After the Cold War, Poland began slowly to remake itself, and by the last decade it had become a beacon of freedom and a model for economic reform. But nationalist undercurrents persisted in the country’s politics. In the mid-2000s, the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party held power briefly; last year, the party came back in force, capturing the presidency and the majority of the Parliament. Now it appears to be dismantling many of the country’s democratic checks and balances, starting with its highest court. The new Polish government refused to seat the justices appointed by the previous government and passed a law requiring a supermajority of judges for rulings. President Andrzej Duda, elected in May, is heading to Washington this coming week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit. Duda spoke with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth this past week in Warsaw about the court and other matters. Edited excerpts follow:
In the West, many are concerned about the battles here over the constitutional court. The previous Parliament appointed five judges, two perhaps improperly. You are a lawyer. Why didn’t you swear in the other three judges, all of whom were ruled valid by the constitutional court?
The answer is simple. The [new] Parliament had passed a resolution invalidating the five judges appointed by the prior government.
So instead, in the middle of the night, you swore in four judges appointed by your party’s government?
The Parliament passed its decision before the constitutional court made its decision.
The constitutional court has ruled that the parliament’s decision is invalid. Your prime minister even refused to publish the court’s ruling, which is actually illegal.
The constitutional court in Poland has no authority to assess resolutions [of Parliament].
You’re saying that one independent branch of government, the court — which is the equivalent of our Supreme Court — has no authority here?
According to the Polish constitution, the constitutional court does not have the authority to assess resolutions through which judges are nominated.
Your party has a majority in Parliament. So it vetoed the appointment of the judges made by the previous Parliament without waiting for the court to rule, right?
That was the decision made by the Polish Parliament, known as the Sejm. . . . I’m sorry, but nobody has the competence to stop the Sejm from working.
The Venice Commission, a European multilateral institution, ruled that the government’s effort to alter the workings of the court endangered not only the rule of law but also democracy and human rights.
If the constitutional court passed its judgment without looking at the resolution passed by the Polish Parliament, then by doing this it violated —
Wait a minute. The court said the law was invalid.
But still the law was in force. The constitutional court is bound by the binding law, and this is very clearly stipulated in Article 7 of the constitution.
So are you arguing that the court has to abide by the very law it has declared illegal? . . . Aren’t you taking away the court’s independence?
The independence of the constitutional court was not violated whatsoever.
People in the West are concerned that Poland is sliding away from democratic standards.
I think that if the public opinion in Western Europe and the United States had access to reliable information on how the current opposition tried to take ownership of the constitutional court last year, then it would be very clear about the essence of this dispute in Poland.
Why should one branch — namely Parliament — be allowed by a simple majority to change the functioning of another independent branch?
Because there was a deep violation of democratic rules by the former Parliament. It tried to take ownership of the constitutional court.
Your party’s government has basically taken over the public media. The former heads of the public media were dispensed with, and your party’s members were put in charge. What do you think of that?
I don’t think that this situation is extraordinary, because after every election, the new government makes changes in the public media. The people who were working in the public media during the former government were nominated by the former authorities.
There is no longer an independent prosecutor. The prosecutor’s role has now become part of the justice minister’s portfolio. How do you feel about that?
Such a solution was introduced in Poland after 1989, when we cast off the bonds of communism. This is connected with the responsibility of the government for the internal domestic situation security in the state and the public order.
There is much curiosity about your party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
My former party leader. Because the day after the elections, I resigned [from the party].
Well, the leader of the ruling party. It is said that Kaczynski, a former prime minister, is pulling the strings and is really the man in power in Poland, even though he’s only a member of Parliament. Reportedly, you and the prime minister were chosen by him. What’s your relationship with him? Does he tell you what to do?
People who were critical of me as a candidate running for the presidency will keep saying that I am not an independent president. But today, I am the president of the Republic of Poland. And any decisions I am taking, I am taking on my own responsibility.
Okay, but can we talk about Kaczynski? In my reporting, it’s said here and in Washington that he’s the most powerful man in Poland.
He is the leader of the party that today has the majority in the Polish Parliament. However, Andrzej Duda is the president, and Beata Szydlo is the prime minister. I believe that both myself and Madame Prime Minister feel a personal responsibility for the issues we are dealing with and for which we are taking decisions.
How big a threat do you think Russia poses to your country?
I think that this question should be viewed from the perspective of the broader international context, not purely the Polish perspective.
But do you worry about Russia?
As far as Ukraine is concerned, I have no doubt that international law was violated decisively [by Moscow]. The territorial integrity of the country was infringed. It’s hard not to be worried by this situation. Russia has many times violated international law over the last couple of years, from Georgia through Ukraine to Syria. All of that arouses obvious uncertainty. That is why I believe NATO should demonstrate that it [will] respond to the current situation.
Does that mean stationing troops on Polish soil or troop rotation?
I believe that NATO should strengthen its defensive potential in this part of Europe to such a degree as to make it absolutely clear that it does not pay off to launch an attack against any member state. Only the increased presence of NATO in Central and Eastern Europe can ensure real deterrence.
Are you talking about the U.S. now?
Of course, the United States is the biggest and strongest member of NATO.
Are you saying the United States should have a base here?
I would like to see a significantly increased presence of U.S. troops on our territory.
One of the aims of your government seems to be to reopen the investigation of the tragic plane crash in which Kaczynski’s brother, then-President Lech Kaczynski, was killed in 2010. Do you believe it was an assassination?
So far, not all the evidence has been assessed, which makes it impossible to really investigate the case and at least try to reach the truth. The flight recorders and the wreckage of the plane have not been investigated by Polish scientists in a reliable way. The normal procedure in such cases is to try and reconstruct the wreckage of the plane in order to try and establish the reasons of the crash. In this particular case, this has not been done. There is still a lot to be explained.
You said various things about refugees during your campaign — that refugees shouldn’t come here, that they would bring epidemics with them. Do you still feel that way?
Today I believe that our basic duty is to help those people — I’m referring to refugees from Syria — to make sure that peace comes back to their country so that they are able to have a stable life. Poland has never denied assistance, and if anyone needs such assistance, we are going to do so.
You’re just about to go to the U.S. How do you see Poland’s relationship with the U.S.?
The U.S. is a wonderful country and a big ally of Poland. I would like to make sure that the cooperation between Poland and the United States is as good as possible.
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor at The Washington Post.