Politics

Reality Dawns for Poland

The populist government's power grab may have just gone a step too far.

Protesters shout slogans and hold posters reading "No to dictatorship" during a protest in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw.

Photographer: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

The Polish crusade to “take back control” just got a dose of reality.

By vetoing key parts of its overhaul of the judiciary, President Andrzej Duda put a brake on the nationalist government’s drive to cement its power beyond any previous leadership since the fall of communism almost three decades ago. With Polish financial markets rattled and thousands of Poles on the streets, it may also have represented a peace offering to the European Union after it threatened sanctions.

Poland has lots of reasons to avoid a protracted showdown with the EU, which it joined in 2004 along with other parts of the former Soviet bloc. It’s the largest net recipient of money from Brussels and the continent’s biggest exporter of workers.

But the Law & Justice government, with its conspiracy theories and “economic patriotism,” hasn’t blinked in almost two years of unpicking the country’s democratic institutions. The question is whether Duda is buying time or seeking to shift Poland, a country of almost 40 million and the EU’s largest eastern economy, back toward the European mainstream.

“This may have been a step too far and way too fast,” said Otilia Dhand, a Brussels-based political risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence. Still, the veto doesn't remove the “risk that Poland will come back with new overhauls that use softer language but have exactly the same effect,” she said.

People demonstrate in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw after Poland's President made a statement to announce that he will veto controversial judicial reforms.
Photographer: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

On the surface, Duda, 45, appears to be standing up to the government, but he’s a party loyalist. He was nominated by Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, 68, for president and his campaign was managed by Beata Szydlo, 54. She was then rewarded with the prime minister’s job after the landslide election win in October 2015.

While rejecting two of three bills approved by Law & Justice, Duda signed into law a third that gives the Justice Minister sweeping influence over lower courts. He also called on his allies to rework their overhauls to ensure that the reign of an unaccountable “caste” of Polish judges finally ends. At the very least, the vetoes create space for negotiations.

“Everyone here is aware of Kaczynski’s power,” said Ewa Marciniak, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw. “That power over the party and the core electorate is immense and it would be naive to believe that as of now his role will diminish. It definitely will not be very soon, if at all.”

Law & Justice came to power vowing to challenge the “liberal elite” and champion ordinary Poles a year before Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential election victory.

The Polish government has refused take in refugees from Africa and the Middle East and has called for a return to Catholic values. It gained praise from Trump during his visit to Warsaw earlier this month on his way to the Group of 20 summit in Germany, a critic of the Polish government.

Testing Time

That said, the plan to take control of the courts soured ties with Washington as well as Brussels. The State Department said last week that it was holding talks “at the highest level of the government” amid concerns that the legislation can weaken the rule of law. Spokeswoman Heather Nauert wouldn’t say whether the administration had urged a veto from Duda.

The EU warned it was “very close to triggering” the procedures that could lead to an unprecedented stripping of a member’s voting rights. It doesn’t have the tools to cut off current funding for states that undermine its democratic norms, though Germany has suggested it should. Poland and Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, has also been rebuked by Brussels, rejected the idea.

Poland’s drift toward rogue member state also comes at a pivotal time for the organization as it negotiates the terms of Britain’s exit.

“We are really at a very testing point for the whole of Europe,” said Simon Quijano-Evans, an emerging-market strategist at London-based Legal & General Investment Management Ltd. “The more reality checks we get like this the better.”

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