Tag Archives: Andrzej Duda

Poland – The president as legislator

On 20 November, Polish president Duda submitted another bill proposal the Sejm (lower chamber of parliament), this time aimed at creating local social services centres. Although presidents have frequently used this prerogative in the past (to the same degree as vetoes and requests for judicial review), Duda has been particularly active and proposed over two dozen separate bills so far. However, the Polish president is only one of four European presidents vested with the power to propose ordinary legislation – interestingly, the other three countries are also from Central and Eastern Europe (i.e. Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania).

Polish president Duda presents the act amending the law on legal aid and education that resulted from his initiative, 30 July 2018 / ® Polish Presidential Office 2018

The president’s right to propose legislation has been included in all Polish constitutions since the fall of Communism, including the heavily amended Communist constitution (it was not, however, part of the Polish interwar constitutions). As the Polish president only possesses a block veto, the provision partly compensates for the lack of agenda-setting power through amendatory observations (as is the case in most other post-communist systems). Nevertheless, parliament is not obliged to consider presidential initiatives and can – once they have received by the appropriate committee – be abandoned without fearing any consequences. Furthermore, as presidents do not have any reserved policy areas for their initiatives, the usefulness of the power depends very much on the composition of parliament and government. If presidents have a majority (or at least strong presence) in parliament and/or government, bills are more likely to be accepted. Presidents without significant partisan support in other institutions should have little chance of seeing their bills become law. Accordingly, when Polish presidents made use their prerogative, they did so with varying frequency and varying degrees of success (see Table 1 below).

Interestingly, the first three Polish presidents (who all experienced longer periods of cohabitation and unified government during their terms) used their powers largely independently of the majority situation in parliament and government. For Lech Walesa, this may largely be explained by the fact that neither the fragmented Sejm, nor the stream of coalition governments had the resources to craft legislation, allowing the president to set the agenda. However, given that less than half of his initiatives were successful, actual implementation of policy can only be part of the reason why he (and his successors) used this power so frequently. On the one hand, we may be able to explain the use of initiatives by presidents’ desire to communicate with voters – more so than ‘reactive powers’ like the veto, legislative initiatives allow presidents to proactively highlight their policy preferences. On the other hand, interviews I conducted with presidential advisors in Poland for my PhD suggest that the presidential legislative initiative can be borne out of cooperation between president and government and provide a shortcut compared to regular parliamentary procedure – presidential bill proposals do not require the same statements or reports from ministries and agencies before they can be discussed (and passed) in parliament. However, the scale of these cases is difficult to ascertain without more detailed knowledge of individual bills.

To date, the use of presidential legislative initiatives outside of presidential systems has hitherto not been subject to much research. Nevertheless, the case of Poland raises a number of interesting questions that go beyond the four European cases mentioned above. First, why would presidents be vested with the power to propose legislation in the first place? Even where they are not formally part of the executive, they are not part of or emanate from the legislature either. Granting presidents proactive legislative prerogatives, particularly in systems where they are not the dominant actor, thus makes little sense. Second, how can we explain the use of this power – especially across varying partisan-political constellations? Furthermore, if bills are more likely to be accepted during friendly/unified relations between president, parliament and government, why would presidents need to propose legislation? After all, their policy preferences should already be implemented. Third, while part of the answer to the last question lies in the publicity potential of the bills, how can we reliably identify those bills that are (informal) collaborations between president and government to circumvent more lengthy parliamentary procedure? The answer to the latter would likely also reveal new information on president-government collaboration in semi-presidential and parliamentary regimes.

Poland – 3 years into his presidency, Duda’s role still remains unclear

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.

“3 Years in Office” – Promotional video on the website of the Official Website of the President – prezydent.pl

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.

Poland – President Duda pushes forward with constitutional referendum idea

Earlier this month, Polish president Andrzej Duda once again pushed his idea of writing a new constitution and holding a referendum to consult the population on the most important details. Although 10 & 11 November 2018 (centenary of the declaration of the Second Polish Republic) has already been announced as a potential date and Duda has said that the referendum would include ten questions, neither the content of these questions nor his exact strategic motivation for pursuing this idea are known. Furthermore, the PiS government seems to have its own plans for constitutional reform that may clash with the president’s initiative.

President Andrzej Duda (middle) attends a sitting the Polish Senate – image via wikimedia commons

Poland has one of the more complicated recent constitutional histories in comparison with other countries. Following the roundtable negotiations in 1989, the old Communist constitution was first amended in two steps (among others by creating the office of a president and laying the foundations for the first semi-democratic elections). After the drafting of a new constitution was stalled by parliamentary fragmentation and political polarisation, politicians agreed on the so-called “Small Constitution” in 1992 that set out the relations between the major institutions, yet was far from a full-fledged constitutional document. It was only in 1997 that Poland received a full new constitution that lived up to the name. Since then, there have been no major amendments that would have substantively affected the working of the political system.

The idea of a new constitution is nothing new among politicians of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to which Duda belongs as well. Already in 2005, when the party campaigned on the promise of building a “4th Republic”, a new constitution was proposed but due to the lack of a constitutional majority and fragility of the government this idea was never put into practice. Given the great number of changes to the political and legal system introduced by PiS since they returned to power in late 2015 and the fact that some of these were thwarted by their incompatibility with the current constitution, it is not surprising that this idea has been reactivated. A new constitution (or major changes) would help to both legalise and legitimise the government’s controversial reforms and take wind out of the sails of its critics. Last, both in 2005 and now, the 1997 constitution has been denounced as being the work of “post-communists”, meaning that it was drafted by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) as the successor to the Communist party (who PiS, having originated from the Solidarity movement, naturally oppose). Thus, it is relatively clear why PiS politicians want a new constitution. However, it is not entirely clear why the president (not the government) would push this idea. While there are several potential explanations, they are not all mutually exclusive and may only together paint the full picture.

Referenda (or the promise thereof) are a staple in the populist toolbox of political leaders in Europe and beyond. Thus, Duda may simply be preparing for his re-election campaign in early/mid-2020 and use his activism to gain greater supporter among the electorate. By promising a range of 10 questions, this approach differs from that of the government, which has hitherto introduced all changes without consulting the public and rather justified its moves ex-post. Duda may also try to save the position of the presidency within the Polish institutional structure (it has been rumoured that at least one referendum question will concern this issue). The president will be keen to keep the powers of his office, whereas the government is allegedly planning a greater concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (similar to the German system) after consulting with a number constitutional lawyers and academics. Nevertheless, such plans were already mooted under the governments of Donald Tusk (2007-2014) but eventually dropped due to a lack of support among MPs and the public.

The referendum could also be a way for presidency and government to test out public attitudes towards changes without endangering the re-election of the government next year or merely. However, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree they coordinate their actions. Although it is clear that president and government generally agree on the direction of further political reforms, there have been a number of public conflicts that may or may not be genuine.

