Poland’s 18-month constitutional crisis has moved into uncharted waters after the president vetoed judicial reform bills that critics denounced as a threat to the country’s democratic order.
President Andrzej Duda said he favoured "wise reform" of Poland's judicial system but that proposals backed by parliament in recent days – on which he was not consulted – were divisive and damaging to public confidence in the judiciary.
Some in Poland saw the move as Mr Duda's political liberation from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and its influential leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, his political mentor.
Mr Kaczynski had no comment as he headed into a series of crisis party meetings on Monday, while deputy prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he was "disappointed and ... surprised".
Others speculated that vetoing the bills, that have brought tens of thousands of protesters on to the streets all weekend, was a choreographed PiS fallback to a predetermined political position.
“I am a supporter of a wise reform that will improve the judiciary’s work and increase [people’s] feeling of justice,” said Mr Duda in a news conference.
Of the bills he rejected, one would have forced all members of the supreme court to stand down, except those retained by the president, and a second would have handed the government, through its parliamentary majority, effective control over the body that makes judicial appointments.
Mr Duda’s spokesman said the president would sign into law a third bill that gives the justice minister powers to hire and fire district and appeals court judges.
After a weekend consulting historians, constitutional lawyers, legal scholars and others, Mr Duda recalled how anti-communist activist Zofia Romaszewska told him: "Mr president, I lived in a state where the general prosecutor could do virtually anything and I wouldn't like to go back to that state."
In office since 2015, Mr Duda has backed a long list of legally contested bills, including reforms of the constitutional tribunal that saw him disowned by his former constitutional law professor.
The Polish government says it is determined to complete reforms it says will boost democratic control of the judiciary and sideline judges it has portrayed as a part of an inefficient, self-serving clique.
News of Mr Duda’s veto on Monday left opposition figures pleasantly surprised – but wary.
Katarzyna Lubnauer, parliamentary party head of the opposition Nowoczesna, said: "This is a step back from the brink."
Lech Walesa, who lead the campaign to topple communism in Poland and became the first democratic head of state, said Mr Duda was "starting to feel like a president".
Demonstrators before the presidential palace in Warsaw were jubilant that their week of protest had yielded results. "I think the president acted properly, and has liberated himself from the government," said one, Pawel Ceninski.
In Brussels, the European Commission refused to be drawn on whether the Duda veto had closed its consideration of "rule of law" infringement proceedings against Poland. A spokesman said the commission would consider developments at its meeting on Wednesday.