December 19, 2015 / 1:46 PM / 2 years ago

Thousands rally against Polish government as constitutional row drags on

WARSAW (Reuters) - Thousands of Poles gathered on Saturday to protest against the government for the second time this month, putting pressure on the month-old conservative cabinet which they accuse of testing the boundaries of democracy.

Critics say the administration, formed by the euroskeptic Law and Justice (PiS) party, is emulating Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban in undermining democratic checks and balances.

But the government says it needs to strengthen its hold over state institutions and to ensure the country’s voice is heard abroad and the benefits of economic progress are shared more evenly. There was no indication so far that the government would change its course in response to the protests.

Saturday’s demonstrations were organized through social media in more than 20 Polish cities. In Warsaw, protesters filled a square outside the parliament, waving Polish and European Union flags and chanting “Stop destroying democracy!” A Warsaw city official put the number of protesters at 20,000.

Last Saturday, the same official estimated that 50,000 marched through the city to protest against the government. Police later put the number of protesters at around 20,000.

A pro-government demonstration last Sunday also gathered thousands.

The row began when PiS, which scored a landmark election win in October, appointed five out of 15 judges to the constitutional court, Poland’s highest judicial body, in a move the opposition described as illegal.

PiS denies the charge. It said judges in the constitutional court need to be replaced to ensure the balance of power in the body, and that it was the previous government that broke the law when they made the original appointments.

But gaining control of the court is key for the party. It may determine whether it is able to implement its flagship policy plans, which include an overhaul of the retirement system.

Reporting by Wiktor Szary; Editing by Stephen Powell

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