Irrespective of the fact that using the procedures of a constitution that is portrayed as illegitimate to legitimise a new document is bizarre, president Duda now has to send a request to the Senate (second chamber) and ask for the referendum to be scheduled. The speaker of the Senate and the president’s plenipotentiary for the referendum have already met several times, but it appears that more negotiations need to be completed before the actual request is made. Yet even then it is difficult to predict whether a majority of the public would support any changes to the current constitution. Although the PiS government continues to be relatively popular and the president’s plenipotentiary claims that 80% of Poles want a constitutional referendum, Poles are not particularly keen on politically motivated referenda and may simply not turn up at the ballot box. The last referendum – held on request of then president Komorowski in an attempt to thwart a second-round victory in the presidential elections by Andrzej Duda – concerned the electoral system, political party financing and tax law, but turnout was just 7.8%.

Poland – Is the presidency going down the Hungarian path?

Over the last years, I have chronicled (and lamented) the descent of the Hungarian presidency  during the Orbán government from promising check-and-balance into political irrelevance. After an initial phase of constructive presidential activism in which incumbent Janos Áder used his powers in an attempt to improve legislation, he subsequently failed to criticise any of the government’s controversial reforms and used his veto power and right to request judicial review on fewer and fewer occasions. Three years after the election of a Law and Justice (PiS) president and government in Poland, it appears that the Polish presidency is going down the Hungarian path. Despite the added legitimacy and independence through a direct electoral mandate, president Andrzej Duda has done little to balance the increasingly illiberal policies of the government. Although he has not remained entirely inactive, his activism is geared towards re-election and democratic window-dressing, rather than becoming a real check-and-balance.

Photo via prezydent.pl

When the 42 year-old MEP Andrzej Duda was elected president in May 2015, it was easy to portray him as little more than a puppet of PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. After the parliamentary election in the autumn of the same year produced an absolute majority for PiS (for which Kaczynski has as of yet not taken an official seat on the front bench), Duda was complicit in the unconstitutional appointment of several judges to the Constitutional Tribunal (having previously refused to swear in judges that had been originally – and legally – appointed) and failed to step in when the government subsequently refused to publish the Tribunal’s judgement on the unconstitutionality of these actions. Up until last summer, president Duda failed to condemn any of the reforms of the Polish government, which resulted in the European Union’s decision to trigger Article 7 (a formal warning an possibility of disciplinary procedures) in December 2017.

In July 2017 president Duda vetoed two controversial judicial reforms that would have given the government near complete control over the judiciary. Nevertheless, as I argued at the time, the vetoes were little more than democratic window-dressing and inevitable due to national and international pressure after it emerged that the Senate had passed bills in different versions than the lower chamber. Duda’s vetoes caused friction with the PiS government and then Prime Minister Beata Szydlo as well as a number of other co-partisans accused him of hampering ‚improvements’ to the country’s legal system. Nevertheless, it is without question that these reforms will reappear in other forms and Duda will sign them off. The vetoes can merely be seem as an attempt to ‚save face‘ and means to appease critical voters in a bid to secure re-election in 2020.

President Duda’s signature under the so-called Holocaust bill, a law that seeks to punish those who accuse Poland or Poles of complicity in the mass extermination of jews during WWII with up to three years in prison, shows the same pattern of self-interested activism. Duda signed the bill into law but also submitted the bill to the Constitutional Tribunal at the same time. Signing the bill will appease not only the core electorate of PiS but also a the majority of Poles who rightly object to the phrase ‘Polish death camps‘ that is still frequently used to label Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland (the country’s embassies still regularly intervene when the phrase is used in the media). Simultaneously sending the law to the Constitutional Tribunal should be seen as a signal to those voters who fear a limitation of free speech. Nevertheless, a decision from the Tribunal could take 1-2 years and with the law in force, the government can already use it to silence its critics – after the cleansing of public media from critical journalists, it becomes another tool to suppress free speech. Interestingly, the same tactic was used by president Lech Kaczynski (the twin brother of party leader and then Prime Minister Jaroslaw) during the PiS governments in 2005-2007 with the exception that the Constitutional Tribunal was not yet staffed with loyal judges (who are unlikely to pronounce the law unconstitutional).

Thus, it appears that the Polish presidency is going down the Hungarian path, albeit with some variation. As Andrzej Duda needs public support to secure his re-election in 2020 he is more active (or at least more visibly) than his Hungarian colleague. Given the greater international attention paid to the situation in Poland compared to the one in Hungary (where the EU clearly failed to step in in time) and stronger domestic opposition, Duda also needs to be active to appease international and national critics. However, overall the Polish presidency is currently failing at its job as a check-and-balance on parliament and government. An altered parliamentary composition following the 2019 legislative elections or even a second term for Duda in 2020 may change the situation, yet for now we may need to declare a ‘presidency lost‘.

Aleks Szczerbiak – Poland: How will relations between President and ruling party develop?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

The Polish President’s decision to veto the government’s flagship judicial reforms was part of a broader move for greater autonomy from the ruling party. He clearly gains from highlighting his independence, while focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp also marginalises Poland’s weak opposition. But conflicting ambitions and emotions could make it difficult to contain competition between the President and ruling party within manageable boundaries.

Unexpected judicial reform vetoes

Although he was elected as candidate of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, at the end of July, in a dramatic and surprising move, Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two controversial laws overhauling the country’s Supreme Court and National Judicial Council (KRS) that would have given the government significant new powers in appointing and dismissing judges. Overturning a presidential veto requires a three-fifths majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, where Law and Justice only has a simple majority.

Mr Duda’s unexpected move came after the ruling party’s judicial reform proposals triggered one of the country’s sharpest political conflicts in recent years. Most of the legal establishment and opposition – led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and now the main opposition grouping, and smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) party – strongly criticised the legislation. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, they argued that the reforms undermined the constitutional separation of powers and would allow Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees. As a consequence, there were nationwide protests in dozens of Polish towns and cities. The reforms were also heavily criticised by the European Commission which warned that it was ready to take action against Poland under the so-called Article 7 procedure, which it can invoke against EU member states where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law, if any Supreme Court judges were dismissed.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, said that the reforms were needed to make the judiciary more accountable and ensure that it served all Poles and not just the elites, arguing that Polish courts were too slow, inefficient and tolerated frequent irregularities. Law and Justice believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the Polish judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by a well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. The judicial elite was out of touch with ordinary citizens and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, they said, allowing elected political bodies a greater say in the functioning of the courts and appointment of judges was justified, and simply brought Poland more into line with practices in other established Western democracies.

Mr Duda’s counter-proposals

Last month, Mr Duda presented his own versions of the two vetoed laws. The original Law and Justice law to reform the National Judicial Council involved ending the terms of 15 of its 25 members and selecting their successors by a simple majority in the Sejm rather than by judges’ organisations as was the case up until now. In Mr Duda’s new draft, the majority of the Council would still be nominated by parliament but he repeated his earlier condition that they be elected by a three-fifths majority. In fact, Law and Justice had already accepted this proposal as an amendment to its earlier Supreme Court reform bill, even though it would have forced the party to negotiate Council appointments with opposition and independent deputies.

