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Monday, 24 July 2017

Polish president delivers blow to government judiciary reform


Polish president delivers blow to government's judiciary reform
Polish President Andrzej Duda said on July 24 that he will veto two out of three controversial bills aimed at reforming the judiciary.
The legislation was pushed through parliament last week by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. The bills, which would put Poland's courts under the indirect control of the government, have provoked massive protests and provoked condemnation from the EU and US.
The president's announcement is a surprise. Duda has been seen as incapable of standing up to PiS, with the support of which he won the presidency in 2015. However, the president said the bills – concerning the Supreme Court and National Council of Judiciary (KRS) – give too much power to the prosecutor general.
The vetoed bills would hand the prosecutor general, a function held by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the power to decide the new line-up of the Supreme Court as well as decisive influence on appointing KRS members, who in turn appoint judges to the country's courts.
“Such influence on the Supreme Court by the prosecutor general has never been a part of the Polish judiciary tradition,” Duda said. He alluded to communist Poland as the last time when a prosecutor general enjoyed similar power over the judiciary.
PiS’ stated rationale for the reform was to end the corporatism of the judiciary and bring it “closer to the people”. There was a widespread international criticism of the reform, including from the EU and – perhaps more awkwardly for PiS – from the US as well.
Speculation on what decision Duda would take has been intense in the past week, as Warsaw and dozens of Polish cities and town saw thousands take to the streets demanding a veto.
PiS’ initial reaction to the president's announcement was of disappointment.
“I’m surprised by this decision. Especially if I remember what [Duda] said during the presidential campaign about the need to reform the courts,” PiS MP Jacek Sasin told state-owned TVP Info. “We are now going to wait for the reform a long time,” he added.
However, the veto also hints at the ongoing tussles within PiS. Ziobro's hardline conservative wing looks to have been blocked by the less reactionary forces within the party. At the same time, it's possible that the party leadership - in which chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski wields ultimate power, albeit tempered by the need to balance the warring factions - may see a veto as the best climb down in the face of the mass protests.
The building international pressure is another element, although likely less palpable. The EU has threatened to use the Article 7 "nuclear option" in its fight with Warsaw over what it sees as abuse of the rule of law and peel back of democracy.
Thus, PiS appears to have over-reached itself, and Duda has struck at the procedural issues at which he earlier hinted. The tabling of the Supreme Court bill without consultation with the president was a point Duda emphasised. PiS then pushed the bill through the parliament in a week, amidst the intensifying protests.
The president said he will table his own legislation on Supreme Court and KRS within the next two months. At the same time, it seems likely that PiS will seek to push through the bills again with some small amendments.
In order to overturn the veto, PiS would need a majority of three-fifths in parliament, with at least half – which is 230 – of MPs voting. That feat appears impossible after Kukiz 15, the opposition party that does not habitually vote against PiS, said it would not help the ruling party in this instance.
Meanwhile, the president has signed off on the third controversial bill, on the system of common courts. This will reorganise court procedures - a welcome development some claim - but also give Ziobro power to appoint heads of courts, which, critics claim, will constitute undue political influence.
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