Polish official: protests led by ‘frustrated’ opposition

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s foreign minister says anti-government protests that have flared for days are the work of frustrated opposition politicians who cannot accept their loss of power and the government’s popularity.

There were hints, though, that the ruling Law and Justice party might back away from proposed restrictions on media coverage of parliament which sparked the protests. Parliament Speaker Marek Kuchcinski said on Twitter that he assured the president during a crisis meeting on Monday that the matter remains “open.”

Earlier, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said he believed the protests were merely “a pretext, an excuse to start protests on a massive scale against the situation in Poland.”

Waszczykowski spoke to foreign media representatives, clearly seeking a hearing for the government’s version of events.

Opposition leaders insist that their protests are aimed at preserving democratic standards.

Poland has been in a state of political crisis for more than a year over sweeping changes introduced by the populist Law and Justice party under its powerful chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Many of the changes have been denounced by the European Union and liberal Poles as violations of the rule of law, particularly steps that have paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal, weakening the system of checks and balances.

Still, Law and Justice enjoys fairly stable support, with an approval rating of 36 percent in a recent poll. Its most popular policy involves monthly cash bonuses for children. It has also voted to lower the retirement age from 67 to 60 for women and 65 for men — a bill that President Andrzej Duda signed into law on Monday.

The crisis deepened Friday when opposition lawmakers occupied the area around the speaker’s podium in parliament, blocking work on legislation. Ruling party lawmakers then moved to another room in the parliament building and voted on the budget. Without a record that there was a quorum, there are questions about the vote’s legality and the opposition is demanding a new vote.

The trigger for the sit-in — which continued Monday — was Speaker Kuchcinski’s decision to exclude an opposition lawmaker from the proceedings for going to the podium with a card bearing the words “free media.”

The deeper issue was the ruling party’s plan to restrict media access to lawmakers in parliament starting Jan. 1, denounced as unconstitutional by the opposition parties.

Protests then erupted in front of the parliament building, with angry anti-government opponents blocking the cars of ruling party officials in Warsaw on Friday evening and in Krakow on Sunday.

Waszczykowski said he believed the protests were not spontaneous. He charged that the opposition won’t accept that it lost the parliament and presidential elections last year.

“And it can’t accept the fact that after 14 months of exercising power and undertaking difficult reforms, public opinion polls show a huge advantage of the ruling party,” he said.

A recent survey by the CBOS polling institute found the largest opposition parties trailing in popularity — 16 percent for Civic Platform and 14 percent for Modern.

Radek Sikorski of Civic Platform, a former foreign minister and former parliament speaker, said the only real goal of the opposition is to ensure that the government respects the constitutional order.

“The actual attitude (of the protesters) is that Law and Justice is perfectly entitled to rule the country, but that they are not entitled to change the constitution, the rules of the game, for which they have no mandate and no majority,” he told The Associated Press.