WARSAW (Reuters) - On the evening before Polish President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly vetoed two controversial bills intended to reform the courts, the devout Catholic was seen praying at the country’s most popular shrine, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.
But his inspiration for a move that shocked the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and took the sting out of nationwide protests may have been as political as it was religious.
President since 2015, Duda has been dismissed by opponents as simply “the pen”, a reference to his readiness to sign bills into law. Vetoing the judiciary bills was an opportunity to carve out an independent political identity.
Political observers also believe Duda, 45, is positioning himself for the next presidential election, although he has not said publicly whether he will run. He is more popular than the right-wing, euroskeptic PiS with which he is allied but would still need to build wider support if he is to win in 2020.
Duda said he was acting in line with the constitution when on Monday he vetoed two bills that would have curtailed the independence of the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, he approved a less controversial bill intended to reform the lower courts.
The government’s bid to extend its powers over the judiciary angered the European Union and caused one of the biggest political crises in Poland since the end of communism in 1989.
Many Poles think the judiciary is corrupt and dominated by communist-era thinking, while also suspecting the government of a power grab that will undermine Polish democracy. For days, thousands of protesters have demanded that Duda use his veto.
But until last weekend, government and PiS sources said they were convinced that the president would sign all three bills.
Duda was at the presidential summer compound in Jurata on the Baltic coast, where he had gone to “think things through from a distance”, one government source said.
There, Duda said he had consulted with lawyers, judges, law professors, sociologists, philosophers and politicians.
The demonstrations were worrying Duda, a source close to the presidential office said, “because they included many people who have nothing to do with politics and who were just concerned about the changes in the courts”.
At around noon on Sunday, it became clearer to those around him what Duda might decide. He was talking to people on the phone and exchanging text messages, sources close to the presidential office said.
He had spoken to Zofia Romaszewska, a veteran social activist and presidential adviser, who said she knew what it was like to live in a country without an independent judiciary and had told him: “I would not want to return to such a country.”
In the evening, Duda made a private trip to Czestochowa, where he was seen kneeling and deep in prayer. One of the monks who attended the service said they were praying for the president “who is present among us”.
After prayers, Duda talked to some pilgrims who were visiting the shrine. He then headed back to Warsaw, making up his mind about the legal reforms during the drive.
“He went there to seek guidance. He got it,” a source close to the president’s office said. Duda himself said it was “a quick decision. A decision taken without delay”.
The timing of the trip made some in PiS wonder whether the president would do what the party wanted and approve all the judiciary bills.
“For some it was a signal that things may not be as straightforward as they seemed to PiS,” a source close to the government said.
“PiS made a mistake treating the president just as a puppet,” another source close to the presidential office said. “The president detonated a mine on which PiS was sitting.”
Government spokesman Rafal Bochenek said it was “a pity” the president had vetoed the bills, while Prime Minister Beata Szydlo described the decision as “incomprehensible”.
Political observers say Duda has created a major rift between himself and PiS. “The rest of the summer is going to be very telling about the future of Duda, the future of PiS and the future of Polish politics,” the source close to government said.
Some sympathetic political commentators have spoken of Duda’s “emancipation” following the veto.
PiS sources say it may have been an astute political move by the president, who succeeded in quietening the protests that were gaining in size and frequency. Protests on Tuesday night attracted a fraction of the crowds that took to the streets all last week.
Polish political sources on all sides agree that Duda is thinking about the 2020 election. Before vetoing the bills, he met PiS moderates and members of the anti-establishment Kukiz‘15 party, who are seen as possible supporters.
“The president is again making politics,” the source close to the presidential office said.
One PiS source told Reuters that the party had been told to “tone down the criticism” of the president because it knows it needs Duda, who is more popular with voters than PiS.
“He realized that he has more power than the party. It’s like he suddenly realized he had the power,” a government source said.
Duda has reached the presidency after a career that has included political activism with the centrist Unia Wolnosci party, advisory work for PiS, and spells in government and in the European parliament. His office says there is “no official position” on whether he will stand again for president.
Tomasz Siemoniak, former defense minister in the Civic Platform government that lost to PiS in 2015, said an important factor behind Duda’s veto was the “terrible” response to the judiciary reforms in foreign capitals.
But he added: “The president was also motivated by a desire to break the image of being totally politically submissive and this definitely increases his chances of re-election in 2020.”
Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski, Agnieszka Barteczko and Pawel Florkiewicz,; writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Peter Millership