However, Mr Duda also proposed a further requirement that if, during a two month period, lawmakers could not muster the three-fifths majority then the President would have the right to select the Council members himself from among those considered by parliament. When it quickly became clear that Civic Platform and ‘Modern’ would not support the constitutional amendment required to enact this proposal, Mr Duda proposed instead that a new vote should take place to break the deadlock with each Sejm deputy only able to vote for one candidate, which would also ensure that some opposition nominees were elected. Government supporters are concerned that this will not guarantee a clear ‘pro-reform’ majority within the Council and want the final decision to be taken by a three-fifths vote in the Senate, Poland’s second parliamentary chamber where Law and Justice holds 64 out of 100 seats.

The other Law and Justice-sponsored law required all current Supreme Court members to stand down except for those re-instated by the President but only from a list approved by the justice minister, with future candidates appointed in the same way. Mr Duda proposed instead that Supreme Court judges would retire at the age of 65 with the President deciding if their term could be extended. If introduced, Mr Duda’s plan would mean that around 40% of the current Supreme Court judges would have to stand down – including its president and harsh critic of the government’s reforms Małgorzata Gersdorf, who turns 65 in November – with the rest due to retire within the next three years.

Distancing himself from the ruling party

In fact, Mr Duda has, from the outset, struggled to carve out an independent role for himself and the vetoes were the culmination of tensions between the government and a President who was tired of being side-lined. His opponents had dismissed Mr Duda as Law and Justice’s ‘notary’ as he (publicly at least) supported virtually all of its key decisions, even the most controversial ones. However, earlier this year Mr Duda dismissed his chief of staff Małgorzata Sadurska, who was felt to be too closely aligned with the Law and Justice leadership. Then, without consulting the ruling party, in May the President announced that he was initiating a national debate on whether to change Poland’s 20-year-old Constitution culminating in a consultative referendum in November 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of the restoration of Polish sovereignty at the end of the First World War.

In July, the President also vetoed a law extending the supervisory powers of regional audit chambers to give the government greater oversight over Poland’s 16 regional authorities, all but one of which are controlled by opposition parties. Then, in August Mr Duda – who, as head of state, is also commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces – refused to approve the appointment of dozens of generals, reflecting ongoing tensions between the President and defence minister Antoni Macierewicz who had earlier blocked a key presidential military aide’s access to classified information.

Mr Duda’s knows that in order to secure re-election in 2020 he will need to attract support beyond the Law and Justice hard core and his decision to veto the government’s judicial reforms was not, therefore, a one-off but part of a broader move by the President to develop greater autonomy and independence from the ruling party. Voters appear to approve of this: surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency last month found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 74% approval rating, easily the highest of any Polish politician, while 68% were satisfied with the way that he was performing his presidential duties; a sharp increase from 60% and 55% respectively in July.

‘Good change’ or ‘revolutionary change’?

However, by putting himself at odds with the ruling party, Mr Duda’s decision to veto Law and Justice’s flagship judicial reform laws was clearly a major turning point for his presidency and has introduced a new and unpredictable element into Polish politics. Demonstrating that he could act independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – Poland’s most powerful politician who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities – Mr Duda is trying to completely re-define his presidency and carve out an alternative power centre within the governing camp which the Law and Justice leader has to negotiate with to secure the passage of the government’s legislative programme.

Indeed, the judicial reform crisis has highlighted some of the structural weaknesses within the governing camp. Given that the President’s most significant constitutional powers are negative ones, blocking nominations and legislation, some tensions between any government and all but the most passive head of state are almost inevitable. However, while Mr Kaczyński’s position as undisputed Law and Justice leader has given the governing camp a sense of unity and stability, it has also led to a reluctance to grant Mr Duda any real autonomy for fear that this would encourage the formation of rival power centres. This meant that when Mr Duda eventually tried to develop a more independent role for himself Mr Kaczyński and the Law and Justice leadership saw this as undermining the cohesiveness of the governing camp.

In fact, although Mr Kaczyński can at times be overbearing he is also deeply pragmatic and knows that entering into an ongoing, open conflict with the President would put his long-term political project of radically reconstructing the Polish state at risk. Mr Duda is also a much less experienced politician and lacks any real independent power base within the governing camp which remains overwhelmingly loyal to Mr Kaczyński. Moreover, although some government supporters, notably allies of justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, question the President’s commitment to the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana), talk of a new centre-right ‘presidential party’ is fanciful at this stage.

Indeed, Mr Duda does not want to damage, or even significantly weaken, the ruling party whose support he needs to secure his short-term political objectives (his constitutional referendum proposal will, for example, require the approval of the Senate) and longer-term re-election prospects. Indeed, the President argues that he shares the government’s broad objectives but simply disagrees about the best means of achieving them and, in some cases, how radical the reforms should be; favouring, as he puts it, ‘good change’ over ‘revolutionary change’. In terms of judicial reform, for example, Mr Duda’s proposals represent certain adjustments to, rather than a radical departure from, Law and Justice’s original plans. In other words, Mr Duda wants the Law and Justice leadership to pay more attention to his interests and develop its reforms in a more consensual way.

Containing divisions will be difficult

Mr Duda and the ruling party, therefore, have to maintain a careful balancing act. Although the President risks losing part of his political base and cannot achieve anything substantial if he moves too far away from the ruling party’s orbit, he clearly gains from highlighting his independence and autonomy. Focusing public attention on debates within the governing camp also marginalises Poland’s weak and ineffective opposition. In the case of judicial reform, for example, Mr Duda’s actions not only defused tensions and de-mobilised mass protests in the short-term, they also shifted debate onto what form the reforms should take rather than whether they should be undertaken at all. This is one of the factors explaining why public support for Law and Justice has actually increased over the last couple of months: the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys shows Law and Justice enjoying 42% support compared with only 22% for Civic Platform and only 9% for ‘Modern’.

However, although open hostility would be suicidal for all concerned, conflicting political ambitions and emotions could make it very difficult to keep political competition between the presidential camp and ruling party within manageable boundaries. Mr Duda’s vetoes were clearly a watershed and if Law and Justice and the President cannot develop an effective working relationship then the remainder of the current parliament could see ongoing political conflict, mutual recriminations and, at worst, the implosion of the governing camp. The next few weeks are likely to be crucial in determining whether this model of contained and managed political competition between its two most important elements can be sustained.

Poland – How will President Duda’s judicial reform vetoes affect Polish politics?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

Earlier this summer Poland’s President shook up the political scene when he vetoed two of the right-wing government’s flagship judicial reform bills, which had triggered one of the country’s sharpest political conflicts in recent years. By carving out an alternative power centre within the governing camp it gives him an opportunity to re-define his presidency, but having taken ownership of the issue he is now under intense pressure to deliver on judicial reform.

Judicial reform is a government priority

Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party believes that, following the country’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the Polish judiciary, like many key institutions, was expropriated by a well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which went on to co-opt a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. Judicial reform is, therefore, one of the most important elements of the party’s programme. To this end, the government proposed three key bills aimed at overhauling the country’s legal system. The first involved phasing out the terms of 15 of the 25 members of the National Judicial Council (KRS), a body that selects judges and decides how the courts are run, and selecting their successors by parliament rather than the legal profession as has been the case up until now. The government’s original proposal envisaged these new Council members being elected by a simple parliamentary majority, but was amended to three-fifths following pressure from Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda, a move which would have forced the ruling party to negotiate the appointments with opposition and independent deputies.

