January 12, 2017 / 11:23 AM / in 6 months

Poland's centrist opposition ends blockade in parliament

Demonstrators gather outside the law and justice party building during a protest in Lodz, Poland, January 11, 2017.Adam Stepien/Agencja Gazeta

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's centrist opposition ended a month-long blockade in parliament on Thursday after securing a reversal of plans to curb media access to proceedings but without resolving a dispute with ruling conservatives over the 2017 budget.

Opposition MPs had blocked the podium of parliament's plenary hall, protesting at the Law and Justice party's (PiS) move to restrict journalists and accusing it of passing the 2017 budget in a side-room without a legal quorum.

In last-minute negotiations on Wednesday, PiS rejected the centrists' appeal to delay the reopening of parliament after the Christmas and New Year recess to allow time to settle the budget stand-off. The conservatives, however, on Monday scrapped planned curbs on journalists covering legislative proceedings.

"Considering that we have been able to bring back media access to parliament, we are suspending our protest," Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), which the PiS ousted from power in the 2015 election, told reporters.

Laying bare mounting political divisions in Poland, the parliamentary confrontation deepened fears for democracy in the European Union state.

Poland's western EU allies have accused the eurosceptic PiS of pushing the country in the direction of authoritarian rule by seeking more state control over the media and judiciary.

The PiS rejects opposition accusations that it passed the 2017 budget illegally in December, after shifting the vote to a small auxiliary room to sidestep the opposition's occupation of the plenary hall over media rights.

In a threat that could escalate its conflict with the opposition, the PiS threatened deputies with fines and even jail terms over the sit-in.

"Financial penalties in line with (parliamentary) rules are appropriate for those who occupy the plenary hall," Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told public radio.

"Preventing the parliament speaker from fulfilling his duties is a crime according to the penal code ... and carries a penalty of a 10-year jail term."

In December, PiS MPs moved the budget vote when opposition lawmakers blocked the speaker's access to the podium.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said parliament's rules should be reworked to prevent similar situations in the future.

After a brief reopening of parliament on Wednesday evening, authorities postponed further sessions until Jan. 25. The agenda ranges from pensions for soldiers to environmental issues but no votes on major policies are immediately scheduled.

Reporting by Pawel Sobczak and Lidia Kelly; writing by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Mark Heinrich

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