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Opinion: Polish President Andrzej Duda frees himself

In a surprise move, Polish President Andrzej Duda has vetoed a large part of the government's controversial justice reform. The decision will make a lasting change in the political climate in Poland, says Bartosz Dudek.

"If somebody asks, I'm not here," says the party chairman to the secretary. "And if the president asks?" inquires the secretary. "Is the president somebody?" replies the chairman, grinning. This scene, from the popular satirical web series "Ucho prezesa" ("The Chairman's Ear"), is well-known across Poland. The show's all-powerful chairman is a stand-in for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland's ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS). The president, whose first name the secretary can never remember, referring to him at different times as "Andrzej" and "Adrian," is seen in every episode as the nice, timid figure forever waiting in the hall. From here on out, no longer. "Adrian" will now be remembered as Andrzej Duda. His veto of two of three controversial justice reform bills is evidence of the political emancipation of the young president.

A largely unknown candidate

When Duda announced his candidacy for president in the spring of 2015, journalists were largely befuddled. Many initially confused him with the head of the Solidarity union, Piotr Duda. Andrzej, who is unrelated to the union head, was undersecretary of state for former President Lech Kaczynski and most recently a member of the EU Parliament - though he never received much recognition. The surprise was even greater when the 43-year-old swept Bronislaw Komorowski out of office and laid the foundation for a PiS victory in the subsequent parliamentary elections.

Dudek Bartosz App photo

Bartosz Dudek heads DW's Polish deparment

For Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a comfortable parliamentary majority and an inexperienced political protege in the presidential palace offered the chance of a lifetime. He could finally achieve his dream of a national-conservative revolution, a fundamental moral change in Poland - the dream of a "strong state" that would rid itself of the "post-communist insider relationships" and the "degenerate liberal-Western elites" and return Poland to its national and Catholic roots. It wasn't for nothing that the authors of the controversial justice reform laws saw the Supreme Court as having the responsibility to take into account "Christian values" when ruling on legislation.

Courts serving the government?

It was the minister of justice who was to be responsible for the moral reversal of the judiciary. The laws passed by both the lower and upper houses of parliament aimed to put all Supreme Court judges into temporary retirement. The justice minister would then choose their successors.

For Duda, that went too far. His veto is bold, forceful and correct. His function as a kind of personal notary for PiS leader Kaczynski and his national-conservative revolution is history.

His decision is bold, because not only does it put him on a collision course with his political mentor, but it will also disappoint much of his base. Furthermore, he is exposing himself to criticism from within his own political camp that he will bow down to pressure from the opposition and make common cause with the opponents of the national conservatism.

The decision is forceful because Kaczynski and his entourage had ignored the warning issued by the president several days ago. At the time, Duda appealed to the parliament to pass the reforms with caution and not at a rapid pace. He was right in that matter: The law that arrived on his desk for signing contained obvious contradictions. A veto in such a situation is not just about saving face, but also about following through on the basic responsibilities of the state.

Duda's call for compromise

And Duda is also right that justice reform, about which many are passionate, should not lead to a division within society. This division has grown since PiS' electoral victory - not least because of the confrontational and ruthless policies pursued by Kaczynski. The approach taken by his now-lost protege is therefore the right one: Responsible politics is about forging compromises and achieving the greatest amount of support for political initiatives.

The president's desire to elect members of the National Court Register (KRS) in the future with a three-fifths majority instead of the proposed simple majority is borne out of this line of thinking. Duda blocked the KRS law with his veto, and it is now being reworked.

Duda's vetoing of the two bills may have caused surprise and consternation among Kaczynski and his supporters, but the third piece of legislation was still passed as a kind of consolation. Now, the minister of justice can appoint the heads of the general courts. This is something President Duda learned over the course of his political career: You have to save your opponent's face, too. Duda has grown during his time in office. He has become someone.

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