ON PAPER, Poland has both a president and a prime minister. In practice, there is a third source of authority: Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), who is widely seen as the country’s real leader. Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has tried to assert greater control over the country’s courts, its public broadcasters and its state-run enterprises. The European Commission accuses it of undermining the rule of law and has threatened it with the suspension of its voting rights. Yet PiS’s most recent problem with its court “reforms” comes not from EU officials or the opposition but from the president, Andrzej Duda.
In July, following widespread protests, Mr Duda unexpectedly used his power of veto on two controversial laws concerning the judiciary. Last month, he submitted alternative versions for parliament to consider. His draft laws, presented last month, tone down some of PiS’s most troublesome proposals. Rather than giving the government power to remove any judge from the supreme court, the new law sets a retirement age of 65 for them. This does mean that about 40% of the current bench, over 80-strong, would have to stand down by the end of the year. (The government, with some justification, says the judiciary is stuffed with communist-era holdovers, and is bloated and inefficient.)
Members of the National Judiciary Council, which nominates all judges, would themselves have to be approved by a three-fifths majority in parliament, rather than by a straight vote as originally proposed. That would make it hard for PiS, which holds only a bare majority of the Sejm (the lower house), to pack it with loyalists. Mr Kaczynski is trying to force Mr Duda to back down, and has put off voting on any of the drafts.
The vetoes are part of Mr Duda’s tentative push for autonomy. A previously unknown 43-year-old member of the European Parliament at the time, he was elected president in 2015 as a moderate conservative. Despite formally leaving PiS, he has, at least until recently, remained loyal to the party. This summer, though, he blocked the appointment of several army generals, a snub to the defence minister, who is close to Mr Kaczynski. Since his vetoes, criticism of him has spiked, notably from the justice minister, who stands to lose from his changes. “Is the president with us?” wondered a recent cover of Sieci Prawdy, a pro-PiS weekly. In an interview in that issue, Mr Kaczynski spoke of “wide-reaching differences in opinion” with Mr Duda.
Halfway through its parliamentary term PiS still calls the shots, buoyed by its social policies, including a new subsidy for all children after the first-born, and its refusal to take in refugees from the Middle East as part of the EU’s relocation scheme. Support for PiS stands at 40%, compared with 21% for the centre-right Civic Platform and 9% for the liberal Nowoczesna. Yet Mr Duda is even more popular. After his vetoes his approval ratings jumped, to around two-thirds. The fallout over the judiciary is a “dispute for the future of the state”, Mr Duda told Do Rzeczy, a right-wing weekly. If he forces the hardliners to compromise, the impact will be felt far beyond Poland’s borders.
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