By Isaac Stanley-Becker,
WARSAW — President Andrzej Duda shocked Poland on Monday by announcing that he would veto controversial legislation stripping away the independence of the Supreme Court and handing control of judicial appointments to the legislature.
“Poland needs a reform, but a wise one,” Duda said. “I don’t want this situation to divide our society, because Poland is one. I am aware I will be criticized, probably by both sides of the political scene, but I make my decision with great responsibility for the Polish state.”
Of the measures he vetoed, one would have removed all current justices of the Supreme Court, except those handpicked by the governing party’s justice minister, and the other would have given Parliament authority over appointments to the National Council of the Judiciary, currently an independent body that names judges to the nation’s courts. The measure he left in place would give the governing party additional authority over regional and local courts.
Overriding the president’s veto requires a supermajority of 60 percent, a threshold the ruling Law and Justice party could reach only with the backing of other parties, a scenario that is unlikely.
Duda’s move amounted to bold disobedience of the ruling party, with which he formally separated himself to become president, and a major setback for its leaders, who have embarked on a rapid effort to bring the nation’s independent institutions under the control of the populist party. The party has already clamped down on public media and restricted the right to democratic assembly.
The reorganization of the judiciary was seen as the most brazen move yet, widely condemned as an assault on the separation of powers and the rule of law. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in opposition to the changes, and European Union officials were threatening to sanction the Polish government if it did not back down.
“This is the moment when it goes too far,” said Ryszard Petru, leader of the opposition Modern party.
The government, he said, was undermining democracy “slice by slice,” drawing on the metaphor of “salami tactics” used to describe how the communist government in Hungary undermined non-communist forces, “cutting them off like slices of salami.”
Protesters had said they feared living under an authoritarian state. Outside the senate building late Friday, as lawmakers debated the legislation before a vote early Saturday morning, Marta Smagowicz, 37, said she was grappling with the prospect of her young children growing up without the freedom she had come to know after 1989, when a democratic revolution in Poland overthrew communism.
“I want freedom of thought and freedom of movement for them,” said Smagowicz, who works in education.
Still, the Law and Justice party was defiant, pressing ahead under the leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who wields vast power from his perch in Parliament. He put forward Duda as the party’s candidate for president in 2015, and the two are closely aligned. Even opposition leaders expected the president to fall in line.
But Duda said he was not properly consulted about the changes, which he said he would return to Parliament to rewrite. In explaining his decision, he said the restructuring handed too much power to the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, whose office had been combined with that of the public prosecutor.
“We don’t have a tradition that the general prosecutor can interfere in the Supreme Court’s work, and I agree, it can’t be allowed,” said Duda, who added that his thinking had been informed by talks with Zofia Romaszewska, who was active in Solidarity, the Polish labor union that helped precipitate the fall of communism across Europe. He said she told him, “Mr. President, I have lived in a country in which the general prosecutor could do anything, and I would not come back to it.”
Duda also said such a thorough overhaul of the judiciary was not part of Law and Justice’s election platform. Polling suggested that a majority of the country wanted the president to veto the legislation. At the same time, it shows that Law and Justice retains strong support, leading its closest rival, the center-right Civic Platform, by double digits.
Opponents of the measures saw Duda’s veto as their last hope, as the Constitutional Court, the body with the authority to invalidate the legislation, has already been remade to reflect government interests.
Stanley-Becker reported from Berlin.