Polish lawmakers occupy parliament in holiday protest

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish lawmaker Michal Stasinski arrived at parliament pulling a suitcase and carrying a bag filled with his mother's homemade cabbage-and-mushroom stuffed dumplings.

While most lawmakers were home for Christmas, Stasinski on Friday was joining a group of opposition lawmakers hunkering down in the dimly lit and chilly building to protest what they consider backsliding on democracy by a populist government whose anti-establishment and nationalistic views echo those of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

The protesting lawmakers have vowed to stay in the main assembly where laws are voted on, taking turns in shifts, until parliament returns on Jan. 11.

In its 13 months in power, the ruling Law and Justice party has moved to weaken the Constitutional Tribunal — the country's highest legislative court — tried to limit certain press freedoms, supported criminalizing abortion and approved some restrictions on public gatherings. Opponents fear that the constitution and free elections might be next.

"What they are doing is building a kind of velvet dictatorship, step by step," Stasinski, a member of Modern, a pro-business party involved in the protest, told The Associated Press. "I cannot agree to what they are doing and this is why I have decided to spend Christmas here."

The way the ruling party is cementing power has unleashed off-and-on street protests in Warsaw and other cities. However, the party's support remains strong in small towns, boosted by cash bonuses paid monthly to families with at least two children and poorer families that have only one child. The party also lowered the retirement age to 60 for women and 65 for men, a popular change but one economists say the aging society can't afford.

Stasinski's family in Bydgoszcz were sorry he wouldn't be home for Christmas, but even his ailing 86-year-old father supports his decision to protest.

The 48-year-old lawmaker planned to get through the holiday on his mother's pierogi, along with food from his fellow lawmakers and supporters, and some warm clothing. Anti-government activists were planning to organize a meal outside the parliament for the protesting lawmakers on Christmas Eve, the most important moment in three days of Christmas celebrations in Poland.

Poland has been in a state of tension since Law and Justice swept to power, winning first the presidency and then a majority in parliament — the most power any party has had in the democratic era.

Party leaders argue they have a mandate to rebuild Poland in line with their traditional, Catholic and patriotic worldview. They say they have had to exert greater control over some institutions to remove the continued influence of political opponents who would stifle their agenda — including former communists and members of Civic Platform, the party led by the former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council.

The European Union, while accusing the government of eroding the rule of law, has proven powerless to reverse the course of a nation long seen as one of the most successful democracies to emerge from the ashes of Eastern European communism.

Many of the ruling party leaders accuse the protesting opposition of trying to destabilize the state, saying that they represent an establishment that will not accept its loss of privileges.

The reason for the sit-in goes back to events Dec. 16, after news broke that the ruling party planned to impose some restrictions on media access in parliament.

Opposition lawmakers, seeing an attack on democratic freedom, occupied the area around the speaker's podium in parliament, blocking work on legislation. Ruling party lawmakers then moved the session to another room and voted on the 2017 budget.

Authorities, amid the uproar, have since backed away from the plans for media restrictions in parliament. But the opposition parties are demanding a repeat of the budget vote, arguing that the procedure was highly irregular and that there is no evidence there was a quorum.

Ryszard Petru, leader of the Modern party, said if that vote is allowed to stand, it could set a dangerous precedent for the ruling party to hold other votes that violate procedures, "perhaps even changing the constitution."

"If this illegal vote is repeated, then they'll be able to pass whatever they want. It's dangerous. This is a real political crisis, and to some extent a constitutional crisis," Petru told the AP. "We are going to stay here and show that this is unacceptable."

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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