A second bill changed the way that the heads of lower district and appeal courts are appointed giving the justice minister broad powers to replace chief judges within six months of the law coming into force; as well as requiring the random allocation of judges to cases in order to tackle what the government argued were corrupt local practices. The third proposed a new procedure for nominating Supreme Court judges requiring all of its current members to retire except for those re-instated by the President but only from a list presented to him by the justice minister (based on National Justice Council recommendations), with future candidates for appointment to the Court selected in the same way. The bill also envisaged the establishment of a new Supreme Court chamber that would make judgements on disciplinary actions against judges, following referrals by the justice minister.

Drifting towards authoritarianism or reforming an entrenched elite?

However, these reforms triggered one of the country’s sharpest political conflicts in recent years. Most of the legal establishment and the opposition – led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15, and smaller liberal Modern (Nowoczesna) grouping and agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL) – strongly criticised the legislation arguing that it undermined the independence of the courts and constitutional separation of powers. Warning of a drift towards authoritarian rule, the government’s opponents said that, by putting judicial appointments under political control, these reforms would allow Law and Justice to pack the courts with its own, hand-picked nominees; pointing out that the Supreme Court rules on the validity of national election and referendum results. As a consequence, thousands of Poles protested against the reforms in street demonstrations and candle-lit vigils held in dozens of towns and cities.

The reforms were also heavily criticised by the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the opposition enjoys close links and many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice. The European Commission has been involved in a separate, ongoing dispute with the Polish government since January 2016 over the membership and functioning of the country’s constitutional tribunal. As the judicial reform crisis escalated, the Commission appeared to move closer towards taking further action against Poland under the so-called Article 7 procedure, which it can invoke against EU member states where it feels there is a ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law. Moreover, in spite of the fact that the US Trump administration is a seen as one of the Polish government’s key international allies, the American State Department also raised concerns about the reforms.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, said that the reforms were needed to make the judiciary more accountable and ensure that it served all Poles and not just the elites, arguing that Polish courts were too slow, unfair and tolerated frequent irregularities and corrupt practices. The judicial elite, they said, viewed itself as a superior ‘special caste’ out of touch with ordinary citizens, and operated as a ‘state within a state’ incapable of reforming itself. In these circumstances, allowing elected political bodies a greater say in the functioning of the courts, and the appointment of judges and their supervisory bodies, was justified. Moreover, they argued, the reforms did not necessarily impinge upon judicial impartiality as they simply brought Poland more into line with appointment practices in other established Western democracies.

Mr Duda’s shock move

However, in a dramatic and surprising move at the end of the July Mr Duda announced that he would veto the National Judicial Council and Supreme Court bills, while ratifying the law on the lower courts. In fact, from the outset of his presidency Mr Duda has struggled to carve out an independent role for himself and the vetoes were partly the culmination of tensions between the government and a President who was tired of being side-lined. Up until now, Mr Duda has been dismissed by the government’s critics as Law and Justice’s ‘notary’, having (publicly at least) supported virtually all of its key decisions, even the most controversial ones, such as its actions during the bitter and polarising constitutional tribunal dispute.

Announcing his decision, Mr Duda expressed regret that the Supreme Court bill had not been consulted more extensively before it was put to a parliamentary vote and justified his veto on the grounds that the proposed reforms vested too much potential influence over the Court’s operational and personnel decisions in the hands of the justice minister, who in Poland also functions as the chief public prosecutor. Moreover, his condition for approving the National Judicial Council bill, that its parliamentary appointees be elected by a three-fifths majority, was actually introduced as an amendment to the Supreme Court bill, so once he vetoed the latter it was difficult for him to approve the former.

Mr Duda is also aware that in order to secure re-election in 2020 he will need to appeal beyond the Law and Justice hard core and consolidate his support in the political centre. While the majority of Poles are dissatisfied with the way that the courts function, the ruling party was not able to win public support for these particular reforms, with polls suggesting that there was widespread backing for the presidential vetoes. Moreover, Mr Duda may have been influenced by the fact that the anti-government demonstrations appeared to mobilise a more diverse cross-section of the public than earlier protests, notably among young people. Indeed, the most effective opposition seemed to be organised by relatively new grassroots movements, such as the on-line ‘Democracy Action’ (AD) platform, which kept overtly party political slogans and leaders out of the limelight; although several government supporters argue that some of these were actually examples of ‘astroturfing’: orchestrated campaigns designed to look like spontaneous civic actions.

An alternative power centre in the governing camp

When announcing the vetoes, Mr Duda insisted that he supported the government’s broader objective of radically reforming the judiciary and promised to bring forward revised legislation within two months. There was some support for the President within the governing camp, notably those politicians clustered around the ‘Poland Together’ (PR) party led by deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin, one of Law and Justice’s junior partners in the ‘United Right’ (ZL) electoral coalition. However, the vetoes were generally met with bitter disappointment within the governing camp and viewed as an act of betrayal by some of its leaders, especially those close to justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is also leader of the small ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party, another Law and Justice ally.

More broadly, Mr Duda’s vetoes have introduced a new and unpredictable element into Polish politics, exposing divisions within, and undermining the cohesiveness of, the governing camp. They have shown that the President no longer considers himself to be dependent upon Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, has exercised a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities. Mr Kaczyński now has to deal with the emergence of an alternative power centre within the governing camp that he will have to negotiate with in order to secure the passage of the government’s legislative programme. Although presidential vetoes can be overturned by a three-fifths majority, this is larger than the number of parliamentary votes that Law and Justice can muster. Mr Kaczyński values political loyalty above all else but he also knows that a further escalation of the conflict with the President would be suicidal for the ruling party and that he has to work with him to keep the Law and Justice project on track.

At the same time, the opposition parties feel emboldened they were able to secure at least a partial victory and vindicated in their strategy of exerting pressure on the government through a combination of street protests and international influence (in Polish: ‘ulica i zagranica’). However, the reason that the street protests made such an impact was precisely because they appeared to be largely non-partisan, which made it difficult for the government to dismiss them as simply representing the old ruling elites. Indeed, many of those involved appeared to have little time for the current opposition leaders, who face the same problem that they did before the judicial crisis began: their inability to present an attractive alternative to Law and Justice on the social and economic issues that most voters regard as their priority. For this reason, opinion polls suggest that the crisis has not changed voting preferences with Law and Justice still comfortably ahead of the opposition.

For its part, the European Commission has shown no intention of letting up in spite of the presidential vetoes: issuing a new set of recommendations relating to the judicial reforms which, they argue, increase the systemic threat to the rule of law; and saying that it is ready to trigger Article 7 immediately if any Supreme Court judge is dismissed. However, Law and Justice has ignored previous Commission recommendations, saying that they represent political interference in Polish domestic affairs, and unanimity is required in the European Council to trigger sanctions with the Hungarian government, for one, making it clear that it will oppose such moves. In a separate action, the Commission has, therefore, launched an infringement procedure against Poland for alleged breach of EU law, arguing that the common courts law gives the justice minister too much influence on whether or not to prolong judges’ mandates and is discriminatory because it introduces separate retirement ages for men and women. This may eventually result in financial penalties being imposed on Poland but will have to be resolved in the European Court of Justice so could drag on for some time.

