UPDATE: Poland’s Democracy Crisis, Explained
23 July, 2017

Polish President Andrzej Duda has vetoed a draft law that many believe threatened impose political control over the judiciary to undermine democracy in the east European country.

Passed by the Poland’s parliament, the bill in question would have dismissed the current Supreme Court judges and allowed the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to replace them.

The controversial judicial reform sparked a wave of protests across the country. For over a week, Poles spanning different age and social groups have taken to the streets to call for the bill’s veto.

The right-wing PiS party argued that the reform was necessary to fight corruption and purge the judicial system of the remnants of Communism. But opponents of the bill felt it would place a dangerous amount of authority into the hands of the ruling party.

“It effectively politicizes the Supreme Court, and the next step will probably be the politicization of the whole judiciary,” Maciej Kuziemski, an Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow, told Hromadske on Sunday, before the bill was vetoed. “More importantly, it just destabilizes the system as a whole.”

Despite the backlash against the bill, Kuziemski did not expect the Polish president, a member of the ruling party, to veto it.

In theory, Duda is the only PiS member who the party’s powerful leader, MP Jarosław Kaczyński, cannot fire. But past behavior suggests the president “is very much in line with the party line” on government legislation, Kuziemski said.

However, on Monday, July 24, Duda broke with expectations and the PiS leadership to veto the judicial reform.

"As president I don't feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice,” Duda said in a televised statement, according to the BBC.

His decision comes after the eighth day of demonstrations against the draft law. Videos of the most recent protest in the Polish capital, Warsaw, posted on Twitter show streets overflowing with demonstrators.

On Sunday, before Duda announced his veto, Hromadske sat down with analyst Maciej Kuziemski to discuss what the judicial reform would mean for Poland.

If this bill is signed into law — and it appears it will be — how will it affect the Polish political system? Is the draft law as dangerous for Polish democracy as so many people believe?

It is indeed a very dangerous law for two reasons. First of all, its substance is fairly dangerous because it effectively politicizes the Supreme Court and most probably the next step will be the politicization of the whole judiciary. So it effectively removes the separations of powers as we know it in Poland as of now. But more importantly, it just destabilizes the system as a whole. The bill – the way it is proceeded [sic] in a very hasty manner, being not properly consulted, being rushed through both chambers of the parliament, and causing so many protests. It just results in a lowering of trust by Polish people in the very institutions of the Polish State.

Poles have protested against the policies of the ruling Law and Justice Party throughout the year — for example, over increased restrictions on legal abortion or against education reform. What makes these protests different?

Indeed, and this is a fairly interesting point. Because as much as Poles have protested over almost two years against this administration on so many other issues, the thing about this protest is that it brings together people from totally different backgrounds. So if you look at the composition of the protests, they are not only in Warsaw or in major cities, the protests have spread across the country, to the smallest villages. As far as [Polish village] to near Szczecin on the border with Germany. So what is interesting is that this is probably the first time a protest is not driven by parliamentary opposition. And the protests are really intergenerational, in the sense that they really bring together people of all ages and backgrounds, and most importantly, the vast majority of people protesting are young people.

At the same time, the Law and Justice party has a strong electoral base and doesn’t really appear to care about the protests and the way the party looks to the international community. Do the protesters have a strategy to reach out to Law and Justice supporters?

Yeah, at first during the proceeding of the bill in the lower house of the parliament. There was a widespread feeling that the more liberal wing of Law and Justice, a couple members of parliament who are linked to Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin will try to oppose this horrendous bill, this horrendous reform. However, this has not happened. Both the opposition and protesters have reached out, those members of parliament have addressed publicly the ruling PiS, [and it] does not seem the care too much about public opinion at this moment, whether it be domestic or international.

PiS being the abbreviation for the Law and Justice Party, just to clarify. The EU has threatened to invoke Article 7 of the European Union Treaty and formally chastise Poland for violating EU democratic standards. What would that mean in practice for Poland?

While this is a very good question because the Article 7 of the treaty has not been triggered in the history of the European Union. However, the goal of this article is to punish the countries who are insubordinate and do not comply with EU regulations and values. If this is triggered, it basically means that this article will strip Poland of its voting power in EU bodies.

So, Law and Justice as party is a very populist party. Do such pro-democracy protests work in a populist political environment, where the leadership claims to represent the people and paints the opposition as liberal elite?

I think at this point, it would be safe to say that this protest has nothing to do with liberal elite. And there is, perhaps, more about other issues than liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is an abstract value, honestly. And it’s not a value that people would unite behind across Poland in such numbers. I think the protests are about some common decency, it is a sense that the ruling party and the government have overstepped their prerogatives and went a step too far.

One final question: The bill is waiting for President Andrei Duda’s signature. Any chance he’ll veto it?

Well, President Duda is a veto player in this situation. He is the only politician in Law and Justice that cannot be fired by Law and Justice chief, Jarosław Kaczyński. President Duda now has 21 days after the upper chamber of parliament has approved the bill, and frankly, all eyes on him. Everyone is hoping this would be his defining moment of his presidency. However, past behaviour has proved that he’s very much in line with the party line with as far as signing government bills as concerned. No surprises if President Duda signs the bill, and it effectively becomes law. However, there’s also another option other than signing it or vetoing it. The bill has proceeded in such hasty manner that it contains many inconsistencies that have been acknowledged even by the members of the government. So President Duda’s safe bet would be to send it to constitutional tribunal to check if it really complies with the constitution.

If he was really to do that, what do you think the result would be?

Actually I think the result would be quite similar in the long-term to the scenario if he were to sign it. Because a) it would buy some time for the government to repackage the deal so it’d look more acceptable; b) it would run into a danger for the opposition and moment that’s emerging of losing momentum. So I think either/or, the situation is not very promising.