Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

Polish Leader Vetoes Justice Bills Amid EU and Public Outcry

  • Duda strikes down bills on Supreme Court, Judicial Council
  • Zloty rebounds after suffering its worst day of 2017 on Friday

Poland’s president vetoed part of a judicial overhaul that’s triggered one of the country’s deepest political crises since the fall of communism and touched off debate in the European Union over how to confront members that flout democratic values.

Dealing a blow to the ruling party that backed his presidency, Andrzej Duda struck down bills that would have replaced Poland’s Supreme Court judges and revamped the Judicial Council, which makes key personnel decisions. His announcement followed eight days of nationwide protests by tens of thousands of Poles in defense of court independence and an EU threat of sanctions against the bloc’s largest beneficiary of development funds. The zloty rebounded after its worst day of 2017 on Friday.

Read more: Poles Rally for Eighth Night Backing Court Independence

Andrzej Duda on July 24.

Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

“Poland’s legal system does need a thorough reorganization, but above all it needs to provide a sense of security,” Duda said Monday in televised comments. “And no change of the legal system should open a divide between society and the state.”

The partial veto erects an obstacle for the Law & Justice party, which since taking power in 2015 has pushed through legislation that has challenged the EU’s democratic principles and sparked warnings about a drift toward authoritarian rule. Criticism has flowed from fellow states in the 28-member bloc and the U.S. State Department. On Saturday, U.S. Senator John McCain called the court revamp “one step back for democracy.”

‘A Breather’

“Duda’s veto surely offers a breather,” said Paul Ivan, a Brussels-based analyst at the European Policy Center. “But it depends a lot on whether the ruling party will continue with the attempts to control the judiciary or whether they’ll back down.”

The zloty snapped a four-day drop and bonds rallied. The Polish currency gained 0.6 percent against the euro after slumping 1.5 percent last week, the biggest losses since November.

Read more: A QuickTake on why Poland’s populist shift has caused a backlash

The vetoes marked only a partial victory for the protesters. Duda told lawmakers in his former party to rewrite the two bills he rejected within two months and said he’d approve a third that gives the justice minister sweeping powers, including the right to nominate the heads of local courts. He was scheduled to give a televised speech Monday evening, website 300polityka.pl reported.

The European Commission is monitoring “the events and the situation in Poland very closely” and will address the matter on Wednesday, spokesman Margaritis Schinas said in Brussels following Duda’s announcement. 

‘Bad Decision’

Hundreds of people gathered in front of the presidential palace to express gratitude to Duda. Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement that helped bring down communism more than a quarter of a century ago, welcomed the vetoes. But he called the president’s approval of the law on lower courts “a bad decision” and urged Poles to continue protests. Law & Justice officials staged an emergency meeting at their headquarters.

“The president’s veto doesn’t mean the end of the story,” Jan Grabiec, the spokesman of the opposition-leading Civic Platform, said by phone. “We’re expecting quite an aggressive response to Duda’s veto.”

Prime Minister Beata Szydlo also met with Duda and the heads of the upper and lower houses of parliament. Because the chamber formally called a recess on its summer session, an emergency sitting would have to be called for lawmakers to discuss a way forward before they return in two months. Law & Justice and its ruling allies don’t have the required three-fifths majority in the lower house to override the veto.

Political War

Duda said he spent the weekend consulting with lawyers and judges, as well as professors of law, philosophy and sociology in his decision, which he said he made to prevent Poland from being “disrupted by a political war.” One person he spoke to was former communist-era dissident Zofia Romaszewska, he said.

“She said ‘I used to live in the state where the general prosecutor also had an unbelievably powerful position, and I do not want to live in such a country again,” Duda said.

The European Commission said last week it was near recommending implementing Article 7, a procedure that could pave the way for Poland to lose its EU voting rights. Having been granted more than 250 billion euros ($285 billion) in aid since it joined in 2004, Poland is already subject to the bloc’s first-ever inquiry into democratic behavior.

“The timing of the veto is no accident,” said Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague and a former adviser to late Czech President Vaclav Havel. “The European Commission was supposed to meet on Wednesday and activate Article 7, which is the toughest form of penalization for any member country.”

— With assistance by Andra Timu, and Ladka Mortkowitz Bauerova

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