Under pressure to deliver

By demonstrating that he can act independently, Mr Duda’s vetoes of the government’s flagship bills reforming Poland’s legal system give him an opportunity to completely re-define his presidency. However, having taken ownership of the judicial reform issue he will now be under intense pressure to deliver. If he does not produce what the government would consider to be meaningful reforms this could alienate his right-wing political base, without necessarily expanding his support in the political centre. But while Mr Duda has drawn some short-term praise from Law and Justice’s opponents, they will quickly revert back to attacking him, especially if he ends up proposing a judicial reform package very similar to the government’s original proposals.

Poland – The shadow of the Smolensk air crash over Polish politics

The crash of the presidential aircraft in Smolensk on 10 April 2010, killing not only president Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice – PiS) and his wife but also 94 other high-ranking politicians and military officials as well as the crew, is arguably the most significant moment in Polish politics during the last 25 years. PiS, controlling presidency and government since 2015, has recently ramped up its efforts to promote their questionable version of the events. Seven years on, the crash thus still casts its shadow over Polish politics and pose interesting questions regarding the developments in government and presidency.

President Duda lays wreaths at the Smolensk memorial and victims’ graves – 10 April 2017 | photo via prezydent.pl

The news of the crash in Smolensk (Russia), from where the president and other passengers were meant to drive to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD in 1943, put Poland in a state of shock – surpassing even the mourning in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Contrary to the passing of the ‘Polish Pope’, however, the event divided Polish society more strongly any other issue in modern Polish history. Criticism was mainly levelled at the Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk (Civic Platform – PO) and their handling of the investigation. In particular, the conservative and traditionally russophobe part of the electorate (which moreover strongly identified with the views of PiS), were discontent with the fact that Russia was handling the primary investigation, although this was dictated by international law. This was amplified by problems reported with the identification of victims (leading to exhumations even years later) and their transport to Poland. Already then PiS politicians including Jaroslaw Kaczynski – party leader and identical twin brother of the president – openly accused Donald Tusk and his government of conspiring with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to kill the president.

After Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost the subsequent presidential election against the government candidate and parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, controversy centred on the various reports on the crash. Prosecutors concluded that the plane had descended despite adverse weather conditions and too early, colliding with a tree and breaking up. An impromptu parliamentary commission led by PiS politician Antoni Macierewicz on the other hand produced a report that claimed that the plane had been brought down by explosions, basing its conclusion on statements by several self-proclaimed experts and containing several contradictions and inconsistencies. Throughout the years following the crash, PiS also supported vigils, a grass roots movements and other initiatives such as the yearly ‘Smolensk Conference’ (whose website has a section dedicated to exposing alleged misinformation and cover-ups by the Tusk government).

The issue of Smolensk remains highly divisive, yet PiS has interpreted its victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections – preceded by the election of its candidate Andrzej Duda as president only months earlier – as a mandate to not only execute a number of highly controversial and arguably unconstitutional measures, but also to considerably increase its efforts to push their own version of the events nationally and internationally. Although formally these are promoted by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and members of her government as well as president Duda, it is clear that they are coordinated by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (who does not hold any government office himself and is not even leader of the parliamentary party). At first, the new government disabled the official website about the investigation. Later, it started to promote the widely criticised film ‘Smolensk’ which is based on the discredited explosion/assassination theory; as even diplomatic posts were used to promote it internationally, some cinemas rented for the purpose of viewings cancelled the booking as the film was seen as government propaganda. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself has stated that the film showed ‘the truth’. In November 2016, the government opened a new investigation which included the exhumation of the president and several other victims against protests by the majority of relatives. Two weeks ago, the Polish prosecution – which like the state media has been restructured to reflect the views of the ruling party – announced they would charge two Russian air traffic controllers with deliberately causing the crash.

The activities of the Polish government regarding the Smolensk air crash are part of a wider strategy and legitimising narrative to consolidate power. Nevertheless, they have never been able to shake the appearance of a personal Vendetta by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Therefore, and given that a majority of the Polish population is now in favour of laying the matter to rest (only ~25% consistently report to rather trust any of the conspiracy theories), it is puzzling why the government would still pursue it. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s personal interest is surely a driving factor, yet he is also well aware that he cannot win elections with the topic (admittedly, the government has a introduced and put more effort into a number of other policies more clearly directed at gaining popular support). However, it may well be that the recent shift from the explosion-theory to accusing Russian air traffic controllers is part of a larger plan to rather mobilise anti-Russian sentiment in the Polish population (which is more promising). Another interesting point is the fact that Andrzej Duda as president, albeit supporting the PiS narrative, has not taken a more prominent role. At first glance, this may appear as a strategy to appeal to a wider electorate in the next presidential election than just PiS’ core electorate. Yet as he has so far never openly criticised the government or any of its policies, this seems unlikely. Rather, the Polish presidency under Duda (and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as the grey eminence) eerily beings to resemble developments observed in Hungary, i.e. towards a presidency as mere lapdog of the ruling party rather than an effective check-and-balance. While the once again poses the question, what use the institution then fulfils for the party in power, it is a parallel in two increasingly illiberal democracies that requires further investigation.

Aleks Szczerbiak – Has Polish President Andrzej Duda’s first year been a success?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

In the year since he was sworn in as President Andrzej Duda has become Poland’s most popular politician and appears increasingly confident in his international role. But he still has to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the political scene.

Forced to take sides

Last May, in one of the biggest electoral upsets in post-communist Polish politics Andrzej Duda – the candidate of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the then main opposition grouping – defeated incumbent President and odds-on favourite Bronisław Komorowski, backed by the ruling centrist Civic Platform (PO), by 51.6% to 48.5%. His success paved the way for Law and Justice’s stunning victory in the October parliamentary election when it was the first political grouping in post-1989 Poland to secure an outright majority, and Mr Duda’s campaign manager, party deputy leader Beata Szydło, became prime minister.

Although careful not to support Law and Justice overtly, Mr Duda used the various political and constitutional instruments at his disposal to promote the party’s programme of so-called ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana) in the run-up to the October poll. For example, in his first major initiative as President he proposed holding a referendum on the same day as the election on one of Law and Justice’s key campaign pledges: reversing the outgoing government’s extremely unpopular pension reforms, that raised the retirement age to 67 from 60 for women and 65 for men (although the referendum proposal was voted down by the Civic Platform-dominated Senate).

Almost immediately after Law and Justice took office, Mr Duda was forced to take sides in an extremely controversial and polarising political dispute over the membership of the constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of Polish laws. The new government annulled the appointment of five judges elected by the previous parliament to the 15-member body. Earlier these judges were unable to assume their posts because Mr Duda did not accept their oaths of office. However, the tribunal itself ruled that while the appointment of the two judges replacing those whose terms of office expired in December was unconstitutional the other three were nominated legally. Government supporters, in turn, argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of parliamentary appointments, and Mr Duda swore in five judges nominated by the new parliament instead

The move met with widespread criticism from most of the opposition and legal establishment, who accused the government and President of violating judicial independence and undermining the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an anti-Law and Justice civic movement. The government’s supporters, however, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the outgoing administration, which they argued tried to appoint five judges illegally just before the election to pack the tribunal with Law and Justice opponents. More broadly they defended these actions as necessary to restore pluralism and balance to the tribunal, which they said had been expropriated by supporters of the previous governing party, and claimed that opposition was being orchestrated by well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites.

