After three years in office, the position of president Andrzej Duda within the current political situation in Poland continues to be somewhat unclear – swinging between unflinching support for the governing party and legitimising force for its policies, and presenting himself as the defender of the rule of law. With a number of crucial elections coming up over the next year, the way in which he positions himself vis-a-vis the ruling party may be crucial to the success of his (former) party and, in turn, to ensuring his own re-election in 2020.
It has been varied summer for president Duda. In July, his initiative to hold a referendum on a new constitution (the date was to coincide with the centenary of the independence declaration in November) was eventually rejected by the Senate as almost all senators of his own party (Law and Justice – PiS) abstained and the oppositional Civic Platform (PO) voted against the plans. Although Duda’s motivation for the referendum was never particularly clear, the rejection can be seen as a defeat for the president – the cushioning of the rejection through mass abstentions may have been an olive branch extended to the president by the party leadership, but it could also merely have been an attempt to save face and not give the public the impression that parliament and president were actively working against each other.
A few weeks later, Duda experienced a success when he vetoed amendments to the European Parliament election law that would have effectively reduced the number of parties able to win seats to two – the governing PiS and the main opposition party PO. While the government (arguably rightfully) argued that the current system was too complicated, it is clear that it aimed to alter the rules of the game to the degree to its advantage in every possible way. Given that a 3/5 relative majority in the Polish Sejm (lower house) is needed to override the veto, the government will have to come up with a new solution or drop the bill. For Duda, the veto was in any case strategic – while he may not need to fear a strong contender from the left in his fight for re-election, his chances for re-election would be greatly increased if the smaller right-of-centre parties that swept up much of the protest vote in the most recent parliamentary elections (led among others by the surprisingly third-placed presidential candidate Andrzej Kukiz) supported him.
Nevertheless, these incidents stand in contrast to Duda’s other behaviour. After he vetoed parts of the government’s controversial judicial reform last year, he later signed bills after some cosmetic changes that gave him slightly more say in the appointment of judges. Recent events, too, highlight that he is only too happy to continue quietly notarising the changes made by the government. As part of the reforms, the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges was lowered from 65 to 70, sending 40% of judges into retirement. While the legality of immediate retirement of current judges is questionable and still being considered by the European Court of Justice, Duda already announced vacancies for the positions in question. Importantly, this includes the 65 year-old president of the court who – according to the constitution – serves a six year-term that would only end in 2020. On Tuesday, the president then announced that he had approved the applications of five Supreme Court judges to remain in their positions for another three years (a new prerogative given to him) – incidentally, these are those that had previously been positively evaluated by the reconstituted National Judiciary Council and thus close to the regime (even though some of their applications apparently failed to follow conventional standards), while no action was taken on applications of others (they are assumed to be rejected, but this is not entirely clear).
In October and November 2018 Poland will hold local and regional elections, which will provide a first test for the ruling party with regard to the elections to the European Parliament in spring 2019 and the parliamentary election in 2019. It can be expected that Duda, if he is active in the campaigns at all, will support his (former) party – nevertheless, as Duda also needs to start on building momentum for his own re-election campaign, it is quite likely that we will some more occasional disagreements with the government. Such incidents should however be seen as largely strategic – until now, Duda has now shown that he substantially disagrees with the Hungary-style ‘illiberal democracy’ that the government is introducing.