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article imagePoland election chief says reforms threaten free vote

By AFP     Dec 15, 2017 in Politics

Amendments to Poland's electoral law pushed through parliament by the rightwing government will put free elections at risk by handing the interior minister new powers, the national electoral commission said Friday.

The commission has been transformed "into a kind of sham behind which the government is hiding," Justice Wojciech Hermelinski told Polish media.

The governing rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party passed the changes late Thursday night, the latest in a string of controversial reforms that have put Poland at odds with the EU.

The PiS has flatly denied allegations that their latest move threatens the election process, insisting instead that the changes make the system more efficient and correspond to procedures used in several Western European countries.

Hermelinski, however, insisted that "the authorities have made the Electoral Commission a sort of smoke-screen that legitimises elections organised by the interior minister."

The amendments will take effect after the 2019 general election, which opinion polls show the popular PiS government is likely to win.

The independent Electoral Commission has ensured free and fair democratic elections at the national, local and European level since Poland shed communism in 1989.

It currently includes nine judges chosen by the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court and the Supreme Administrative Court.

The new amendments will give parliament the right to choose seven of its members, who will no longer have to be judges.

The interior minister will name the candidates for the country's 100 election commissioners, who will also no longer have to be judges.

Under the amendment, it will be up to the interior minister to propose three candidates for the post of chief of the National Electoral Office in charge of organising elections and responsible to the Elections Commission.

Up to now, the candidates were proposed by the President and the upper and lower houses of parliament.

The interior minister will also have the final word on choosing one or all of the 100 election commissioners and the head of the National Electoral Office should the Elections Commission fail to do so.

To enter into force, the law must still be adopted by the Senate and signed by the president.

The EU has warned Poland it may trigger Article Seven of the EU's treaties -- the so-called "nuclear option" that freezes voting rights -- over a string of previous judicial reforms it says undermine the rule of law.

Poland's new PiS party Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Thursday that the European Commission would "probably activate" Article Seven next Wednesday.

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