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.
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‘.