would also give the power for future appointees to be chosen by a judiciary council, a body which will have most of its members chosen by parliament, according to new rules approved by legislators on Wednesday.
"This is how dictatorship starts," said Borys Budka, a lawmaker from the largest opposition party Civic Platform (PO).
According to Poland's 1997 constitution, the Supreme Court is tasked with overseeing the activity of courts of general jurisdiction and military courts with respect to their passing of verdicts. It also validates parliamentary election results.
Lech Walesa, the hero of the Solidarity movement who became the first freely elected president after the fall of communism, told private broadcaster TVN24 that the bill was "very dangerous, very stupid".
PiS lawmakers have previously responded to criticism by saying that in several EU countries the executive and legislative powers have a major say in appointing judges, citing the example of Germany where parliament and representatives of states choose members of the constitutional court.
Despite calls from some judges and rights activists, the opposition has been unable to marshal any real public protest against the ruling party's moves, reflecting Poles' frustration with a system in which even simple court cases can last years.
An opposition protest is planned in Warsaw on Sunday.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a rights watchdog in Europe, said the proposal, introduced late on Wednesday, was an "attempt to introduce an unconstitutional change to the system of government".
In addition to concerns over the judiciary, the Polish government has faced criticism in Europe over a push to gain more control over state media and to limit the freedom of assembly.
Increasingly isolated from its Western allies in the European Union, the PiS has been accused by critics of implementing a tilt towards authoritarianism.
However, U.S. President Donald Trump, in Warsaw last week, said Poland and the United States shared a "commitment to safeguarding the values (of) freedom, sovereignty and the rule of law".
Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Alison Williams