Why Polish rights groups oppose bill prioritizing 'nationally important' rallies

Under the new rule, the government could prohibit counter-demonstrations within 100 meters of a rally authorities deem to be of national importance.

Alik Keplicz/ AP
Anti-government protesters march through the downtown on the anniversary of imposition of the 1981 martial law by the country's former communist regime, in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016.

After lawmakers passed a bill that would give the Polish government power to prioritize rallies of national importance over demonstrations and other gatherings, nearly 200 groups urged President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday to veto the measure.

Both the Polish Ombudsman and Constitutional Tribunal, the country's highest constitutional court, have already said the bill would violate freedom-of-assembly rights guaranteed by the Polish constitution. But it remains unclear whether Mr. Duda will take action or permit the measure to take effect, continuing a spree of nationalistic and pro-Catholic legislation enacted by the nation's ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS).

"We call on you, Mr President, to veto this bill as it violates the Constitution of the Republic of Poland and international conventions ratified by Poland," a petition signed by 194 human rights groups and other organizations wrote to the president, who has worked closely with the PiS. A spokesman said the president would review the bill carefully before making his final decision.

Currently, local authorities give precedence to public events according to the order in which they were received, regardless of the organizer's intent. Under the new rule, a government official would have power to prohibit counter-demonstrations from taking place within 100 meters of any rally authorities consider to be of national importance. Officials have said the bill is needed to ensure public safety.

Sharp political polarization has been brewing in Polish society for some time, erupting this week with two warring protests in the streets of the nation's capital. But the discord also points "to the awakening of civil society," as The Christian Science Monitor reported from Warsaw:

The massive protests against the ruling Law & Justice Party (PiS) in the past year – specifically their moves to neuter the Constitutional Tribunal, the country's highest court; make it harder to have an abortion; and even make it harder to protest – come from an opposition worried about the state of Polish democracy. Supporters of their ultraconservative government have simultaneously protested back.

It’s a sign of division and a certain amount of dysfunction. But the fact that the protests are gathering steam has, perhaps unwittingly, led to a sense of political empowerment in Poland that has been largely dormant since its transition to democracy.

Some suggest divisions in 2016 have grown even worse than they were under communist rule, with members of individual families refusing to speak with each other over their differences in political perspective.

"At that time the front line was between 'we' the Poles and 'them' the USSR. The common goods were freedom and solidarity," Maciej Dębski, a sociologist at the University of Gdansk, told the Monitor in September.

"Today division is within the society, there is no outside enemy," he added.

Earlier this year, the PiS passed laws to make it harder for the constitutional court to pass rulings, prompting the European Commission to say Polish democracy and rule of law were under threat. Frans Timmermans, the commission's vice president, said Wednesday he is concerned by the new laws limiting the tribunal.

Nonetheless, Poland's Supreme Court has described the freedom-of-assembly bill – an earlier draft of which had sought to grant special privileges to events organized by the government and the church – as an effort to undermine the constitutional order.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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