Polish President Andrzej Duda signed on Tuesday one out of three contentious bills that may limit the independence of the judiciary in a move that was preceded with days of protests.
The law allows the justice minister, who is also the prosecutor general, to name the heads of all lower courts.
The president said “a good reform” of the judicial system was needed and said he hoped to table his own versions of the laws within two months.
Duda announced Monday that he would veto two of the bills. His office said early Tuesday he signed the third one, despite demonstrations the previous evening in several cities urging him to block that one, too.
Critics say the signed bill it is unconstitutional, but welcomed his rejection of the others. One of them would have allowed the justice minister to immediately fire all Supreme Court justices and choose their replacements.
The vetoes surprised observers as he is a close ally of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party that had pushed the legislation.
Duda said the law on the Supreme Court gave excessive powers to the prosecutor general.
The government has vowed to press on with reforms despite Duda’s move.
“The president’s veto today slowed down reform work,” Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said late Monday, insisting that the PiS would not back down until the judicial system saw change.
Duda’s decision appears to mark the first significant rift in the ruling Law and Justice party since Duda won the presidency on the party’s ticket in 2015 and the party won parliamentary elections later that same year.
Until this week Duda had loyally accepted all of the party’s program, even other steps denounced by the EU and human rights organizations as attacks on the democratic system of checks and balances.
The party says its program is aimed at removing corrupt officials from state positions.
The two vetoed reforms now return for amendment to parliament, where they require a three-fifths majority — which the PiS does not have — to go through unchanged.
The reforms would have increased political control over the judiciary, sparking an outcry among critics who said the PiS was seeking to reduce the independence of the courts.
“It was never part of our tradition that the attorney general could interfere in the work of the Supreme Court,” Duda said.
The role of attorney general has been held by the justice minister in Poland since 2016, following one of the PiS’s earlier reforms.
“I don’t want this situation to deteriorate, because it’s reinforcing divisions in society. There’s only one Poland. Poland needs peace and I feel responsible for it as president,” Duda said.
The European Commission had threatened to halt Poland’s voting rights over the proposed reforms — a so-called “nuclear option” that the EU has never invoked — while the United States also expressed concern.
A Commission spokesman said it would discuss the situation on Wednesday.