Poland: People power saves independent judiciary
“This is a great victory for citizens,” said Jaroslaw Kurski in Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland). After parliament passed three bills from the ruling Law and Justice party that would have eviscerated the independence of Poland’s judicial system, Poles poured into the streets in protest. Night after night, hundreds of thousands marched in Warsaw, Poznan, and all across the country, outside nearly every federal courthouse, holding up candles and flashlights “to light the light of hope.” They chanted “We are Poland,” in a rebuke to officials from the rightwing Law and Justice who claimed that opponents of the plan were paid agitators. Faced with this mass outpouring of “fierce anger and determination,” President Andrzej Duda—a Law and Justice stalwart handpicked by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski—capitulated. This week, he announced he would veto the two most egregious laws. The protest’s success shows that “a supernatural force has emerged,” that of Polish youth, who have found their voice. They are now “active and conscious citizens” who will “come out into the streets whenever the powerful threaten our freedom.”
Thank goodness Poles themselves took action, said Nikolas Busse in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany). The European Union would not have allowed such a blatant rollback of the rule of law to stand. Top EU officials threatened to strip Poland of its voting rights in the bloc if the laws went into effect. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and a former Polish prime minister, warned of a “black scenario that could ultimately lead to the marginalization of Poland.” Such punishments, though, would have had the “smell of external interference.” Far better for the correction to come from within Poland. Who would have thought Duda would dare “cut the umbilical cord” that bound him to his mother party? said Boguslaw Chrabota in Rzeczpospolita (Poland). Was it really people power that persuaded him? Or did this former law professor feel pressure from his fellow lawyers to defend the rule of law? Whatever the reason, at least our checks and balances have been preserved.
Alas, not entirely, said Anna Wojda, also in Rzeczpospolita. Duda vetoed the two laws that would have forced the resignation of the current Supreme Court judges and given the government the power to pick their replacements. But he did sign a law that lets the justice minister name the heads of all the courts below the Supreme Court. That law also allows the government to choose, in certain cases, which judge will hear which case. Now every successive government will be able to “purge the lower courts” and appoint its own flunkies. Worse, the amendments that Duda said would be needed for him to approve the other two laws do not substantially improve them. We could still see those laws, in slightly different form, return to the president in a few weeks to be duly signed. Justice is not justice when it is subject to political influence.