Polish government loses key votes, putting future in doubt

Warsaw (AFP) –


The future of Poland's government was thrown into doubt on Wednesday after it lost four votes in a session dominated by a fierce debate over a law that critics say would curb media freedom.

The parliamentary drama raises the prospect of early elections and comes a day after the departure from the government of the Agreement party. It had been a junior partner in the ruling coalition led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party.

In one of the four votes, MPs voted by 229 to 227 to suspend the session in the 460-seat lower house in order to postpone a vote on the media law.

But speaker Elzbieta Witek, a PiS party member, ordered another vote which the government won by 230 to 225 to resume proceedings despite howls of outrage from the opposition.

"Fraudsters! Fraudsters!" the MPs chanted, accusing the government of buying support to win the vote.

"The parliamentary majority, glued together with the mud of corruption and blackmail, is crumbling before our eyes," former EU chief Donald Tusk, who heads up the opposition Civic Platform party, wrote on Twitter.

"It may go on for a while but it is no longer able to govern," he said.

A vote on the media law was still expected later on Wednesday.

The PiS's fragile parliamentary majority does not mean that the government will collapse as a formal vote of no confidence by parliament would be required for that to happen and it could continue as a minority government.

But commentators have said a minority government would be difficult to sustain long-term as it would have to rely on the far-right Confederation party, which is highly critical of the government.

The next elections are currently scheduled for 2023.

- Thousands protest for media freedom -

The United Right coalition, which is dominated by the PiS, has governed Poland since 2015.

It has been accused by the European Union of rolling back democratic freedoms but is still popular among many Poles, mainly for its social welfare reforms.

PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Tuesday dismissed deputy prime minister Jaroslaw Gowin, the head of a junior coalition party, undermining the government's majority and so putting its future in doubt.

Gowin had been increasingly at odds with the government line in recent months, particularly over proposed tax increases and the media law.

The controversial law would prevent companies from outside the European Economic Area from holding a controlling stake in Polish media companies.

That would force US group Discovery to sell its majority stake in TVN, one of Poland's biggest private TV networks, whose news channel TVN24 is often highly critical of the government.

The PiS says the law is needed to stop hostile foreign powers from taking control of broadcasters and is in line with rules in other European countries.

Thousands of people took to the streets in rallies across Poland on Tuesday over the draft law. It has also been strongly criticised by Washington, which has warned it could have a negative impact on foreign investment into Poland more widely.