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May 18, 2024

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Will Vetoes Defuse
Polish Powder-keg?

Coup instructions urge a repeat of Ukraine’s bloody Maidan

By Robert Strybel
Warsaw Correspondent

WARSAW–Polish President Andrzej Duda surprised everyone when he vetoed two of three controversial judicial reforms enacted by the conservative Law and Justice party to which he traces his political roots. The move was widely seen as an attempt to restore calm in the face of increasingly turbulent protests spreading across the country.

“I have decided to veto the (newly enacted) law on the Supreme Court and National Judicial Council (…) without delay due the widespread unrest and misgivings,” Duda said in a special TV address to the nation. He explained that he was especially opposed to giving the attorney-general excessive influence over the Supreme Court and pledged to draft his own legislative proposals over the next two months.

But he also criticized the liberal opposition which had hinted at its readiness to overthrow the government amid circulating instructions on how to carry out such a putsch. “A state torn by political warfare cannot develop like one that is peaceful,” he explained. “It is impermissible for a member of parliament (MP), who has taken an oath, to call for rioting and lawbreaking. The ballot-box is the place to overthrow the government.”

The Senate Committee reviewing the the bills several days rearlier was repeatedly disrupted by the increasingly hostile opposition. The proceedings were drowned out by chanting, shouting and singing the national anthem and swamped with 1,300 proposed amendments intended to clog up the legislative process. One liberal MP got up on a chair and started petting the chairman with paper balls. Outside, protesters lay on their backs and rhythmically stamped their feet against barriers set up and guarded by police to prevent them from storming parliament.

Two opposition activists who had taken part in Ukraine’s bloody Maidan upheaval (2013-14) began circulating step-by-step instructions on how to bring down the Polish government. It called for setting up self-defense squads, mobilizing young people against the government, refusing the pay taxes and a general strike. Judges were urged to protest by refusing to hear cases.

Many Poles with different political leanings have criticized the privileged and highly paid judicial elite and their often ineffective, sluggish and corrupt behavior.  Even simple cases can take years to resolve unless the plaintiff pays a pre-trial “visit” to the judge. The judiciary is also riddled with older judges who had sent dissidents and Solidarity activists to jail in communist Poland.

Whether Duda’s surprise initiative will remedy those problems and restore some calm to a nation torn by unending political strife remains to be seen. Poland’s liberal Civic Platform party has never come to terms with its 2015 election defeat and has routinely attacked every decision of the conservative government ever since.

The president said he expected criticism from both sides, and he wasn’t wrong. Many Law and Justice politicians expressed dismay that the veto would undermine the reforms, although Duda has yet to draft his legislative proposals. The opposition was generally in favor, but Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna insisted that all three reforms must be vetoed. “We will not let this go,” he emphasized. And on the streets some of the protesters continued to rant, chant and pound the pavement.

Poland is not an easy country to govern, but thanks to a robust economy and people-friendly legislation, Law and Justice continues to enjoy the Polish nation’s highest support. In many surveys it has been double that of the Civic Platform.