Wałęsa addresses protesters in Gdańsk, condemning plans by rightwing ruling party to take control of Polish legal system.
The former Polish president Lech Wałęsa has joined protests that have broken out across the country over plans by the populist ruling party to put the supreme court and the rest of the judicial system under its political control.
The EU and many international legal experts say the changes would mark a dramatic reversal for a country hailed as a model of democratic transition over the past quarter century, and would move Poland closer toward authoritarianism.
The president of the European council, Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, had on Thursday accused the ruling Law and Justice party of dragging the country back in time.
The party has defended the changes as reforms to a justice system that its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, said was never properly purged of former communists after that political system collapsed in 1989.
Wałęsa addressed protesters in Gdańsk, his home city and where he led strikes in the 1980s against the communist regime that eventually toppled the government and ushered in democracy.
The 73-year-old recalled those democratic changes, saying that the separation of powers into the legislative, executive and judicial branches was the most important achievement of his Solidarity movement.
“You must use all means to take back what we achieved for you,” he told a crowd that included many young Poles. The 1983 Nobel peace prize winner also said he would always support their struggle, appearing to rule out any leadership role for himself in the protest movement.
He was welcomed with chants of “Lech Wałęsa” and “we thank you”.
His appearance came after Poland’s upper house of parliament approved a supreme court overhaul, defying the EU and critics at home who say the legislation will undermine democratic checks and balances.
Tens of thousands of protesters had gathered earlier in Warsaw and cities across Poland for candlelit vigils to protest against the draft bill, as the senate debated it late into the night. Some protesters carried Polish and EU flags, chanting: “Free courts.”
To become law, the proposal still has to be signed by the president, Andrzej Duda, an ally of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Duda’s spokesman, Andrzej Łapiński, said on Saturday he saw flaws in the legislation and an inconsistency between two articles regarding the appointment of the head of Poland’s top court.
Łapiński stopped short of saying whether the president would reject the bill or seek the opinion of the constitutional court. Duda has 21 days to sign it into law.
The Eurosceptic PiS argues new rules are needed to make the judiciary accountable and efficient.
But the opposition and judges’ groups in Poland as well as critics in Brussels say the legislation is a new step by the Polish government towards authoritarianism.
The US, Poland’s most important ally in Nato, issued a statement urging Poland to ensure any changes respect the constitution. “We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers,” it said.
An opinion poll for the private television network TVN showed on Friday that 55% of respondents said Duda should veto the overhaul of the judiciary, while 29% wanted him to sign it.
Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS has sought to tighten government influence over courts and brought prosecutors and state media under direct government control. It has also introduced restrictions on public gatherings and made it harder for some non-governmental organisations to function.
“We believe that Poland is slowly but systematically turning into a penal institution,” the opposition senator Jan Rulewski, a veteran activist of the anti-communism movement, said during the debate, dressed in a prison uniform.
The PiS remains broadly popular among the electorate, despite an upswelling of protest in recent days as it rushed the judiciary overhaul through parliament. With the economy growing robustly and unemployment at record lows, the party’s nationalist rhetoric infused with Catholic piety resonates strongly among Poland’s conservative voters.
The government of the biggest eastern EU state has so far dismissed criticism, saying the changes would ensure state institutions serve all Poles, not just the “elites”.
On Wednesday, the EU gave Poland a week to shelve the judicial reforms that Brussels said will put courts under direct government control.
If the PiS government does not back down, Poland could face fines and even a suspension of its voting rights, although other Eurosceptic EU governments, notably Hungary, are likely to veto strict punishments.
The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said on Saturday that Budapest would fight to defend Poland. “The inquisition offensive against Poland can never succeed because Hungary will use all legal options in the European Union to show solidarity with the Poles,” he said.
Like Kaczyński, who is a former Polish prime minister, Orbán has clashed with Brussels for years over a perceived disrespect for democratic freedoms and has increasingly posed as a freedom fighter against EU overreach.
Senior Czech judges denounced the judicial overhaul in Poland as an attack on the rule of law.
The PiS has offered some concessions on demand from the president, but has presented criticism from abroad as unacceptable meddling in the domestic affairs of the country, which joined the EU in 2004.
“We will not give into pressure. We will not be intimidated by Polish and foreign defenders of the interests of the elite,” the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, said on state television.