How will relations between Poland’s President and ruling party develop?

by 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.

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