Polish President Andrzej Duda said Monday he will veto a controversial legislative package that would have given the government more control over the judiciary, in a surprise move that appears to have caught his own allies in the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party off guard.
The legislation, already approved by Parliament, would have forced all judges on the Supreme Court into retirement, with the justice minister deciding whether any of them would be re-appointed. The reform package would also have dissolved a body that nominates judges, with Parliament choosing the members of its successor.
The ruling party’s plans put it at loggerheads with the European Commission, which says the government is undermining the rule of law. The Commission will now have to decide whether Duda’s move is enough to head off possible punishment from Brussels while shocked PiS leaders have to consider whether to accept the president’s veto, try to overturn it or find another way to implement their plans.
“I will veto the Supreme Court and the National Judiciary Council laws so that they won’t become a part of Poland’s legal system,” Duda told reporters Monday morning.
Duda was elected in 2015, with the support of the PiS party and its veteran leader, and current de facto leader of Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński.
“I am disappointed and I am surprised” — Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
“A president should serve the nation and the Polish state. And the nation should have peace,” Duda said in an apparent reference to a wave of demonstrations across Poland. In recent days, thousands of Poles have been on the streets to protest the proposed legal changes, which many see as undermining judicial independence.
PiS leaders convened a meeting at the party headquarters, which also doubles as Kaczyński’s office, immediately after Duda’s announcement.
“I am disappointed and I am surprised,” Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the press.
Both Kaczyński and Prime Minister Beata Szydło declined to speak to reporters.
After the meeting, PiS parliamentary caucus leader Ryszard Terlecki told TVN24: “We are taken aback and disappointed by a project to veto laws by the president. We hope that the president will change his mind.”
Alarmed by the government’s plans, the European Commission has threatened to start the process that can theoretically lead to a member country losing its right to vote in the European Council — although Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said clear he would veto any attempt to sanction Poland in this way.
In Brussels on Monday, spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the European Commission “follows very closely all the events and the situation [in Poland], which is evolving as we speak.” The Commission would stick to its plans to discuss Poland at its regular weekly meeting on Wednesday, Schinas said.
The Sejm, parliament’s lower house, will now need a three-fifths majority — 276 votes in the 460-seat chamber — to override the president’s veto. In theory, the PiS and its usual allies might be able to muster two votes more than the required majority but, in practice, Kaczyński would struggle to corral all the MPs necessary to back the measure.
When announcing the veto, Duda did not address the view of many critics that the removal of all the Supreme Court judges would be unconstitutional. Instead, he criticised the fact that the legislation would have given the justice minister — who is also the chief prosecutor — the power to decide who can be a Supreme Court judge.
“The prosecutor general never had any sovereignty over the Supreme Court and our program didn’t call for the prosecutor to decide who can be a Supreme Court judge and who cannot,” Duda said.
He went on to quote veteran anti-communist dissident Zofia Romaszewska, a PiS supporter: “Mr President, I lived in a country where the prosecutor general had full power and I don’t want to go back to such a state.”
Duda, who in the past was criticised for closely following orders from Kaczyński, has previously vetoed only one law proposed by the ruling party.
At his press conference Monday, the president said he regretted that the draft Supreme Court law was not presented to him before being formally submitted to Parliament.
Before Parliament passed the Supreme Court law, PiS said it agreed to Duda’s demand for a compromise. But the amendments the ruling party ultimately submitted did not meet all of the president’s demands, with Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, a longtime foe, retaining the ability to pick judges.
The government’s critics welcomed Duda’s announcement.
“It was a difficult and brave decision,” said former President Lech Wałęsa, adding that, without the president’s intervention, the change would have come as a result of street protests.
However, Duda is not planning to oppose all controversial judicial reforms. His spokesman said Monday that Duda would sign a third bill included in the reform package, which would give the justice minister the power to dismiss and nominate the presidents and senior executives of all the country’s regional and appeals courts.
“Poland absolutely needs judiciary reform and I support it. But Poland needs a wise reform which will ensure the good functioning of the justice system,” Duda said, adding that he plans to propose his own draft legislation for judicial reforms within two months.
Following his veto announcement, the president met with the head of the embattled Supreme Court, Malgorzata Gersdorf.
“We are at president’s disposal and ready for cooperation in drafting the new law. The atmosphere was very friendly and we are very happy,” said Gersdorf.