Thousands of Polish protesters stood side by side in front of the Supreme Court in Warsaw Wednesday, holding candles and Polish flags and chanting “shame, shame” repeatedly into the night.
The demonstrations, in their fourth consecutive day, come as a reaction to the latest reform proposal from Poland’s far-right ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), which would place the country’s judiciary under political control. Although the European Union has threatened to step in, the legislation could pass as early as Thursday and undermine the country’s democracy at its core.
In its latest power grab, the Law and Justice Party introduced legislation in Poland’s parliament that would mandate all Supreme Court judges to retire and ultimately give the party the power to handpick new judges. While Law and Justice leaders claim the reforms will “heal” Poland’s elitist justice system, opponents worry about maintaining the separation of powers, as mandated by European Union law.
Since the Law and Justice Party controls both houses, the amendment will likely pass, although President Andrzej Duda, also a member of the party, has threatened to veto.
“[Law and Justice is] rushing headlong to consolidate institutional control as quickly as they can,” said Seva Gunitsky, an expert on domestic reform and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
Debates over the legislation spiraled into chaos Tuesday evening when Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski accused the opposition, the Modern (Nowoczesna) Party, of “murdering” his twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s former president. He died in a suspicious plane crash in 2010 along with 95 others, including several of Poland’s political elite.
Achieving the first absolute majority since the fall of Communism, the Law and Justice Party came into power in 2015 with support from ultranationalist youth, previously a fringe ideology that swiftly permeated mainstream Polish politics. Immediately following its election, the far-right party refused to abide by Poland’s constitutional court, leading to the EU’s first-ever probe of a member state’s commitment to democracy.
Since then, a series of legislative actions — including allowing the government to choose the heads of Poland’s public media outlets, expanding police surveillance powers, and curbing freedom of assembly laws — have tightened Law and Justice’s grip on the the country’s public institutions.
Read more about how Poland’s populist government let far-right extremism explode into the mainstream here.
After Poland’s opposition party called on the U.N. and the EU to intervene Saturday, the European Commission said Wednesday that it was “very close” to doling out a punishment for the Law and Justice Party’s proposed reforms, whichFrans Timmermans, the EU’s first vice-president, called a “systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland.” The punishment, according to Timmermans, would strip Poland’s voting rights — a move the EU’s leading body has never made before.
In many ways, though, the European Union’s hands are tied. While its leaders could try to impose harsh sanctions or threaten to suspend Poland’s voting rights, that would require approval from EU member states. And Hungary — with its own rising right-wing nationalist party — has promised to veto any sanctions. Three unnamed E.U. officials also told Politico that Poland wouldn’t feel threatened by any sanctions the European Commission would implement.
“The EU can do very little,” said Angelos Chryssogelos, a teaching fellow in the International Relations and Politics department at King’s College in London. “Law and Justice, from its side, is using a salami tactic, undermining democratic rule of law piece by piece in a way that makes it difficult for the EU to establish swiftly and unequivocally that a direct threat to democracy exists in Poland.”
Even if the European Union does manage to take action or a new government takes power in Poland, the Law and Justice Party has created an environment in which the country’s democracy could be seen as illegitimate in the long term, according to Chryssogelos.
Still, many Poles aren’t on board with turning over control of the judiciary to Law and Justice. Thousands of protesters have rallied in Warsaw and other cities in Poland for months in demonstrations against the conservative government.
Considering the EU’s potential inability to pressure Poland to stop the proposed reforms, public demonstrations might be more impactful in the long run, according to Gunitsky.
“[The demonstrations] show that Law and Justice’s control over the country is more tenuous than they would like,” he said. “But they’ll keep trying.”