July 25, 2017
The impact of Duda's veto
Andrzej Duda has vetoed the legal system reforms passed by the Law and Justice (PiS) majority in the Sejm, the Polish Parliament. As we wrote on Friday Duda had previously suggested he would veto the law reforming the Supreme Court unless it was reformed. But Duda's veto surprised observers because it also extended to a second law reforming the National Council of the Judiciary. The veto is significant because he had been expected to toe the party line, even though he had resigned from the PiS when he became president. In fact, he had played a key role in the first controversy of the PiS government, involving the Constitutional Court which remains gridlocked as a result. Now, however, PiS loyalists are following the lead of PiS strongman Jaroslaw Kaczynski in accusing Duda of stabbing the party (or the nation) in the back. In an editorial at Rzeczpopolita, Boguslaw Chrabota writes that nothing will be the same in Polish politics after Duda's move, which he calls an emancipation from the PiS. Some people speculate on whether this might be the end of Kaczynski. While this is probably an exaggeration, it is possible that Duda's veto will embolden moderates within the PiS to oppose Kaczynski. At the very least, Duda threw the PiS leadership into confusion.
The Sejm will now go into recess, and will have to reconsider the vetoed legislation after the summer. To overcome Duda's veto the PiS needs a three-fifths' majority, which it doesn't have, so it will have to find compromises with other political parties. Duda said he would release his own proposals to replace the vetoed laws within two months. We knew Duda wanted the Supreme Court appointments to require a qualified, rather than simple, majority in the Sejm. It is not clear what the objection is to the second vetoed bill on the National Council of the Judiciary, a governing body which appoints ordinary judges.
The leader of the main opposition party, Grzegorz Schetyna, focused on the fact that there is a third law that Duda hasn't vetoed, and which gives the justice minister the power to appoint the presiding judge at each lower court. This has been criticised because it gives the justice minister control of both the prosecutor and the presiding judge for a case. Duda's spokesman Krzysztof Lapinski denied that the veto is a no-confidence vote on the justice minister, but just a technical disagreement on the details of the laws. Continuing with the damage limitation, he also denied that the veto sets up a confrontation between the president and the government. Chrabota's editorial agrees this does not signal the start of a war between the president and the government, while congratulating Duda for his courage.
Lapinski said the veto had been the result of substantive legal analysis by the president with his advisors. He denied that the veto was motivated by the street protests, which had lasted for a week and had numbered in the thousands or the tens of thousands depending on the sources. But Lapinski also said that the president was not blind to them. It is also possible that Duda bent to pressure from the EU and in particular from Donald Tusk who released a statement before the weekend asking Duda to work to reach a compromise to preserve the rule of law. On balance, we think it's most likely that Duda responded to the opposition of the overwhelming majority of the Polish legal profession, followed by the public protests, rather than to pressure from Tusk or the EU generally.
As to future political trends in Poland, we note that Rzeczpospolita has a poll showing that the PiS actually increased its electoral lead over the opposition despite the controversy, though it would not gain another absolute majority because it had lost significant support since the previous elections. It is the second time that the PiS failed to carry through a legislative project in six months. In February, the Czarny Protest (black protest) forced the PiS to withdraw its proposed law to restrict abortion rights. It seems, therefore, that the PiS remains popular for its economic agenda which emphasises social protections, and because the Polish public is still dissatisfied with the balance of the previous PO governments which were also perceived as having fostered corruption. However, on its radically conservative social agenda and on the attempt to control the judiciary, the PiS seems out of touch with the broader public.