The European Union is coming closer to imposing sanctions on Poland for the government's controversial attempt to take control of the judiciary, a senior EU official warned Wednesday, as new street protests and heated debate erupted in the Polish parliament.
The ruling conservative and populist Law and Justice Party had been rushing to get parliament's approval for a contentious draft law that would reorganize the nation's highest court. But it has had to slow down after vehement objection from the opposition, alarm from the EU and mass peaceful protests against the measure.
After a tense debate in parliament, lawmakers on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to send the draft bill on the Supreme Court for more work by a special parliamentary commission. Opposition legislators have proposed 1,300 amendments to the draft, which they say violates the constitution, kills judicial independence and destroys the democratic principle of the separation of the judiciary from the executive branch.
Crowds have held street protests in Warsaw and other cities in defense of democracy and judicial independence, chanting "Free courts!'' and "Freedom, equality, democracy!'' They urged President Andrzej Duda to veto the draft legislation.
It was the latest in a string of conflicts that has exposed the deepening political divide in Poland since Law and Justice won power in 2015.
The proposed bill calls for the immediate dismissal of the current Supreme Court judges, except those chosen by the justice minister. It would give the justice minister the power to appoint the key court's judges.
In a proposed amendment, the Law and Justice has switched those powers to the president.
The ruling party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, insists that its reforms will introduce "good change'' expected by the people who voted them in. It also argues that the judiciary still works along communist-era principles and needs radical reforms and new people to be efficient.
The opposition says the changes to the judiciary are Kaczynski's revenge on judges who have been critical of his policies.
Kaczynski, a lawyer, is currently Poland's most powerful politician, controlling the government, the parliament and having influence on the president, even though he holds no government office.
The vote Wednesday was 434-6 with one abstention for a justice commission to review the draft law.
Shortly after the vote, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in Brussels that the EU may soon strip Poland of its voting rights because its recent steps toward the judiciary "greatly amplify the threat to the rule of law'' and threaten to put the judiciary "under full political control of the government.''
Such a sanction, which was intended to ensure democratic standards in EU members, requires unanimity among all other member states. Timmerman said the dialogue between the EU and Poland should continue while the legislation is being worked on.
Poland's parliament has already approved new laws that give lawmakers the power to appoint judges to the regulatory National Council of the Judiciary, and changed regulations for ordinary courts. All changes require the approval of Duda, who has so far followed the ruling party line.
Law and Justice has previously backed down under mass protests — including last year when it withdrew a proposed ban on abortions after a nationwide women's strike.
The debate preceding Wednesday's vote has led to some unpleasant exchanges in parliament.
An opposition lawmaker, Borys Budka, drew Kaczynski's wrath when he implied that his late twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, had prevented him previously from taking any drastic steps toward the justice system.
Kaczynski's reaction was immediate and violent.
"Don't wipe your treacherous mugs with the name of my late brother. You destroyed him, you murdered him, you are scoundrels,'' Kaczynski shouted from the podium. He was referring to the 2010 plane crash that killed the president, his brother, which he blames on the former government of the Civic Platform party.
Poland's former foreign minister and head of the Civic Platform, Grzegorz Schetyna, condemned the tone of the parliamentary debate.
"It shows that we are in some catastrophic place, not only regarding emotions, but also regarding the level of the public debate,'' Schetyna said Wednesday.