Andrzej Duda says he will block proposed legislation that would have put supreme court under control of ruling party.
Poland’s president has said he will veto controversial judicial reforms that have sparked days of nationwide street protests and prompted the EU to threaten unprecedented sanctions.
“I have decided to send back to parliament – in which case to veto – the law on the supreme court, as well as the law on the National Council of the Judiciary,” Andrzej Duda said in a televised announcement.
“The law would not strengthen the sense of justice in society,” he added, explaining that his decision came after lengthy consultations with legal experts over the weekend. “These laws must be amended,” he said.
The reforms proposed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) would have increased political control over Poland’s judiciary. They triggered an angry response from critics, who accused PiS of trying to curtail the independence of the courts.
Duda’s declaration marks the first time that he has publicly split with Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of PiS. Since his inauguration, Duda has been seen as something of a Kaczyński puppet.
Some commentators are sceptical whether his apparent assertion of authority is authentic, or merely an attempt to quell the protests; cynics believe Duda will propose amendments that do little to address the main concerns about the legislation.
But Duda insisted that political interference in the judiciary should not be up for discussion. Among the changes was a proposal to allow the attorney general, a position held by the justice minister, to be able to influence decisions by the supreme court.
“It should not be part of our tradition that the attorney general can interfere in the work of the supreme court,” Duda said.
The Polish senate backed the reforms on Saturday, but they still required the president’s signature.
Days of protests across Poland had followed the proposals by PiS, which has been in power since 2015. Large numbers held a candlelit protest outside the supreme court in Warsaw on Sunday night, pleading with Duda to veto the reforms, which they claimed marked a shift towards authoritarian rule.
The reforms have set PiS on a collision course with the European commission, which has threatened to stop Poland’s voting rights if it introduced them. Donald Tusk, the European council president and a former Polish prime minister, has warned of a “black scenario that could ultimately lead to the marginalisation of Poland in Europe”.
Concern has also been expressed by the US government.
But Kaczyński’s government has staunchly defended the law changes, which he said were vital in the fight against corruption and would help make the judicial system more efficient. It has accused opponents of the moves as representatives of the elite trying to protect their privileged status.
Poland’s currency, the złoty, immediately rose against the euro, with investors interpreting Duda’s announcement as having stalled a constitutional crisis.
Katarzyna Lubnauer, head of the parliamentary caucus of the opposition party Nowoczesna welcomed the veto. “What we had wasn’t a reform, but appropriation of the courts,” she said. “I congratulate all Poles, this is really a great success.”
Duda said he consulted many experts before making his decision, including lawyers, sociologists, politicians and philosophers. But he said the person who influenced him the most was Zofia Romaszewska, a leading anti-Communist dissident in the 1970s and 1980s.
He said Romaszewska told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do everything. I would not like to go back to such a state.”
The former Polish president and democracy campaigner Lech Wałęsa said it was a “difficult and a courageous decision” for Duda to reject the bills, and said it showed that Duda “begins to feel like a president”. He called on Poles to continue their protests to force Duda to reject a third bill in the package on changes to the judiciary.
“We will either make [the government] turn back or we will bring about a change,” Wałęsa said.