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Poland’s president may have just saved its democracy … for now

One demonstrator holds up a sign reading “Polish constitution is being broken. We Polish citizens say no!”
People demonstrate in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw after the president announced he would veto two controversial bills on Monday.
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Following protests by thousands of Poles and threats from the European Union, Polish President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly vetoed two laws that would have dealt a serious blow to Poland’s increasingly-fragile democracy.

On Monday, Duda announced he would veto two of the three controversial bills passed by the Polish parliament last week that would have significantly reduced the judiciary’s independence and essentially made the Supreme Court irrelevant.

"As president I don't feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice," Duda said in a statement on national TV, according to the BBC. "These laws must be amended."

Criticized as attacks on Poland’s democratic system of checks and balances, the bills called for the immediate dismissal of the high court’s current judges, except those who had been chosen by Duda. It also would have given the ruling party the power to control who sits on the National Judiciary Council, which nominates Supreme Court judges.

The one bill that Duda did not veto gives the justice minister the right to select and dismiss judges in lower courts, according to the BBC.

Duda’s decision came as a bit of a surprise given his leadership of the party that submitted the bills in the first place — the right-wing, EU-skeptic, and nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS). Since gaining control of the upper and lower parliamentary houses following the 2015 election, the party has worked to dismantle Poland’s checks and balances.

The president’s veto has at least temporarily put the brakes on the Law and Justice Party’s efforts.

The two laws will now be sent back to the parliament to be rewritten. Even though the parliament has the power to override the president’s vetoes, it requires the agreement of 60 percent of lawmakers. The ruling Law and Justice Party only has a thin majority in parliament, and it’s unlikely that it could get enough support.

The bills were attacked inside and outside Poland

The president’s veto came just three weeks after President Donald Trump visited Warsaw, hailed the country’s democratic values, and praised it as a defender of the West. Critics questioned the wisdom of Trump’s visit given the Polish government’s increasingly anti-democratic practices, which include clamping down on state media and moving to restrict the right to democratic assembly.

It also comes as thousands of demonstrators protested against the government’s attempt to control the Supreme Court and undermine the country’s democracy. After the bills were passed in the parliament early Saturday morning, there were mass protests in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, and more than 100 cities across the country, according to CNN.

The European Union, which Poland joined in 2004, also joined the opposition. It warned that the Polish government could be sanctioned and have its voting rights suspended if it passed the Supreme Court law.

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president, said last week that the EU was “very close” to triggering Article 7, a never-before-used rule that allows the EU to suspend a member country’s voting rights. It was established to ensure “that all EU countries respect the common values of the EU,” according to Politico.

The US State Department also criticized the bills.

“We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers,” the State Department said in a statement on Friday.

Protestors have celebrated the veto as a success, but they are now pushing for the president to also veto the third reform giving the justice minister control over the lower courts.