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Polish President Duda
Image: Reuters/Agencja Gazeta/S. Kaminski

Poland: Duda drops rash judicial reform proposal

Paul Flückiger
September 25, 2017

Polish President Andrzej Duda's surprising counterproposal on judicial reform has provoked criticism from many sides. That's because it's clear Duda wants to build up his own power. Paul Flückiger reports from Warsaw.


Early on Monday, Polish President Andrzej Duda presented his own concept for a reform of the judiciary. He also wanted to change the constitution for this purpose before sending his proposals to the Sejm — the Grand Chamber of the National Assembly.

But the announcement was seen as a bombshell: It drowned out all other discussions in the media and in the public, including news of the elections in its western neighbor, Germany. Duda surprised not only the opposition, but also the right-wing populist government camp. More than anything, he managed to provoke unnecessary political chaos.

On Monday evening, Duda ended up withdrawing his proposal. Prior to this, it was clear that the president would not receive the necessary two-thirds majority in the Sejm. While the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), the right-wing populist party Kukiz15 and the Polish People's Party were in principle ready to approve it, the two liberal parties, the Civic Platform and the Modernists rejected the proposal.

Duda had presented his counterproposals to the government's controversial revision of justice only a few hours before, after a two-month waiting period. His stated goal: to break the sole claim to power of the PiS, from whose camp he himself originally comes. Now, apparently, he wants to rise above the fray and become a referee with special powers, and thus wield much more influence.

Justice reform protests in Warsaw
The controversial PiS judicial reforms have sparked protests in PolandImage: Reuters/K. Pempel

Power struggle with the PiS

For two months, the PiS and its chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski spat venom and bile against the president after he suddenly declared himself politically independent at the end of July. Duda had during the summer surprisingly vetoed two of the government's three law reforms after mass protests. However, he signed the government-proposed "law on the reform of the general courts." It gives Zbigniew Ziobro, the controversial PiS minister of justice, the right to change all court presidents and their deputies. The purges have already begun.

For the law on the Supreme Court, as well as the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), Duda now proposes solutions that he praised on Monday as "much more just" and "citizen-friendly." On one hand, his counterproposal for the Supreme Court provides for a new chamber in which all citizens can lodge complaints against any kind of unjustified judgment made by all judicial bodies. This special chamber can now appoint, in addition to judges, lay judges or juries from the Senate - Poland's lower parliamentary chamber.

Warsaw anti-government protest
Duda and Prime Minister Beate Szydlo have often been accused of being puppets of PiS leader KaczynskiImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

He also opposed the attempt to immediately replace the 82 Supreme Court judges, instead setting a maximum age of 65 for judges, rather than the previous limit of 72. According to initial estimates, the new scheme could remove 40 percent of the highest judges from office by the end of the year. He also proposed a disciplinary chamber for delinquent or corrupt judges.

The KRS is responsible for the appointment of judges. Duda had on Monday afternoon insisted that parliament should elect the members of this body with a three-fifths majority; the PiS had foreseen a simple majority. After consulting with parliamentary groups, he presented a complex election mode on Monday evening, in which each member of parliament can vote only for one KRS member. Duda praised his plan, saying that it guaranteed that the 15 members of the body did not all come from the government camp. Observers of the plan mostly just found it confusing.

Reactions restrained

"Such a constitutional change lacks any seriousness," said Irena Kaminska, the chairman of the judges' association Themis. The EU-friendly organization also criticized Duda's other proposals. Kaminska complained that lay judges elected by the Senate could not contribute to the independence of the two new Chambers of the Supreme Court, given that the Senate is dominated by PiS. She also underlined that an additional special charges chamber violated EU law, and criticized the age limit of 65 on judges, saying that "Hungary has tried such a regulation and it failed before the European Court of Justice."

Andrzej Duda and Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Once allies, Duda and Kaczynski have drifted apartImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. Radwanski

The opposition was initially reserved. The liberal PO said in an initial statement that it had to study Duda's proposals in detail. The state broadcaster TVP reacted similarly, televising Duda's speech without commentary. It was only after some time that the PiS openly criticized Duda's proposal.

The right-wing party Kukiz15, however, immediately supported Duda's plans. "The PiS is aiming at a monopolization of power. It is on a dangerous power trip," a spokesman explained, adding that "Duda has a greater legitimacy than the PiS."

The judicial reform in Poland has far-reaching and long-term consequences; it has gripped political, media and public interest for months now. Duda's immediate backtracking on Monday evening, though, shows that the issue is far from settled.

Fighting for democracy in Poland

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