December 15, 2017 / 1:20 PM / a year ago

Poland gives government key election role, opposition sounds alarm

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s parliament has passed a bill that gives the government, rather than a panel of top judges, control over who conducts elections, a move the opposition called “satanic”.

Minutes before midnight on Thursday, lawmakers of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party and their allies approved a bill that allows the interior minister to nominate all candidates for head of the National Election Bureau.

The PiS has said its bill will make voting more transparent, but critics have said the real aim is to boost the electoral prospects of the party, which has denied European Commission accusations of eroding democratic standards.

The head of the judges’ panel, the State Electoral Commission (PKW), said the bill would undermine the electoral process.

“De facto, the minister will take decisions, not us,” PKW head Wojciech Hermelinski told reporters on Friday.

Poland is already at risk of sanctions from the EU over a PiS judicial reform; Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Thursday he expected the European Commission to launch an unprecedented punishment procedure against Warsaw next week.

Hermelinski said Germany had a functioning system where government officials organised elections, but that the Polish government should not leave the independent PKW in place as a “camouflage” without real powers.

According to the bill, if none of the minister’s candidates meet with the judges’ approval, the minister can simply appoint the head of the Election Bureau. Lawmaker Jacek Protas from the opposition Civic Platform said in parliament that the bill was a “satanic idea” that would give a controlling stake in democracy to a single political party.

The PKW head said he would speak to members of the PiS-dominated upper house, the Senate, and President Andrzej Duda to urge them to prevent the measures passing into law.

The changes will also require the PKW to appoint about 100 lower-ranking election officials from lists of candidates presented by the interior minister. Those candidates will no longer have to be judges themselves and, as with the head of the bureau, if the PKW rejects all the names put forward, the minister will have the power to impose a choice.

The PiS-dominated Senate is set on Thursday to approve the overhaul of the judiciary - the deepest since Poland’s transition from communism nearly three decades ago - which the opposition says violates the constitution.

Reporting by Marcin Goettig; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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