Polish President Andrzej Duda said overnight he would veto two of three bills passed by parliament in a judicial reform that has triggered nationwide protests and raised European Union and United States concerns about a politicisation of the courts.
Duda is an ally of the ruling right-wing, eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party and his move appeared to catch the government off guard, while producing only a guarded response from Brussels.
On Saturday, the upper house gave final approval to a bill that would remove all current Supreme Court judges immediately except those approved by the justice minister, who is also the prosecutor-general.
Parliament had earlier passed a bill giving it the right to name most of the members of the National Council of the Judiciary, which would nominate future candidates for the president to appoint to the Supreme Court.
“I’m absolutely a supporter of this reform, but a wise reform,” Duda said in a live statement announcing his veto.
“Reform in this form will not increase the sense of security and justice. Change has to be made in a way that doesn’t separate society and State.”
The overhaul of the judiciary, coupled with a drive by PiS to expand its powers in other areas, including control of the media, has provoked a crisis in relations with the EU and sparked one of the biggest political conflicts since Poland overthrew communism in 1989.
For days, tens of thousands of protesters have held candlelit vigils in cities including Warsaw, Krakow and Poznan, demanding that Duda veto the reforms. Protests continued outside the PiS headquarters and Duda’s office in Warsaw.
The opposition and most legal experts say the changes violate the Polish constitution.
But the government has rebutted accusations that it is heading toward authoritarian rule. The PiS says the changes are needed to ensure courts serve all Poles, not just the “elites”.
PiS lawmaker Jacek Sasin told the state broadcaster TVP Info that Duda’s decision “may mean that we will have to wait much longer for the reform”.
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski
declined to answer reporters’ questions as he headed into a hastily convened party leadership meeting, but Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he was “surprised and disappointed”.
Duda met Prime Minister Beata Szydlo as well as the speakers of the two houses of parliament on Monday afternoon, but no details of their meeting were immediately available.