Mr Duda paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government on this issue. Apart from having to expend much time and political capital explaining his actions, by bringing the presidency into the epicentre of party conflict the crisis made it increasingly difficult for Mr Duda to build bridges with milieu not necessarily naturally sympathetic to Law and Justice, one of his greatest achievements during the presidential election campaign. In fact, the problem was as much the way in which the decisions were taken as their substance: four of the Law and Justice-nominated judges were sworn-in at a ceremony held literally in the middle of the night before the tribunal was due to rule on the constitutionality of the earlier appointments. Opinion surveys conducted by the CBOS polling agency found a 20% increase (to 40%) in negative evaluations of the President between November and December, while the number who did not trust Mr Duda rose from 19% to 30%.

Struggling to carve out an independent profile

More broadly, Mr Duda has struggled to carve out an independent profile for himself in his first year as President. The presidency has a particular position in the Polish political system. It is not simply a ceremonial role and, in addition to a strong electoral mandate, retains some important constitutional powers such as: the right to initiate legislation, refer bills to the constitutional tribunal, and, perhaps most significantly, a suspensive veto that requires a three-fifths parliamentary majority to over-turn. However, Mr Duda has quickly signed all of the Law and Justice government’s bills into law. Indeed, a December 2015 survey by the IBRiS agency found that by a majority of respondents (54% to 35%) felt that he did not take his decisions independently of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński who, although he does not hold any formal state positions, exercises a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities.

Moreover, the President’s competencies are much less significant than those of, say, his French counterpart and real executive power lies with the prime minister. So it is difficult for him to carve out a distinctive role in the domestic political sphere, especially when a presidential term coincides with that of a government led by his political grouping. As soon as the Law and Justice government was elected, therefore, Mr Duda’s promises went on the back-burner and attention shifted to the new administration’s legislative programme. For example, the government’s priority during its first months in office was introducing its costly but generous (and extremely popular) ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme, which Mr Duda supported but in most citizens’ minds was associated primarily with the Szydło administration. Mr Duda’s two flagship campaign pledges, lowering the retirement age and increasing tax allowances, languished in parliament for several months and, although the government has promised to bring forward legislation in the autumn, it is still not clear when they will be implemented. Moreover, when it appeared to threaten the stability of the financial sector, the President was forced to row back from his key election pledge to help the country’s half-a-million foreign currency (mainly Swiss franc) mortgage holders (who had lost out as a result of the depreciation of the Polish currency in recent years) by forcing banks to convert their loans to złoties.

It is naïve to expect Mr Duda to distance himself from policies which are almost identical to the ones on which he was also elected. Everything suggests that he shares Mr Kaczyński’s political philosophy and perspectives on most issues and personally supports most if not all of the government’s decisions. At the same time, refusing to sign one of the government’s flagship bills would be incomprehensible to Mr Duda’s political base, and while it might draw some short-term praise from Law and Justice opponents they would quickly revert to criticising him again. Mr Duda is also a relatively young politician and may have future ambitions to take over the Law and Justice leadership when Mr Kaczyński eventually stands down, so it is not in his long-term interests either to alienate the party’s core supporters.

Prioritising defence and foreign policy

However, Mr Duda is aware that in order to secure the 50% of the votes that he needs for re-election he also has to appeal to more centrist voters beyond the Law and Justice hard core. Consequently, he has been trying to steadily carve out a more independent political role for himself. The first clear indication of this came in April during the sixth anniversary of the Smoleńsk tragedy, a plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed while on their way to commemorate the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyń forest in western Russia. The air disaster is still an open wound for Law and Justice, and Mr Kaczyński and some party leaders have not only accused the former Civic Platform-led government of negligence in planning the flight and mishandling its aftermath but also appeared to countenance assassination as a possible cause of the crash. In his speech at the commemorations, Mr Duda made a symbolic appeal for national unity and mutual forgiveness, prompting Mr Kaczyński to respond that forgiveness was needed but only after those guilty of causing the tragedy were brought to justice.

At the same time, Mr Duda has marked out foreign affairs and defence policy as his main field of activity and appears increasingly confident in this role. Although foreign policy lies within the government’s domain, the Polish Constitution gives the President an informal oversight and co-ordinating role. He can also exercise a powerful informal influence through his foreign visits and high profile speeches on international issues. During last year’s elections Law and Justice made the sharpening of policy towards Russia a crucial test of its effectiveness in ensuring national security, and called for the July NATO summit in Warsaw to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater (and preferably permanent) Alliance military presence in the country. Mr Duda visited a large number of NATO member capitals to mobilise political support for Poland’s demands and, in the event, the summit agreed to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank and confirmed the deployment of a 1,000-strong international battalion on a rotational basis on Polish territory.

The summit’s success no doubt contributed to Mr Duda’s steadily increasing popularity, together with the fact that as President he has demonstrated a more open style and greater ability to connect with ordinary Poles than the stereotypical Law and Justice politician. In spite of opposition attempts to portray him as a ‘partisan President’, July CBOS polls found that Mr Duda enjoyed a 56% approval rating (32% disapproval) and remained Poland’s most popular politician with 62% saying that they trusted him (24% did not). However, although he remains unswervingly loyal to the Law and Justice leader, Mr Duda’s attempts to develop a more independent profile also appear to have led to a cooling of relations with Mr Kaczyński, who some commentators argue has been distancing himself from the head of state. For example, the Law and Justice leader appeared to snub Mr Duda when he failed to include the President among those he listed as responsible for the NATO summit’s success; although he quickly corrected himself saying that this was a mistake. Nonetheless, Mr Kaczyński appears to treat not just Mr Duda but the whole government as the implementers rather than creators of policy and leaves little doubt that the party’s most important decision making centre remains the leader’s office.

Popular but lacking a clear role

One year is too soon for a proper evaluation of Mr Duda. For sure, it has been difficult for him to realise his concept of an ‘open’ presidency at a time when the political scene is so deeply polarised around bitter conflicts such as the constitutional tribunal crisis. However, although the crisis damaged Mr Duda’s ability to develop links with certain milieu, the opposition’s attempts to dub him a ‘partisan President’ do not appear to have harmed his approval ratings to any significant extent. Indeed, he remains one of Law and Justice’s greatest political assets with a significantly broader base of support than the party or any of its other leaders. Mr Duda’s main problem is that he has not yet found a clear role for himself and needs to build up his authority within the ruling party if he is to become a significant independent player on the Polish political scene.

