Poland’s war on democracy was aided by Trump

Analysis by Ishaan Tharoor* – The Washington Post
The right-wing government in Poland is on a collision course with the European Union.
Over the weekend, a bill overhauling the country’s judiciary passed both chambers of the parliament. If it gets adopted, the ruling Law and Justice Party will be able to fill Poland’s Supreme Court with its hand-picked allies. Critics warn it would be a profound step toward authoritarianism.

The measure has led to the biggest street protests since the populist conservative party came to power in 2015. Lech Walesa, the 73-year-old former president, joined demonstrators in the city of Gdansk, where he led landmark strikes in the 1980s that helped topple communism. He warned that the freedoms won by the anti-communist struggle are now under risk.
“Our generation managed, in the most improbable situation, to lead Poland to freedom,” he said to the crowd in the city’s Solidarity Square. “You cannot let anyone interrupt this victory, especially you young people … You must use all means to take back what we achieved for you.”
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council and a former Polish prime minister, described the legislation as “a negation of European values and standards” that would “move us back in time and space — backward and to the East.” The “East” was less a geographic signifier than a marker for a different, darker era of Polish politics, when Warsaw was subject to the whims of Moscow and isolated from Europe’s liberal democracies.
A statement from the U.S. State Department urged the government to reconsider the bill, which it declared would “undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland.” Yet the White House seems to have sent a different message.
After all, it was in Warsaw earlier this month that President Trump championed his vision of the West to a crowd of supporters bused in by the ruling party. Trump said nothing then about the importance of rule of law or the preservation of democratic institutions. Instead, he delivered a paean to blood-and-soil nationalism, anchored in antipathy to Islam and airy appeals to Christian values and the sacrifices of “patriots.”
Michal Kobosko, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Warsaw Global Forum, told The Post that Trump’s rhetoric clearly “encouraged to move forward with their offensive against the courts.”
“In giving such a speech in such a place, Trump has confirmed Poland’s nationalist government in its isolationist and anti-democratic course,” wrote Post columnist Anne Applebaum.
That course has been charted by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice Party’s co-founder and boss and the de facto leader of Poland. Both the country’s prime minister and president are seen as loyal accomplices to Kaczynski’s agenda. Protesters were staking their hopes on the latter — President Andrzej Duda — to veto the widely unpopular legislation, but he is expected to sign it into law after a few amendments.
Its implications are staggering. “Here’s the crowning blow in ending judiciary independence in Poland,” wrote Monika Nalepa of the University of Chicago. “Since the Minister of Justice already simultaneously holds the position of Prosecutor General, the ruling majority may now choose both the prosecutor AND the judge in every single court case.”
For Kaczynski and his allies, though, the takeover is part of their project to “renationalize” Poland. Kaczynski sees the judiciary as infested with crypto-communists and liberals “subordinated to foreign forces.” He peddles various conspiracy theories, including his belief that Tusk and his liberal colleagues hatched a plot that led to a 2010 plane crash in which Kaczynski’s twin brother died.
When the incident came up during a parliamentary debate about the judicial reforms last week, Kaczynski exploded. “Don’t wipe your treacherous mugs with the name of my late brother,” he said to his liberal adversaries. “You destroyed him, you murdered him!” This sort of polarizing rhetoric has become the stock-in-trade of politicians in nearby Hungary or Turkey, where illiberal conservatives have also set about subverting and transforming democracies in their image.
Kaczynski’s populist platform — built on Catholic piety, anti-cosmopolitan nationalism and generous cash handouts — won his party the support of close to 40 percent of Polish voters, and he may seek to consolidate that position through elections later this year. The liberal opposition, meanwhile, is floundering, as Der Spiegel observed.
“The bedrock of [the liberal] political platform has always been the E.U.,” noted the German magazine. “Its vision is basically that so long as Poland is a reliable European partner, aid from Brussels will ensure prosperity for all. The trouble is that few people believe in this vision in the remote east of the country, in villages and small towns.”
