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So Poland’s president surprised everyone, vetoing two bills that threatened the courts’ independence. Here’s what that means.

- July 25, 2017
People in Warsaw on July 24 protest proposed laws that would have curtailed the judiciary’s independence. (Leszek Szymanski/European Pressphoto Agency)

On Monday morning, Polish President Andrzej Duda surprised everyone by vetoing two of three bills that would have curtailed judicial independence in Poland. Duda rejected the bill allowing the government to remove and replace Supreme Court justices, which passed both houses of parliament late last week and had prompted widespread protests. Tens of thousands of Poles across the country had engaged in daily protests as the president considered his decision over the weekend.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/07/23/the-attack-on-polands-judicial-independence-goes-deeper-than-you-think-here-are-5-things-to-know/”]The attack on Poland’s judicial independence goes further than you know[/interstitial_link]

Most observers speculated that Duda, who aligns with the ruling Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party, would sign the bills into law. According to Article 122 of the Polish Constitution, the president has 21 days to make his decision. Duda announced the double veto after only two days. He also rejected a measure to give the government authority to appoint members of the National Council of the Judiciary, which had been an independent body and is charged with selecting the nation’s judges.

On Tuesday morning, he signed into law the third bill, which gives the ruling government control over lower-level courts.

What does the surprise veto of the two bills mean? Here are five things to consider:

1. Protests have power.

Duda’s double veto demonstrates the power of the Polish people. After parliament passed the third bill, huge crowds of protesters across Poland demanded presidential vetoes of those measures.

The slogan “3xNie” (“three times no”), popular on social media, became a symbol of the widespread dissatisfaction. Written in the red script used by Poland’s Solidarity Movement in the 1980s, this was a powerful symbol evoking the nation’s struggle to end communist rule. It also plays off “3xTak” (“three times yes”), used by communist groups in 1946 to refer to a three-point referendum proposing to eliminate the senate, nationalize industry and address border issues. The slogan was a clear sign that Poles wanted the president to say “no” to all three bills.

The protests drew international attention to the government’s assault on Polish democracy. The European Union issued a stern warning that this could trigger Article 7, which could lead to sanctions. The U.S. State Department expressed concern. Even top judges from neighboring Czech Republic issued a rare statement.

The protest movement’s success was due, in part, to younger Poles’ involvement; they were not as active in earlier protest waves. Protests have been held regularly since PiS came to power two years ago, but protesters had grown fatigued. The double veto may encourage more Poles to demonstrate against government actions that undermine democracy.

2. Are cracks appearing in the PiS party?

The powerful leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczynski, reportedly was surprised by Duda’s vetoes. For the first time since winning the 2015 elections, the ruling party faces uncertainties. The divisions were visible in the simultaneously televised addresses by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Duda on Monday evening. While Szydlo spoke on the PiS-controlled TVP station, Duda chose the privately owned TVN network, known for its critical stance toward the PiS government.

According to media reports, one of the two small PiS-related parties, Polska Razem (Poland Together), which forms a parliamentary caucus with PiS, may support the presidential vetoes. This would be an important development, as the rebellion of even a few lawmakers could result in PiS losing its slim four-seat majority in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm.

3. The president may be reluctant to break with the PiS.

Poland has a dual executive: The prime minister heads the government, while the president is elected by a direct popular vote. The system of checks and balances gives the president the power to veto bills passed by parliament. Likewise, the Sejm has the power to override a presidential veto with a three-fifth majority vote with at least half the lawmakers present.

Previous Polish presidents used the veto on several occasions. Before now, Duda had used this power only one other time. While these vetoes indicate his willingness to use his presidential powers, the fact that he let stand one of the controversial judicial bills indicates his reluctance to completely break ties with Kaczynski and PiS.

[interstitial_link url=” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/07/21/poland-appears-to-be-dismantling-its-own-hard-won-democracy/”]Poland appears to be dismantling its own hard-won democracy[/interstitial_link]

4. For now, the Supreme Court and the National Council on the Judiciary (NCJ) remain independent.

The third bill, which Duda signed, gives the minister of justice the right to nominate the chief judges of lower-level courts. However, the NCJ, which remains independent after Duda’s vetoes, still retains some power and could affect these nominations.

Taking political control of the lower courts corresponds with the earlier steps taken by PiS. In 2015 and 2016, the government passed laws curtailing the authority of the courts. This especially affected the Constitutional Tribunal, which is responsible for ensuring that laws do not violate the constitution. The double veto by the president is an important symbolic success, but only a partial victory for the independence of the judiciary.

5. Poland’s democracy is still at risk.

The fact that the Supreme Court bill traveled so quickly through parliament to the president’s desk, leaving the fate of Polish democracy in one person’s hands, appears to have awakened the Polish public. Older citizens remember the communist regime and their long struggle for democracy. And younger Poles who grew up during the post-communist era now realize how quickly democracy can be taken away. Their political engagement and activism will be critical to the vibrancy of democracy in Poland.

The double veto does not resolve the crisis. It only prevents the most crippling damage to the judicial system and the separation of powers. The third bill still stains the courts and limits the judiciary’s independence.

Polish democracy remains in danger, but Duda’s vetoes have slowed its dismantling.

Mary Stegmaier is an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on voting behavior, elections, forecasting and political representation in the United States and abroad. 

Kamil Marcinkiewicz is a lecturer in political science and research methods at the University of Hamburg in Germany. His research focuses on voting behavior, elections and parliaments in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.