“Today, the most important political instrument in the hands of the opposition is the presidential veto.” The words of Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and former prime minister of Poland. And today, it appears that that instrument has been successfully wielded as President Duda announced on Monday that he will veto two of the three bills (please see Judicial Independence) – those dealing with the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary – aimed at reforming Poland’s judicial system, in particular the way judges are appointed.
“I have decided that I will send back to the Sejm (lower house of parliament), which means I will veto the bill, on the Supreme Court, as well as the one about the National Council of the Judiciary,” Duda said. “I regret that I, as president of the Republic of Poland, was not consulted over this initiative before it reached the Sejm. I couldn’t carry out consultations, and nor could the other interested entities.” “I feel that the reform in this shape will not increase the sense of security and justice…And that is why I decided that I will veto the two reforms.”
This decision follows days of protests with thousands taking to the streets all over Poland to protest against the PiS government’s changes, including candle-lit demonstrations outside the Polish parliament, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace, and calling for the president to veto the bills. Voicing concern over social unrest, Duda said: “I do not want this situation to deepen, because it deepens division in society.” Duda said that “wise” changes to the judiciary are needed and that within two months he would draw up new bills on the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, whose role is to safeguard the independence of courts and judges.
While PiS has said sweeping changes are needed to reform an inefficient and sometimes corrupt judicial system, accusing judges of being an elite, self-serving clique often out of touch with the problems of ordinary citizens, many have seen the proposed cure as worse than the disease. “What we had was not a reform, but the appropriation of the courts. I congratulate all Poles, this is a great success, really,” said Katarzyna Lubnauer, head of the parliamentary caucus of the opposition party Nowoczesna.
While the president’s veto is as welcome as it is unexpected, it is too early to say whether this is a genuine rejection of reforms which threatened judicial independence and, potentially, the rule of law itself, or a short-term political manoeuvre. After all, the president has had a record of towing the PiS party line and has remained somewhat sanguine in the face of apparent breaches of the Constitution by the PiS government, including the effective neutralization of the Constitutional Tribunal. As I said on France 24 last week (please see The Debate ) while any one of these changes may have had merit, taken as a whole they in effect placed the whole judicial system under the influence of one political party, something which has not tended to end happily wherever it has been tried.
What next? Former president, Lech Wałęsa has urged the protests to continue until the president Duda exercises his veto over the third bill (which deals with the appointment of heads of lower courts) and it seems unlikely the PiS will accept the veto without a fight. At present, PiS does not have the parliamentary majority to overturn the veto but, on past form, that seems unlikely of itself to deter the government from its wish to rid the judiciary of what it sees as post-Communist vested interests and corruption.
And to an extent PiS has a point. Nobody would deny that the Polish judicial system does need reform, not least in some of the practical matters such as the timetabling of hearings which instead of being held in blocks of days are typically held one day at a time, with months between each day. There are no doubt some corrupt individuals and by all means deal with them, but to suggest that the best way of tackling these problems is to give one or two politicians effective control over the whole system is not the way to go about it. The fact that these bills were rushed through parliament, at night, and with scant regard to opposition voices or proper procedure, suggests that there was more at stake than simply a wish to bring about sensible reform.
While Poles may be breathing collective sigh of relief today, it is as well to remember that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.