Poland – Judicial independence in jeopardy? President Duda refuses appointment of ten further judges

The controversy over Poland’s constitutional court triggered by president Duda’s refusal to appoint judges nominated by the outgoing Sejm and passage of legislation to legitimise his and the new government’s behaviour has so far dominated the presidency of Andrzej Duda (for a summary see Aleks Szczerbiak’s post here). Now, Duda is once again in the line of fire following his refusal to appoint ten out of thirteen judges from lower-level courts to higher positions. Thus, although the individuals put forward by the National Judiciary Council (a committee formed of 17 judges, the minister of judges and 5 political nominees) are far from uncontroversial, the relatively unchecked power of the president in the area of judicial appointments and the government’s plan to reform the judiciary continue to be the most prominent battlefields of Polish politics today.

President Duda appoints 'his' nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

President Duda appoints ‘his’ nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

The Polish constitution, like so many others (irrespective of this being intentional or not), remains vague on a number of presidential duties and prerogatives. Article 179 of the 1997 Constitution thus states with regard to appointments of judges that “judges are appointed by the president on the suggestion of the National Judiciary Council” but gives no further instructions on the procedures or an eventual right of the president to refuse such nominations. Constitutional scholars widely agree that presidents may refuse the nomination of any candidate for public office (irrespective of judge, professor or prime minister) on the grounds of a person’s lack of formal and legally required qualification or reasonable doubts about their loyalty to the constitution. While this generally follows from presidents’ inaugural oath to uphold and protect the constitution, the rejection of nominees for political or personal reasons arguably has no legal basis.

Duda’s refusal to appoint the judges met with particular opposition due to the lack of justification for his decision. Before being proposed candidates for judicial promotions are vetted by the National Judicial Council; if their application is denied they can appeal the decision in court. An additional vetting by the president beyond formalities thus appears not only unreasonable but also adds the complication that there is no prescribed legal way to appeal his refusal to appoint a nominee. Many conflicts over constitutional clauses along the lines of “the president appoints/signs/etc” fall into the category of conflict between two constitutional organs and can be adjudicated by the constitutional court by the ways of a standard procedure. Yet as both the National Judicial Council and the rejected nominees lack ‘organ quality’, neither of them can easily challenge the president’s decision. The latter became clear in the only other case judicial promotions at lower courts were refused by the president. In 2007 Duda’s pre-predecessor Lech Kaczynski (the deceased twin-brother of current Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski), created a precedent for Duda’s actions by declining to appoint nine judges. The nominees’ constitutional complaints were eventually rejected after four years of deliberations as the justification was that the implementation of administrative law by the president does not fall within the remit of the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Administrative Court likewise rejected the complaints and subsequent further constitutional complaints were also rejected so that the case now (still) lies with the European Court of Human Rights (for a longer summary, see the report of the Helsinki foundation here).

Newspapers have speculated on the reasons which led the president to reject the nominations. In fact, some of the nominees are far from uncontroversial. One judge was prominently accused of bribery, another judge controversially dismissed a collective law suit against the financial services provider Amber Gold (which was liquidated following the discovery that is was based on a pyramid scheme), and a third was involved in the widely discussed case of restricting the “parents’ rights” of a couple accused of violence against their children. In addition, one judge was widely criticised for continuously extending the arrest of a football fan for alleged drug-dealing, yet without any verdict being issued over the course of three and a half years. Last, one of the judges whose promotion was denied judged on a case in which Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski leader sued fellow legislator Janusz Palikot (then Civic Platform, later founder of ‘Palikot’s Movement’) for insulting him.

None of the above-mentioned controversies would generally justify denial of appointment or other presidential intervention. Thus, it is more likely that they are part of the Law and Justice government’s plan to reform and mould the judiciary in their image. Given that Duda is generally seen as little more than a vicarious agent of Law and Justice leader and Polish politics’ grey eminence (he does not hold any government office) Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it is not unreasonable to assume that the president is now helping to fulfil that plan (while at the same time extending the powers of his office). In a recent proposal made by the government (which was already widely criticised by the Human Rights Ombudsman and NGOs), the National Judiciary Council would have to propose two candidates per vacancy thus considerably increasing the president’s power over judicial nominations. This, together with the conflict over the constitutional court and the government’s decision to once again merge the position of general prosecutor with the minister of justice (the positions were separated by the predecessor government in 2008 and unsuccessfully vetoed by president Lech Kaczynski) highlights the great importance that Law and Justice attaches to judicial reform. Nevertheless, it also shows that judicial independence in Poland might increasingly come under threat – not only, but partially due to president Duda’s activism.

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See also my blog posts on similar conflicts over judicial appointment in Slovakia:
Slovakia – Continuing a legacy? President Kiska’s first 3 months in office and the battleground of judicial appointments
Slovakia – One year on, conflict over president’s refusal to appoint judges remains unsolved

Guest post: Who is winning Poland’s ‘constitutional tribunal war’?

This is a guest post by Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. An earlier version appeared on his blog.

Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s new right-wing government has been engulfed in a debilitating controversy over the composition of the country’s constitutional tribunal. While opposition groupings claim that the government is undermining democracy, its supporters argue that the crisis was caused by its predecessor’s attempt to pack the tribunal with opponents of the new administration. The opposition has been more successful in promoting its narrative, and support for the ruling party and President have fallen, but the government retains the backing of its core supporters.

Controversy over new judges

Poland’s new government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has enjoyed virtually no post-election honeymoon and was plunged immediately into an ongoing dispute over the composition and functioning of the country’s 15-member constitutional tribunal. The tribunal is a powerful body whose task is to check whether or not laws and regulations adhere to the Constitution. At the end of November, the Law and Justice majority in the new Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of the Polish parliament, annulled the appointment of five tribunal judges nominated in October by the previous parliament dominated by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the former ruling party. Earlier, in June the Sejm amended the constitutional tribunal law to allow the outgoing parliament to appoint these judges, including two whose terms of office were not due to expire until December by which time the new Sejm would have convened. However, the five judges were unable to assume their posts because Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda did not accept their oaths of office. This opened the way for the newly-elected Sejm to choose five new tribunal members, in spite of vocal protests from opposition parties.

At the start of December, the tribunal ruled that the appointment of two of the five Civic Platform-nominated judges (replacing those whose term of office expired in December) was unconstitutional, but that the other three were nominated legally and should be sworn in immediately. However, the presidential chancellery argued that the tribunal did not have the right to make judgements about the constitutionality of Sejm appointments, and Mr Duda swore in the five judges nominated by the new Sejm instead. Tribunal president Andrzej Rzepliński responded by declaring that the five would not participate in its work until he judged that their status was fully resolved.

Law and Justice tried to break this impasse by amending the constitutional tribunal law to increase the number of judges required to make rulings in the most important cases from nine to thirteen; thereby obliging Mr Rzepliński to accept the five judges appointed by the new Sejm. Moreover, the Law and Justice amendments increased the threshold for tribunal rulings to a two-thirds majority, making the votes of these new appointees more significant. They also stipulated that complaints filed to the tribunal would be considered chronologically rather than at its president’s discretion, potentially delaying its ability to question bills passed by the new government. The new law would take effect immediately, preventing the tribunal from declaring it unconstitutional. While critics claimed that that these changes would emasculate the tribunal, the government argued that they increased the legitimacy of its judgements and prevented the timing of cases being manipulated.

