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Poland’s court crisis cools, but anger on streets shows it’s far from over

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, voted earlier this month to approve a law on court control in the parliament in Warsaw, Poland. The country’s president vetoed the law Monday.Alik Kelpicz/Associated Press

WARSAW — A 25-year-old psychologist, Anna Suchodolska joined the recent protests against the government’s moves to place Poland’s courts under its thumb. She was relieved when the president unexpectedly vetoed the laws this past week.

But she is under no illusion that the crisis is over, or that the governing party won’t just find another way to do what it wants. If the protests resume, she will be there again, she said.

“My dad said to me that I need to act now so I don’t cry later,” Suchodolska said, smoking a cigarette in the crowded plaza outside Warsaw’s largest shopping mall. “He said he’s too old, but I am young and I have to fight for my rights and my children’s.”

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For 21 months since it was elected, Poland’s government under the conservative, nationalist Law and Justice party has wobbled one pillar of the country’s democratic institutions after another. Only on occasion did Poles take to the streets.

There was something different about the government’s latest moves that stirred Poles to protest. Many here perceived the attempt to undercut the independence of the judiciary as a far broader and more fundamental threat to their freedoms than anything the government had tried before.

But everyone knows the crisis is merely postponed. The battle over the courts promises to loom as a point of contention for Poles, especially of a younger generation, concerned about safeguarding the hard-won democratic progress the country has made since communism collapsed more than 25 years ago.

In vetoing the two bills Monday, a move that shocked leaders of the Law and Justice party, President Andrzej Duda said he would spend the next two months drafting his own versions of the bills.

Party officials, who had considered the president a reliable supporter, said that they would not give up on what they called urgently needed reforms of a dysfunctional and coddled judiciary, but that they would wait to see the president’s bills before taking further action.

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“The decision of the president was so unprecedented that, basically, I don’t know what the future will be,” said Adam Bodnar, Poland’s official ombudsman, who came out against the proposed laws. “Will there be growing conflict between the party and the president? What shape will these new laws take?”

In an interview Thursday night with a Catholic television station, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the undisputed leader of the governing party, said it had clearly miscalculated in rolling out its court program.

But, he insisted, the government still intends to achieve its goals, despite the vetoes.

“Now we must think of ways to fix it,” Kaczynski said. “How to make sure that it was just an incident that can be quickly forgotten so we will move forward, meaning that this reform will be passed, and that it will be a radical reform, because only if it’s radical will it truly change the reality.”

Igor Janke, president of the conservative Freedom Institute in Poland, said he expected Kaczynski to forge some sort of compromise with Duda that got as much as possible of what Law and Justice wanted. The two men share the same conservative ideology and many of the same goals.

“There was tension after the vetoes, shock and some emotions,” Janke said. “Of course, it is psychologically difficult for Kaczynski to accept, but he is an intelligent player, so he knows that they have to cooperate somehow.”

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Whether they will be able to come up with a compromise that also satisfies the European Union and other critics is another question, he said.