Poland's upper house of parliament has approved a Supreme Court overhaul, defying the European Union and critics at home who say the legislation would undermine democratic checks and balances.
A total of 55 senators voted for, with 23 voting against the bill that gives politicians substantial influence over the Supreme Court. Two members abstained.
To become law, the bill needs to be signed by President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. The eurosceptic PiS argues new rules are needed to make the judiciary accountable and efficient.
The governing party says it's needed to improve the court's efficiency and break with communist-era judges and practices.
The parliament pushed through the change to the Supreme Court, which gives the government power to select candidates for the court, despite protests by thousands of people and criticisms from the EU.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the capital, Warsaw, and cities across Poland for candle-lit vigils to protest against the draft bill, as the Polish Senate debated it late into the night.
Some protesters carried Polish and European Union flags, chanting "Free Courts".
The opposition and judges groups in Poland, as well as critics in Brussels, say the legislation is a new step by the Polish government towards authoritarianism.
|Tens of thousands gathered in Warsaw against the judicial overhaul [Mieczyslaw Michalak/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters]|
"We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland's constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers," it said in a statement.
Many of the PiS supporters believe Poland's courts are still tainted by the nation's communist past and thus applaud the reform.
An opinion poll for private television TVN showed on Friday that 55 percent of respondents said Duda should veto the overhaul of the judiciary, while 29 percent wanted him to sign it.
Since coming into power in 2015, the PiS has sought to tighten government influence over courts, and brought prosecutors and state media under direct government control.
The PiS remains broadly popular among its electorate, despite an upswelling of protest in recent days as it rushed the judiciary overhaul through parliament.
With the economy growing robustly and unemployment at record lows, the party's nationalist rhetoric infused with Catholic piety resonates strongly among Poland's conservative voters.
The government of the EU's biggest eastern member state has so far dismissed criticism, saying the changes would ensure state institutions serve all Poles, not just the "elites".
On Wednesday, the EU gave Poland a week to shelve the judicial reforms that Brussels says would put courts under direct government control.