Threat to democracy or restoring balance?

The government’s actions met with vociferous protests from opposition politicians, the liberal-left media and much of the Polish legal establishment. Civic Platform, now the main opposition grouping, apologised for the rushed nomination of two additional judges, but condemned Mr Duda for refusing to swear in the other three nominated by the previous Sejm and argued that the election of the five Law and Justice nominees was unconstitutional. It joined forces with most other opposition parties in accusing the government of interfering in the independence of the judiciary by trying to obstruct the tribunal in order to free itself from legal checks and balances. The government’s critics claimed that it was reverting to the allegedly confrontational and authoritarian style of politics that they claimed characterised the previous 2005-7 Law and Justice-led administration, and that its handling of the constitutional crisis contradicted the moderate, centrist image that the party cultivated during the parliamentary election campaign; exemplified by Jarosław Kaczyński, the party’s combative leader, nominating his more emollient deputy Beata Szydło as its prime ministerial candidate. They also tried to raise the emotional temperature of the debate by arguing that the new government was violating the Constitution and posed a threat to democracy. As a consequence, thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a new civic movement, on the two Saturdays before Christmas; the largest of which, in Warsaw, was (according to police estimates) attended by 20,000 people. (A figure disputed by organisers who claimed 50,000 and cited figures produced by the Warsaw mayor’s office; although government supporters say that she participed in the demonstration).

On the other hand, the government’s supporters, who organised a 40,000-strong (according to police estimates) counter-demonstration in Warsaw, placed the blame for the constitutional crisis squarely on the previous Civic Platform-led government, which, they say, appointed five judges illegally just before the October parliamentary election that opinion polls suggested it would lose. It did so, they claim, to pack the tribunal with opponents of the new government, thereby frustrating its legislative programme. Previously, they said, government turnover had ensured a more politically-balanced tribunal but the fact that the Civic Platform administration was the first in post-1989 Poland to be re-elected for a second consecutive term undermined this relative pluralism. Indeed, by attempting to stack the tribunal with five rather than three additional judges, all but one of tribunal’s 15 members would have been appointed during the period when Civic Platform was in government. Thus, even with the appointment of five members by the new Sejm, the tribunal would still have been dominated by judges nominated by Civic Platform government-dominated parliaments (although the three vacancies due to arise within the next 18 months could give Law and Justice nominees a majority during the second half of the current parliament).

While some government supporters accepted that Law and Justice may be partly to blame for the crisis by voting out the three justices who, in the tribunal’s view, were elected legally by the outgoing parliament, others pointed out that their election was invalid because of procedural errors in the October vote. They also argued that, as guardian of the Constitution, the President had the right not to accept the five judges appointed (in his view illegally) by the previous parliament and that the tribunal could not instruct him what to do with parliamentary nominees. The new Sejm, they said, elected five new tribunal members on the basis of its own procedural rules which are in line with the Constitution and cannot be reviewed by the tribunal, whose only role is to check the constitutionality of laws and regulations.

More broadly, the tribunal’s critics see it as a highly politicised body (a charge that the tribunal and its supporters deny vigorously). Law and Justice believes that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite and remains committed to a radical reconstruction of the state. While the Committee for the Defence of Democracy-sponsored protests may have involved many politically non-aligned citizens, the party’s supporters argue that, far from being spontaneous civic actions, they were orchestrated by opposition politicians and vested interests hostile to the government’s plans to radically reconstruct the Polish state and sweeping socio-economic policy reforms. The latter include generous additional child benefits and reversing the Civic Platform government’s deeply unpopular decision to increase the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men) to be funded partly by new taxes on banks and larger retailers. During the previous Law and Justice government the tribunal struck down key elements of the party’s programme, notably its flagship ‘lustration’ law extending the scope of vetting public officials and authority figures for their links with the communist-era security services. The new government, they say, had to redress the balance within the tribunal as it posed a threat to its core policy agenda.

No Law and Justice honeymoon

The constitutional tribunal war has developed into the most serious political crisis in Poland for many years, polarising opinion on both sides. No incoming Polish government has come under such rapid and intensive attack as the new Law and Justice administration. Given its determination to ‘cleanse’ the political system and scale of its reformist ambitions, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the new administration would encounter vigorous opposition. On the face of it, constitutional prerogatives and abstract concepts such as the ‘separation of powers’ are difficult for ordinary citizens to grasp, and the tribunal is a body that does not appear to have any direct impact on their day-to-day lives. However, the opposition has been extremely successful in promoting its argument that this issue exemplifies how Polish democracy is under threat from the new government; a narrative that has been picked up by large sections of the EU political establishment and Western opinion-forming media, with whom the government’s opponents enjoy strong links and who share their dislike of Law and Justice. At the same time, the negative reaction to the government’s constitutional tribunal changes has caught Law and Justice off-guard and, in stark contrast to the professionalism of its election campaign, the party has failed to make its case effectively. Rather than using the language of ensuring greater pluralism and restoring balance, Law and Justice has often attempted to justify its actions by claiming that they increased the government’s effectiveness, making them appear part of a crude power grab. Although the Civic Platform government enjoyed much less hostility from the mainstream media (the lack of scrutiny of its over-reach in appointing additional constitutional tribunal judges in October being a case in point), it was also careful to ensure that it made state appointments with greater subtlety and finesse.

While newly elected governing parties usually enjoy a post-election ‘bounce’, opinion polls suggest that the crisis has led to a drop in support for Law and Justice among more moderate, centrist voters. The main beneficiary of this has been the ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, a new party formed in May by liberal economist Ryszard Petru which has pulled ahead of Civic Platform and is currently running neck-and-neck with (and, in some surveys, even slightly ahead of) Law and Justice. Others opinion polls have shown a substantial increase in negative evaluations of Mr Duda who, by being forced to take sides in such a divisive and polarising dispute, has paid a high political price for his unswerving support for the government. For sure, Mr Duda still enjoys relatively high approval ratings and remains Poland’s most popular politician, but the perception that he is a ‘partisan President’ may be difficult to shift.

While Law and Justice probably did not anticipate that the ‘constitutional tribunal war’ would prove to be so debilitating, the party has stood its ground and is clearly willing to pay a political price for actions it feels are necessary to ensure that its legislative programme is not de-railed. It has retained (and possibly even solidified) support among its core voters and no national elections are scheduled until autumn 2018 so has plenty of time to recover. Moreover, while the opposition has been mobilised and, to a degree, united by the crisis, it remains fragmented. ‘Modern’ is currently benefiting from its political ‘newness’ but Mr Petru’s grouping remains an unknown quantity and experience suggests that the social base for a purely liberal party is relatively narrow. Although it would be extremely damaging for Law and Justice if the perception of the party as a ‘threat to democracy’ were to become firmly lodged in public consciousness, ultimately the government’s fate, and ruling party’s electoral fortunes, are probably more likely to depend on its ability to deliver quickly on its high-profile socio-economic policy promises.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of ‘Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe?’ (Routledge, 2012) (http://www.tandf.net/books/details/9780415380737/) and blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at: http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.