Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, defied expectations on Monday and vetoed two proposed laws that would have given the right-wing governing party direct control of the judiciary, in a move that had been widely condemned as a violation of democratic norms. His move amounted to bold disobedience of the ruling Law and Justice party, from which he formally separated himself to become president.
Thousands have taken to the streets across Poland over the last week to protest at the PiS government’s planned changes to the judicial system and calling for the president to veto them.
“Poland needs a reform, but a wise one,” Duda said at a news conference Monday morning. “I don’t want this situation to divide our society, because Poland is one. I am aware I will be criticized, probably by both sides of the political scene, but I make my decision with great responsibility for the Polish state.”
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.
In his address, Duda announced on Monday that within two months he would draw up new bills on the Supreme Court and the influential National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), a body tasked with safeguarding the independence of courts and judges.
The two laws vetoed by the president — one that would have forced the resignation of all Supreme Court justices, with their replacements to be selected by the justice minister, and another that would have restructured the council that selects judicial candidates to give government-appointed members effective veto power — will be sent back to Parliament, which is expected to write new bills that would meet the president’s approval.
The European Union, which Poland joined in 2004, had warned Warsaw that adoption of the new laws — which the bloc’s officials said threatened the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law — would draw a sharp rebuke, potentially including court action and legal sanctions.
The State Department also warned on Friday that “the Polish government has continued to pursue legislation that appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland.” It added: “We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.”
Prime Minister Beata Szydło then said the Polish government would “not give in to pressure” at home and abroad to stop changes to the judicial system.
In an immediate reaction to Duda’s announcement on Monday, Jacek Sasin, a PiS MP, said: “I admit I’m surprised by this decision by the president. I expected a different decision.”