May 15, 2020 / 1:00 PM / 11 days ago

Poland's interim top judge resigns in Supreme Court turmoil

WARSAW, May 15 (Reuters) - The interim head of Poland’s Supreme Court resigned on Friday, deepening judicial and political turmoil in a country struggling to choose its top judge and decide when presidential elections that were due in May will eventually be held.

Kamil Zaradkiewicz, an ex-justice ministry official, had been named acting Supreme Court chief to oversee the election of a successor to Malgorzata Gersdorf, a critic of the conservative nationalist government whose term ended in April.

Critics said Zaradkiewicz’s appointment was meant to enable the choice of candidates to head the top court that would be acceptable to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

In a televised statement, Zaradkiewicz accused judges who opposed him of trying to impose their own rules on the selection process and intimidating new judges appointed under PiS reforms. “I no longer intend to tolerate such practices,” he said.

The PiS is at loggerheads with the European Union’s executive body over judicial reforms which critics say have eroded the independence of the judiciary, flouting EU standards on democracy and the rule of law.

PiS leaders have said the overhaul of judicial ranks will improve the efficiency of the judiciary and remove the residue of Poland’s Communist-era legal system.

During Zaradkiewicz’s tenure both he and his opponents called for intervention by President Andrzej Duda, a close PiS ally, to either change selection rules or dismiss the interim court chief himself.

With the selection process stalled by procedural issues, Duda appointed Aleksander Stepkowski, a founder of ultra-conservative think tank Ordo Iuris, to replace Zaradkiewicz.

“Stepkowski is a former politician. I expect him to continue PiS’s policy of taking over the Supreme Court,” said Bartlomiej Przymusinski, a judge and spokesman for the Iustitia judges association.

OPPOSITION’S ELECTION CANDIDATE DROPS OUT

Poland is expected to hold a presidential election at the end of June or start of July, after the original May 10 date was scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, presidential candidate of the main liberal opposition Civic Platform (PO), dropped out of the election on Friday in the face of a plunge in support below 5% from above 20% in February.

Kidawa-Blonska had urged Poles not to vote at all if the election were held in May as scheduled, a plan opposition critics saw as reckless at a time of coronavirus contagion.

Duda leads the race with a 45% support followed by independent candidate Szymon Holownia at 19%, the agrarian PSL party’s Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz 17% and far-right candidate Krzysztof Bosak 9%, according to a recent opinion poll.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski and ex-foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski are seen as most likely to replace Kidawa-Blonska and help Civic Platform recover anti-PiS votes. (Reporting Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Marcin Goclowski, writing by Alan Charlish, editing by Mark Heinrich)

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