Turbulence on horizon after Polish court reforms veoted

Turbulence on horizon after Polish court reforms veoted

Warsaw (AFP) - The Polish president's surprise veto Monday of two controversial judicial reforms opens a period of political turbulence in Poland.

Polish analysts told AFP why the implications are hard to predict, including the impact on Warsaw's relations with Brussels.

- What prompted veto? -

President Andrzej Duda is a close ally of the ruling rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party that had pushed the reforms, and as a result many assumed he would approve them.

His decision came after warnings from the European Union and massive street protests against the measures which would have reinforced political control over the courts.

Duda thought the measures gave too much power to the prosecutor general, who is also justice minister and thus a politician.

"It's not a normal situation in a democratic country," said political scientist Stanislaw Mocek.

Some of the provisions of the reforms violated the constitution and Duda did not turn a deaf ear to the criticism from Washington and Brussels, said Mocek.

Considerations of a personal nature likely also played a role in Duda's decision. Diplomat and economist Andrzej Byrt said: "The president felt himself being led down the garden path, because his powers to nominate judges would have been limited."

Under the reforms, Duda would have had very restricted power over the new Supreme Court. He would have been allowed to choose the judges permitted to keep their posts only from among those put forth by the prosecutor general.

- What's behind the reforms ? -

The leaders of Law and Justice, which is headed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have called the judiciary a "caste" that is a privileged informal network of people from former communist circles.

The radical court reforms were part of Law and Justice's populist electoral platform that promises to defend ordinary Poles and empower the state prosecutor.

However, opponents said the measures would weaken Poland's democracy by placing too much power over the courts in the government's hands.

- What has Brussels said? -

Relations between Warsaw and the European Commission have been tense since Law and Justice took power in 2015.

The commission has already warned the party to reverse changes to the constitutional court or face sanctions for breaching EU norms on the rule of law and democracy.

Last year it launched an unprecedented procedure which could eventually see Warsaw's voting rights suspended in the Council of Ministers, the EU's highest decision-making body.

But Duda's veto is sure to be well received in Brussels, said Byrt.

"However, this will only delay Brussels's reaction until the matter of controversial legislation is settled once and for all," he added.

- What do Poles think? -

The question of the reforms cleaved Polish society, with support divided between the centrist-leaning big cities and conservative rural areas where the Catholic church wields considerable power.

In the country, the argument of fighting against the vestiges of Poland's communist past still finds supporters. For city dwellers, Duda's veto was seen as an assertion of independence for a head of state depicted as under Kaczynski's control.

- Next steps? -

"It's the beginning of a new era for the leadership," said Byrt. "The slap inflicted on PiS by the president is a game changer."

Mocek went further, saying: "It is the beginning of the end of our system of entrenched parties. The question is whether there will be a Polish (Emmanuel) Macron, who would be able to institutionalise a popular opposition movement. It will be a year or two before we know."

At the same time, Duda has promised to prepare over the next two months his own proposal to replace the reforms he vetoed. In the meantime Parliament is in recess until mid-September.

"The PiS didn't envisage such a situation. They didn't have a plan B or C. Its voters are disoriented and a crack has developed within the right," said Mocek.

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