Poland Thrown into Political Chaos After Arrest of Two Lawmakers

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(Bloomberg) -- Polish police arrested two former ruling party officials who were holed up at the presidential palace as a constitutional crisis escalated three months after a pro-European party won power in pivotal parliamentary elections.

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The unprecedented development comes as Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose pro-European Union alliance won power in October’s ballot, tries to reverse years of democratic backsliding, which have led to the suspension of nearly €60 billion ($65 billion) in EU aid.

The arrests at the presidential palace late on Tuesday, are likely to open a fresh conflict between the government and President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the former populist administration, who has veto powers over legislation. Tusk needs his consent to quickly reverse contested changes in the judiciary and access blocked funds.

Mariusz Kaminski and Maciej Wasik were granted shelter by Duda on Tuesday, in contravention of a court order to send the former interior minister and his deputy to prison for abuse of power. The head of Duda’s office, Grazyna Ignaczak-Bandych, said the president wasn’t at the palace at the time of the arrests and called the police operation an “unlawful entry.”

Among the tensions, parliament Speaker Szymon Holownia postponed this week’s parliamentary sitting, saying that Poland was engulfed in “a deep constitutional crisis” with the opposition Law & Justice party opting to respect a different legal order than the government. Lawmakers have until the end of January to adopt 2024 budget. If they don’t, the president will have the right to dissolve parliament.

Tusk, a former European Council president, is trying to unpick the legacy of Law & Justice’s eight years in power. The party stacked state institutions with loyalists and turned state television into a propaganda tool. Last month, the government put the public broadcaster into liquidation sparking protests and sit-ins by Law & Justice lawmakers.

The opposition party has called its supporters to join a march in Warsaw on Thursday in support of democracy, free media and the freedom of speech.

Kaminski and Wasik are contesting last week’s decision by Holownia to revoke their mandates as legislators in parliament, pointing to the fact that they were pardoned by Duda, a former Law & Justice lawmaker, in 2015. The original case against them went back to the late 2000s.

The pardon triggered a dispute among legal experts, with some arguing it wasn’t legally binding because it was issued before the court’s final ruling on the matter. Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which is dominated by Law & Justice appointees, has backed the president, while parts of the Supreme Court said the pardon was baseless.

The controversy comes as the new government seeks to mend ties with the EU, which is withholding funds because of rule-of-law lapses. Duda has underwritten many of the legal changes. The head of state is due to make a statement at 11:30 a.m. in Warsaw.

“Today, we are dealing with an attempt to use the most important state institutions to build a dual system of power,” Tusk told a news conference on Tuesday. “This is obvious sabotage.”

--With assistance from Konrad Krasuski.

(Updates with details of the arrest from the fourth paragraph.)

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