WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s ruling party lawmakers gave preliminary approval on Friday to two bills allowing parliament and the president to replace top judges, plans the opposition and the European Commission denounced as a threat to the rule of law.
Once finally approved and signed into law by the president, the bills would likely deepen the right-wing government’s standoff with the EU, potentially reducing the flow of EU development funds to Poland.
Law and Justice (PiS) party deputies sent the bills authored by PiS-ally President Andrzej Duda to parliamentary committees after Duda vetoed in July PiS-sponsored bills that would have given the justice minister large powers over judges.
Duda cast his veto after prolonged mass protests across Poland in July.
Several thousand people in more than 100 cities protested the bills again on Friday night, although the demonstrations fell short of the mass summer rallies.
“I do not suppose that something will change in the way the authorities act, because these authorities are not listening to the people,” said 29-year-old Jakub, a company worker who did not want to give his last name.
“But we are here to show that we will not agree to everything, we will not agree to laws, which lead to us leaving the European Union.”
In November, Duda and PiS reached an agreement on the shape of the judicial reform, according to which parliament will need a three-fifths majority to appoint new members of the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), a key panel that appoints judges in Poland.
Details of the judicial reform bills are expected to be revealed on Tuesday and PiS has said all work on them could be finished in December.
The PiS currently has an absolute parliamentary majority, but not a three-fifths one.
The eurosceptic PiS says reform of the judicial system is needed because the courts are slow, inefficient and steeped in a communist-era mentality.
But critics of the government said the bills are part of a PiS plan to increase its powers over the judiciary and reflect its drive towards authoritarianism, both charges PiS denies.
“Will this demolition speed up court cases? No,” lawmaker Krzysztof Paszyk of the opposition PSL told parliament on Friday, adding the bills would introduces “pathology” into the justice system.
The European Commission’s deputy head, Frans Timmermans, said earlier in November that Duda’s bills - which row back from direct government interference in the judiciary envisaged in the original PiS bills - were still not acceptable.
The socially conservative PiS, in power since late 2015, is already at loggerheads with fellow members of the European Union over migration policy, its push to bring state media under more direct government control, as well as over an earlier overhaul of the Constitutional Tribunal.
Also on Friday, PiS deputies initially approved a bill amending the electoral system, which the opposition said would threaten the fairness of elections.
Writing by Marcin Goettig and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Hugh Lawson