“A President’s hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right.” The words of Lyndon B. Johnson which probably apply not only to presidents of the United States, but to presidents elsewhere and, indeed, to all who hold elective office or any degree power over their fellow citizens. Power has a corrosive effect. As Lord Acton famously said: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Which is why the rule of law is such an important feature of a properly functioning modern democratic state. Fortunately, very few leaders in the modern world enjoy absolute power, and certainly not the president of Poland, the third anniversary of whose swearing in as president was on Monday.
How has he done so far? According to the president’s chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski, who was speaking to public broadcaster Polish Radio on Monday, Duda’s foreign policy successes during his first three years as president included the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, and “activities as part of the United Nations and the Three Seas Initiative”. In terms of foreign policy, the third year of Duda’s presidency was dominated by consistent efforts to “build Poland’s position in the international arena,” Szczerski told the state news agency PAP.
In his fourth year as president, Duda will visit the White House and the Vatican, and later this month will make a trip to Australia and New Zealand. He will also take part in a summit meeting of the Three Seas Initiative (an initiative that aims to boost cooperation among countries between the Black, Baltic and Adriatic Seas) as well as receiving the French president, Emmanuel Macron in Warsaw.
President Duda was elected for a five-year term in 2015. Last month the leader of the governing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, said that there was likely that the party would field Duda as its candidate in the next presidential election in 2020. According to a June poll, commissioned by the Super Express tabloid, Duda would beat former Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the second round of Poland’s 2020 presidential election if both entered the race. Roughly 52.5 per cent of those surveyed said they would vote for Duda, while 47.5 per cent said they would support Tusk, Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014 and now president of the European Council. Of course, if a week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson is said to have said, presumably two years is an age during which anything could happen.
Be that as it may, how has the president done on the domestic front? For many, a key aspect on which the president’s performance will be judged is his defending of the constitution and his role in the various changes to the way judges are appointed and the terms they serve, particularly the appointments to Poland’s constitutional tribunal which originally kicked off this saga. As a graduate law in law from Kraków’s Jagellonian University, where he served as an assistant in the administrative law department from 2001 to 2006, and from which he gained a Ph. D. in law in 2005, he might be assumed to know what was right in relation to the working of Poland’s constitution.
And, to be fair, he did last year veto two bills (please see Veto) dealing with with the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary (although they later entered into law in amended forms and are the subject of the current rule of law dispute with the EU Commission). This showed that he knew what was right and was inclined to do right, although others will argue perhaps that this is an over generous interpretation of his actions or lack thereof, both before and since. The president’s own proposal for a referendum on the Polish constitution was last month rejected by the senate.
One problem, which may be a reason, but which is hardly an excuse, is how quickly those elected to high office seem to lose touch with reality. Leaving aside those for whom the strength of their convictions is inversely proportional to their respect for the rules, and for whom the ends justify the means, the pressures of modern office mean that holders are on a non-stop merry-go-round of meetings and engagements, meeting only officials, other politicians, and interest groups of one sort of another, allowed barely time to rest let alone think. It’d hardly surprising that in these circumstances the vision of what is right becomes clouded. Nevertheless, ultimately there is no excuse: the buck stops with president who must be equal to the task.