What was behind Polish president’s veto of judicial reform Bill?

Controversial Bill was aimed at extending government powers over court appointments

Former Polish president Lech Walesa at a protest against supreme court legislation in Gdansk. Photograph: Renata Dabrowska/Agencja Gazeta

Former Polish president Lech Walesa at a protest against supreme court legislation in Gdansk. Photograph: Renata Dabrowska/Agencja Gazeta

 

Like Mikhail Gorbachev, Poland’s electrician revolutionary Lech Walesa enjoys far greater popularity abroad than at home.

Walesa’s super-sized ego and knack for rubbing people the wrong way has left democratic Poland’s first president as much of a liability as an asset to any political campaign.

So it said much about the grave situation in Poland that Walesa was given a warm welcome by tens of thousands of Warsovians who spent their weekend as they had spent the previous days: protesting on the streets against judicial reforms they see as a naked power grab.

Since taking power in late 2015, the national conservative party Law and Justice has neutralised independent and critical institutions in Polish life, while keeping in with voters thanks to welfare boosts for pensioners and families.

There have been occasional missteps: efforts to restrict further Poland’s already tight abortion laws were quietly dropped after the party underestimated the fury of millions of women protesters waving wire hangers.

Monday appeared to be another misstep and a victory for Polish people power when president Andrzej Duda said that two of three judicial reform Bills that cleared parliament on Saturday did not pass muster.

His rejection of changes to the supreme court and judicial appointments didn’t prevent Duda from signing a Bill giving the justice minister far-reaching new powers over regional court appointments.

Influential chairman

The issue now is whether Duda is biting the hand that fed him the presidency in 2015: Law and Justice chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski. And will anyone follow suit in the parliamentary party?

The party is as much faith community as political movement, and party officials’ devotion to the dominant Kaczynski, who holds no government office, is the stuff of legend thanks in part to the popular web series The Chairman’s Ear.

It portrays Kaczynski as being like a dominant newspaper proprietor, permanently amused by subordinates who (over)anticipate his political wishes, ensuring his will is done with no intervention necessary.

A running gag of the offbeat series – available online with English subtitles – is how President Duda spends every episode waiting outside Kaczynski’s office but is never granted an audience.

It is not yet clear whether Duda’s veto was a liberation or part of a Kaczynski-engineered tactical retreat. All that is clear is that it spares the blushes of the European Commission, which has been threatening Warsaw with legal action, knowing that no EU member states are interested in backing Brussels in a standoff, particularly one that results in a furious Law and Justice administration blocking EU plans in other areas.

Regardless of the real backstory, Walesa said the partial veto suggested – 18 months late – that “the nation is waking up, the youth are waking up”.

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