Poland’s parliament was paralysed Wednesday as liberal opposition MPs refused to end an unprecedented protest against what they say are anti-democratic actions by the government.
Civic Platform (PO) legislators have been occupying parliament since mid-December after the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party announced plans to restrict journalists’ right to cover legislative proceedings, a position from which the PiS has since retreated.
The opposition then harnessed the protest to this year’s budget vote.
It wants a re-run of the vote which it says was illegal as the governing party passed it in December in another part of the building because the opposition had taken over the main chamber.
But the governing party insists the vote was legal and deepening the standoff, the PiS-controlled Senate passed the disputed 2017 budget on Wednesday.
PO leader Grzegorz Schetyna called the Senate’s move illegal and vowed his party’s MP would continue to occupy parliament.
Having previously slammed the opposition sit-in as “an attempted coup”, powerful PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski insisted on Wednesday there would be no turning back on the budget.
“We’ve passed the budget and I hope that soon, after the president signs it, it will be published in the journal of laws,” he told reporters gathered in parliament.
The opposition also argues on procedural grounds that the last session of parliament held in December is not — as the PiS says — formally over, but merely “interrupted.”
But parliamentary speaker Marek Kuchcinski formally opened a fresh session of the lower chamber on Wednesday evening despite the ongoing sit-in, before adjourning proceedings until Thursday morning just minutes later.
The opposition has been backed by street demonstrators from the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) popular movement and other citizen groups.
Hundreds of protesters braved bitter cold Wednesday evening, rallying outside parliament in support of the sit-in.
“Today in parliament the fight continues to uphold its basic rules, to uphold the rights of lawmakers and for the opposition’s right to express itself,” protester Danuta Stolecka told AFP.
Poland has been mired in political crisis for months.
In December, the EU gave the PiS government another two months to reverse changes it made to Poland’s constitutional court or face sanctions, warning they posed a “substantial” challenge to the rule of law.
This and the crisis in parliament come just over one year after the conservative PiS swept to power and began pushing through legislation that critics allege undermines democracy.
Although the moves have sparked mass anti-government street protests, the PiS remains widely supported and has kept well ahead in recent opinion polls due in large part to its generous social spending schemes.