Poland braced for protests on Tuesday against the conservative government’s makeover of the judiciary that takes effect at midnight despite strong opposition at home and legal action against the changes by the European Union.
Through legislation and personnel changes, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has taken de facto control of the entire judicial system, including the constitutional tribunal and prosecutors, who now report to the justice minister.
Its most divisive measure will force more than a third of Supreme Court judges to retire on Wednesday unless they are granted an extension by President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally.
Duda announced on Tuesday that Supreme Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf, a staunch critic of the reforms, had not asked for an extension and therefore would retire in line with rules introduced by PiS.
Underscoring tensions, the Supreme Court’s spokesman said, however, that Gersdorf would come to work anyway on July 4.
“Plans have not changed here, Mrs Gersdorf intends to come to work tomorrow. What happens next … I don’t know,” spokesman Michal Laskowski said.
The European Commission opened a fresh legal case against Poland over the Supreme Court changes on Monday, saying that they undermine judicial independence in the largest formerly communist member of the EU.
The Warsaw government says the reforms are necessary to improve the accountability of a system that dates back to communist times.
The euroskeptic PiS’s standing in polls has held steady at around 40 percent throughout the dispute, well above any single rival party.
Poland’s three biggest opposition parties were to hold a protest in front of the Supreme Court building in Warsaw from 1900 GMT on Tuesday, they said in a joint statement.
Demonstrations “in defense of the Supreme Court” were expected in other cities, according to organizers Komitet Obrony Demokracji (KOD).
“Today we will be in many Polish towns to show that there is no agreement for a takeover of another independent institution,” said Borys Budka, a Civic Platform lawmaker, said in the statement. More protests are expected on Wednesday.
“There will be a purge conducted in the Supreme Court tomorrow under the pretext of the retrospective change in retirement age,” Gersdorf told students in Warsaw at a lecture, according to state-run news agency PAP.
Gersdorf asked Duda during a last-minute meeting on Tuesday to appoint another judge on the panel to serve as a deputy chief in case of her absence, Laskowski said.
Among those who said they would protest was Lech Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former president who is credited with bringing down communism as Solidarity trade union chief.
“If in any way the current ruling team attack the Supreme Court, then … I’m going to Warsaw. It’s enough to destroy Poland,” Walesa said on his Facebook account.
He also said he was ready to “lead a physical removal of the main perpetrator of all misfortune”, referring to PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Gersdorf, who had condemned the PiS’s alleged campaign to politicize the judiciary and media, said that under Poland’s constitution she should remain in her post until 2020.