May 15, 2020 / 1:35 PM / 10 days ago

Poland appoints conservative interim Supreme Court head in judicial turmoil

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s president appointed an ultra-conservative as new interim head of the Supreme Court on Friday after his predecessor resigned, deepening judicial and political turmoil ahead of a controversial presidential election.

Aleksander Stepkowski is an ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and a founder of think tank Ordo Iuris which, among other issues, supports stricter restrictions on abortion.

He was appointed by President Andrzej Duda, another close PiS ally, after Kamil Zaradkiewicz, an ex-justice ministry official, resigned earlier in the day after a standoff with judges.

PiS has been accused by the European Union’s executive body of undermining judicial checks and balances. The party says its judicial reforms are designed to remove the residue of Poland’s Communist-era legal system and boost efficiency.

The acting Supreme Court chief is meant to oversee the election of a successor to Malgorzata Gersdorf, who was a high-profile critic of the conservative nationalist government until her term ended in April.

In a televised statement, Zaradkiewicz accused judges who opposed him of trying to impose their own rules on the selection process and intimidating new judges appointed under PiS reforms. “I no longer intend to tolerate such practices,” he said.

Bartlomiej Przymusinski, a judge and spokesman for the Iustitia judges association said Stepkowski would work in favour of the ruling party.

“Stepkowski is a former politician. I expect him to continue PiS’s policy of taking over the Supreme Court,” he said. Stepkowski was not immediately available to comment.

OPPOSITION’S ELECTION CANDIDATE DROPS OUT

Poland is expected to hold a presidential election at the end of June or start of July, after the original May 10 date was scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The main centrist opposition grouping, Civic Platform (PO), chose Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski as its new candidate on Friday after its previous candidate resigned.

Trzaskowski, a former member of European Parliament, has sought to introduce sex education in Warsaw, a move PiS said could propagate “LGBT ideology” and needlessly “sexualize children”.

The previous PO candidate, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, had urged Poles not to vote if the election were held in May as scheduled, to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19. Support for her plunged below 5% from above 20% in February.

Duda leads the race with 45% support followed by independent candidate Szymon Holownia at 19%, the agrarian PSL party’s Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz 17% and far-right candidate Krzysztof Bosak 9%, according to a recent opinion poll.

Reporting Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Joanna Plucinska and Marcin Goclowski, writing by Alan Charlish, editing by Mark Heinrich and Philippa Fletcher

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