Poland Pulls Back From the Brink, for Now

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Protesters in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw urging the Polish president to reject a bill that would change the judiciary system.

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Adam Chelstowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It took one of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s accomplices in the ruling party he controls to put the brakes to his ruthless assault on Poland’s democracy. To general surprise, President Andrzej Duda, a former Law and Justice party backbencher loyal to Mr. Kaczynski, vetoed two bills that would have ended the judiciary’s independence and crippled the rule of law. That is heartening, but not the end of the problem.

Following two weeks of massive demonstrations, and after extensive consultations with legal scholars, historians, philosophers and others, Mr. Duda declared that while Poland did need judicial reforms, it must be “wise” ones, not proposals that would have the governing party appoint all judges. He said one discussion in particular had influenced his decision. It was with Zofia Romaszewska, a former Solidarity activist against the Communist state who told him she did not want to return to a time when courts followed the will of the country’s rulers.

This is something Mr. Kaczynski, despite his obsessive hatred of communism, seems incapable of understanding. To him, the opposite of authoritarian Communist rule is authoritarian right-wing rule, not democracy. Since returning his Law and Justice party to power in 2015 he has systematically worked to restrict a free press, public gatherings, nongovernmental organizations and other facets of a democratic society. The judiciary has long been a target — one of his first battles was against the Constitutional Tribunal, which rules on the constitutionality of government actions; he reduced it to a rubber stamp.

The bills Mr. Duda vetoed assailed the last independent bastion of…

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