WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s president unexpectedly dropped his demands for a greater say in nominating judges on Monday, in an effort to secure broader political support for an overhaul of the judiciary that the European Union fears will harm democracy.
Andrzej Duda, an ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, conceded that it should ultimately be for parliament to pick Poland’s top judges, hours after saying he would seek a constitutional amendment to give himself the final say on such appointments.
In July, Duda unexpectedly vetoed the ruling party’s own reform proposals following nationwide protests and warnings from Poland’s Western allies about politicization of the courts.
Earlier on Monday, he made counter-proposals which still envisaged greater political control over the courts but to be exercised by the president as well as by parliament.
However, lawmakers from both PiS and opposition parties criticized his plans. After meeting the heads of parliamentary factions, Duda said it was clear he would be unable to win the required parliamentary majority to change the constitution.
“The point is not about me, as the president, to have the power to choose, the point is about the choice being a cross-party one,” Duda said after the meeting.
The eurosceptic PiS says reform of the judicial system is needed because the courts are slow, inefficient and steeped in a communist-era mentality. But critics of the government plans said its proposed rules were part of a drive toward authoritarianism.
The EU is already at loggerheads with the PiS government over a range of issues and a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers on Monday was expected to gauge the appetite for taking punitive action against Warsaw.
After Duda’s U-turn, parliament will still need a three-fifths majority to appoint new top judges - but if lawmakers cannot agree, a special voting mechanism in parliament will decide the issue rather than the president.
PiS currently has a parliamentary majority, but not three-fifths.
Duda also said the retirement age for Supreme Court judges should be set at 65 and that the president should decide whether they can work longer.
Under the vetoed reforms, all current Supreme Court judges would have stepped down immediately unless they had the approval of the justice minister, who is also prosecutor general.
Since coming to power, PiS has not only increased government influence over the courts but has also brought prosecutors and state media under direct government control and introduced some restrictions on public gatherings.
PiS denies retreating on democracy and argues that it has a broad mandate to implement reforms. It says its plans aim to improve a poorly functioning state, bolster Poland’s standing in the global arena, preserve its conservative values and correct mistakes by previous governments that it argues were too dependent on foreign influence.
In proposing his own judiciary reforms, Duda had to weigh their potential impact on his re-election prospects in 2020. Though he remains Poland’s most popular politician, with approval ratings of more than 70 percent, Duda may need PiS support to win enough votes.
Jaroslaw Flis, a sociologist at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, said the rift between Duda and the government was “an internal power struggle” among Poland’s conservatives.
“Duda knows his legislative proposals need PiS support, but PiS also needs him. They cannot push anything through without the president,” Flis said.
Additional reporting by Marcin Goettig, Agnieszka Barteczko and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Writing by Justyna Pawlak and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Gareth Jones and Hugh Lawson