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15th Dec 2018

Analysis

Polish president's veto leaves uncertainties over next move

  • Andrzej Duda. "The president is tired with the role of a pen that signs every bill without grumbling" (Photo: Kancelaria Prezydenta/flickr)

From praises and eulogies to the accusations of a sham, betrayal and deceit – Polish president Andrzej Duda has sparked many comments from all sides after he announced a double veto of two out of three controversial bills that politicise Poland’s judicial system.

"The Supreme Court and National Council of Justice acts had largely addressed public expectations, but I couldn’t accept them because of the changes they require to assure their accordance with constitution," Duda said in a TV address on Monday evening (24 July).

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  • "We cannot yield to the pressures of the street and foreign countries," said prime minister Beata Sydlo. (Photo: Pawel Kula / Sejm.)

At exactly the same time, prime minister Beata Szydlo said that her government would not "step down from a path to restore the state."

"The presidential veto slows down the necessary reforms … but we cannot yield to the pressures of the street and foreign countries," she said in an address that was broadcast on public TV while Duda was making his own speech.

Surprise decision

The decision of the president came as a surprise, as he is usually a faithful member of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) and loyal to its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, "was furious", a source close to the PiS party told EUobserver.

The laws that Duda vetoed would grant Ziobro extraordinary prerogatives in changing the composition of the Supreme Court (SC) and the National Council of the Judiciary (NJC).

Duda objected to the rising influence of the justice minister and expressed his regret that he was not consulted before the bill was put to vote in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, on 14 July.

"The president is tired with the role of a pen that signs every bill without grumbling. Maybe he finally understood that he doesn’t have to ‘obey’ Kaczynski, because he cannot simply be removed from the post," the source added.

"It seems that the president has either finally realised his responsibilities or he has just realised what is at stake this time," Kazimierz Michal Ujazdowski, a Polish member of the European Parliament who left PiS last year, told EUobserver.

"That pushed him towards more independent decision-making," Ujazdowski added.

According to Jadwiga Staniszkis, a social scientist close to PiS, the president's veto was a "controlled rebellion".

When he announced his veto on Monday morning, Duda spoke only of "formal mistakes" in the laws. In his evening address, he mentioned constitutional issues.

"The president gave the governing party a window to withdraw from those fatal reforms. But it doesn’t seem that the government plans to use it," Staniszkis noted.

Crack in PiS

Urgent meetings at Nowogrodzka 84 (the PiS headquarters in Warsaw), in Belweder (a presidential residence), and the nervous atmosphere among PiS politicians who refused to talk to media, all showed that the situation in the ruling party is heated.

"For many people inside the party, it is obvious that those bills are unconstitutional and politicians are risking their careers by supporting them," Staniszkis told EUobserver.

"But still, it’s a commander’s party and its members know that the path from speaking your mind to leaving the party is short," she added.

Political commentators point out that two fractions are emerging within the party as a result of judiciary crisis: a hardcore pro-Kaczynski group, and a more moderate pro-Duda group.

The only person who is in power to contradict the hardcore narrative and offer an alternative inside the party seems to be the president.

"The question is whether this could lead to a true internal pluralism, which would cool down Kaczynski’s authoritarian attempts, or whether it will be more a Russian style internal opposition, just to keep up appearances," said Jacek Protasiewicz, from the opposition European Democrats party.

There are three scenarios regarding the judiciary crisis.

The Law and Justice party will try to gather a qualified majority – three out of five of parliamentarians, with the presence of at least half of all MPs in the room – to reject the president's vetoes. That would be difficult because the party doesn't have such a majority, but it is not impossible.

A second scenario is that the government accepts the president’s will and modifies the bills to include the president’s amendments, or agrees to proceed with a proposal that the president will present in the next two months. This is not considered as the most likely scenario.

Another possibility is that an extraordinary session is called at the last minute in the parliament, to surprise the opposition and vote against the vetoes with a smaller number of MPs. "If around 70 opposition MPs are absent, PiS is able to win a 3/5 majority," Jacek Protasiewicz pointed out.

Time bought

The current developments suggest that the third option is the most likely. The rumour is that PiS members were notified by text messages about another session this week or next.

"It seems that the president bought us some time but if it is difficult to say whether it will stop a decomposition of the judiciary or not," MEP Ujazdowski noted.

Despite his veto on two laws, Duda signed a third one that gives the justice minister the right to dismiss and appoint new presidents of all courts. And last year, he did not block a previous reform that crippled the Constitutional Tribunal.

If the presidential rebellion is a true sign of divisions in PiS, it could affect further plans by the ruling party, such as a controversial educational reform, changes to the electoral system, "repolonisation" of the media, and a law to regulate NGOs.

"The situation now depends on whether the president will be willing to sustain his autonomy," Ujazdowski said.

EU Commission unmoved by Polish president's veto

Andrzej Duda decided to veto two of the controversial draft laws, which would put the judiciary under political control, but the EU executive is awaiting details before deciding on whether to launch legal probes on Wednesday.

Polish parliament steps up showdown with EU

Lawmakers in Poland adopted a controversial reform of the Supreme Court, despite warnings from the EU that the move could trigger a sanction procedure over the rule of law.

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