Poland’s Court Crisis Cools Off, but It’s Far From Over

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WARSAW — A 25-year-old psychologist, Anna Suchodolska joined the recent protests against the government’s moves to place Poland’s courts under its thumb. She was relieved when the president unexpectedly vetoed the laws this week.

But she is under no illusion that the crisis is over, or that the governing party won’t just find another way to do what it wants. If the protests resume, she will be there again, she said.

“My dad said to me that I need to act now so I don’t cry later,” Ms. Suchodolska said, smoking a cigarette in the crowded plaza outside Warsaw’s largest shopping mall. “He said he’s too old, but I am young and I have to fight for my rights and my children’s.”

For 21 months since it was elected, Poland’s government under the conservative, nationalist Law and Justice party has wobbled one pillar of the country’s democratic institutions after another. Only on occasion did Poles take to the streets.

There was something different about the government’s latest moves that stirred Poles to protest. Many here perceived the attempt to undercut the independence of the judiciary as a far broader and more fundamental threat to their freedoms than anything the government had tried before.

But everyone knows the crisis is merely postponed. The battle over the courts promises to loom as a point of contention for Poles, especially of a younger generation, concerned about safeguarding the hard-won democratic progress the country has made since communism collapsed more than 25 years ago.

In vetoing the two bills on Monday, a move that shocked leaders of the Law and Justice party, President Andrzej Duda said he would spend the next two months drafting his own versions of the bills.

Party officials, who had considered the president a reliable supporter, said that they would not give up on what they called urgently needed reforms of a dysfunctional and coddled judiciary, but that they would wait to see the president’s bills before taking further action.

“The decision of the president was so unprecedented that, basically, I don’t know what the future will be,” said Adam Bodnar, Poland’s official ombudsman, who came out against the proposed laws. “Will there be growing conflict between the party and the president? What shape will these new laws take?”

In an interview Thursday night with a Catholic television station, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the undisputed leader of the governing party, said it had clearly miscalculated in rolling out its court program.

But, he insisted, the government still intends to achieve its goals, despite the vetoes.

“Now we must think of ways to fix it,” Mr. Kaczynski said. “How to make sure that it was just an incident that can be quickly forgotten so we will move forward, meaning that this reform will be passed, and that it will be a radical reform, because only if it’s radical will it truly change the reality.”

Igor Janke, president of the conservative Freedom Institute in Poland, said he expected Mr. Kaczynski to forge some sort of compromise with President Duda that got as much as possible of what Law and Justice wanted. The two men share the same conservative ideology and many of the same goals.

“There was tension after the vetoes, shock and some emotions,” Mr. Janke said. “Of course, it is psychologically difficult for Kaczynski to accept, but he is an intelligent player, so he knows that they have to cooperate somehow.”

Whether they will be able to come up with a compromise that also satisfies the European Union and other critics is another question, he said.

“Kaczynski has always moved two steps forward, one step backward,” said Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“I have a pretty good sense that the conflict is going to heat up again,” Mr. Shapiro said. “There are going to be more rounds of this. But I have no real firm idea of what the outcome will be.”

Some analysts remain skeptical about the president’s vetoes, thinking they may have been calculated more to drain energy from the street protests than to protect the independence of the courts.

“The key question here is if the veto is a real act of independence from the government, which I am not sure it is,” said Marcin Zaborowski, a senior associate at Visegrad Insight, a foreign policy journal.

Mr. Bodnar said the government’s move on the courts had stalled for three reasons. First, the size and stubbornness of the protests surprised the government, he said.

Then, the level of criticism from abroad was higher than expected, from regular critics of Law and Justice like the European Union but also from Czech jurists, human rights groups, the American Bar Association and dozens of others.

Finally, Mr. Bodnar said, the bills would have given a great deal of power to Zbigniew Ziobro, the minister of justice and prosecutor general. “Why is the interest of the president to concentrate so many powers in the hands of the prosecutor general?” Mr. Bodnar asked.

Franciszek Gorski, 23, who manages a coffee shop at the Arkadia Mall on Warsaw’s north side, said that he had been too busy to go to any of the recent protests but that he certainly felt the tension.

“Maybe I’m too young, but I’ve never seen Poles so divided, so pitted against each other,” he said. “It seems to me that the government wants to have firm control over everything, the judiciary included, and I don’t like it.”

Next time, he may take to the streets, too.

Andrzej Rychard, head of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, said he saw something fundamentally different — and encouraging — about the most recent wave of protests, which included large numbers of young people, who had voted overwhelmingly for Law and Justice in the last elections.

Previously, Poles took to the streets only when government actions affected them directly, he said.

When Poles protested a move to ban all abortions last fall, the government retracted the bill. This year, the government abandoned a move to restrict journalists’ access to Parliament after it spurred protests.

These latest protests show Poles “are also ready to protest when they see something more universal, more abstract, that is threatened,” Dr. Rychard said.

What Poles have finally come to realize, he said, is that the system that Law and Justice wants to change is Western-style liberal democracy, replacing it with a more authoritarian form of government.

No change that fundamental can happen without a thorough public debate, he said, which is difficult when the factions are so far apart.

“Poland has a problem,” said Ewa Kozak, 60, a grocery store cashier. “People no longer know how to talk to each other. They snarl at each other.”

The one encouraging sign, she said, is the large numbers of young Poles who protested.

“I work as a cashier, so I see a lot of them every day,” Ms. Kozak said. “Really good kids, just slightly disinterested in the world around them. Although now, I think that is changing.”

Mr. Gorski said he has certainly woken up.

“Everything I know about communism comes from history lessons and my parents,” he said. “But I feel that what I am seeing now is starting to resemble the communist reality, with the main party wanting to have all the power and tell the people what they should believe in.”

He shook his head.

“I don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “But I don’t think the government will back down.”