WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish President Andrzej Duda demanded on Monday a greater say over the nomination of judges, in proposals that will be closely scrutinised by the European Union and rights groups concerned over Warsaw’s compliance with rule-of-law standards.
Duda, an ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, unexpectedly vetoed the party’s own overhaul of the judiciary following nationwide protests and warnings from Poland’s Western allies about a politicisation of the courts.
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.
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 rules were part of a drive towards authoritarianism.
Duda’s counter-proposals on judicial reform - which have to be approved by lawmakers to take effect - would still increase political control over the courts, though he envisages this being exercised by the president as well as by parliament.
“I believe this reform is of great social importance and will be enforced,” Duda told reporters.
Under Duda’s plans, parliament would need a three-fifths majority, not just a simple majority as under the vetoed proposals, to appoint new judges, and the president would be able to intervene if lawmakers cannot agree.
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 Agnieszka Barteczko and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Gareth Jones