After days of protests against the government’s plans to control the judiciary, the president has vetoed part of the legislation. That is something – but not enough

People power has historically been a powerful force in Poland. The energy and singular determination of the 1980s grassroots Solidarity movement played a key role in ending Soviet-imposed dictatorship in central Europe. Strikes and demonstrations brought down tyranny through a peaceful transition. Recalling this is important today, as a polarised country struggles with threats to democracy levelled not from the outside but from within. Since 2015, an elected populist and nationalist government with a deep authoritarian streak has transformed Poland into a quasi-pariah in the European club, as well as a political battlefield.

This week, after eight days of nationwide street protests, the president, Andrzej Duda, surprised many by appearing to break ranks with the ruling party over its intention to place the judiciary fully under its control. Mr Duda vetoed two key pieces of legislation aimed at wiping out the independence of the supreme court and giving parliament control over the body that hires judges. His motives remain a matter of speculation. The bills, he explained, “would not strengthen the sense of justice in society”. Mr Duda had up until then sided with every government move to curtail independent institutions. Was this a genuine U-turn, or a tactical retreat designed to take the edge off the protests? His decision was welcome, but far from sufficient; he signed a third bill allowing political control over the heads of courts. The government already has control of the constitutional court. Many fear that the other legislation will return in only marginally amended form.

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