The protests against the new judicial reforms may present a galvanizing moment for the opposition. Last year, the government was forced to back down from an abortion ban after mass protests hit the streets.
“We will show that we refuse to live without freedom,” said Radomir Szumelda, a 45-year-old liberal activist, to my colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker. “Young people who didn’t live under communism may not know what that was like, but they are also joining us, and together we are saying that we can’t go back.”
But they may not get much assistance from the European Union. Despite the scolding statements coming from various corners, real punitive measures can only be slapped on Warsaw by a unanimous vote within the bloc. Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, Viktor Orban, has already made clear that he would veto such censure.
And, looking further west, it’s unlikely the American president — another politician at war with liberalism and convinced of judicial plots against his rule — will lift a finger to prevent Warsaw’s slide away from Europe. July 24
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*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
Annex:
Poland’s president to veto controversial laws amid protests
Kate Connolly – The Guardian
Andrzej Duda says he will block proposed legislation that would have put supreme court under control of ruling party
Poland’s president appears to have bowed to the pressure of nationwide protests by announcing he will veto controversial judicial reforms that would wipe out the supreme court’s independence and allow the justice ministry to appoint judges.
Andrzej Duda’s surprise announcement was interpreted as a rare reprimand of the ruling Law and Justice party, (PiS) with whom he normally has a close relationship.
Commentators were shocked at the move, interpreting it as a major setback for PiS, which has made a big issue out of controlling Poland’s independent institutions, particularly the judiciary, since it came into power in 2015, and hailing it as a victory for demonstrators.
Duda, in a televised address, said: “These laws must be amended.” He said his rejection of the proposed bills would be criticised “probably by both sides of the political scene”, but that they “would not strengthen the sense of justice in society”.
The proposed measures he said he would veto included one to remove all judges of the supreme court, except those chosen by the justice minister, and another under which parliament would have been given the authority to appoint members of the National Council of the Judiciary.
Explaining that his decision had resulted from lengthy consultations he had held with legal and other experts over the weekend, he said: “I have decided to send back to parliament – in which case to veto – the law on the supreme court, as well as the law on the National Council of the Judiciary.”
His declaration followed eight days of demonstrations across the country, in which hundreds of thousands of Poles have taken to the streets in the capital, Warsaw, as well as hundreds of other towns and cities, and held vigils in front of courthouses.
Protesters marched by candlelight again on Sunday night, ahead of the president’s much anticipated decision, and a day after the Polish senate had followed the lower house of parliament and voted for the reforms on Saturday.
Under banners emblazoned with slogans such as “Free courts” and “Freedom, equality, democracy”, demonstrators pleaded with Duda – himself a lawyer – to reject the laws, claiming they marked a shift towards authoritarian rule.
Investors’ interpretation of Duda’s announcement as having stalled a constitutional crisis caused the Polish currency, the zloty, to rise against the euro.
The proposals had also set Poland on a collision course with the European commission, which had threatened to stop Poland’s voting rights if it introduced them. Donald Tusk, the European council president and a former Polish prime minister, had warned of a “black scenario that could ultimately lead to the marginalisation of Poland in Europe”.
There has also been criticism from Washington, with the US state department voicing its concerns. When President Trump visited Warsaw earlier this month he praised Poland’s leaders for their patriotism but did not mention the judicial reforms.
The legal amendments had their first parliamentary hearing on 18 July and were adopted by the lower house, followed by the upper house four days later. The only procedure preventing them from entering the statute books was the presidential signature.
Duda’s declaration marks the first time that he has publicly split with Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, the head of PiS. Since his inauguration, Duda has been seen as something of a Kaczy?ski puppet from whom he effectively takes orders, leading to much mockery of him. Some commentators are sceptical whether his apparent assertion of his authority is authentic, or merely an attempt to take the edge off the protests. Although he insisted on Monday that political interference in the judiciary should not be up for discussion, some predict Duda will propose new conditions that do little to address the main concerns about the legislation and they fear he will fail to veto a third bill affecting the independence of regional and local courts.
Katarzyna Lubnauer, head of the parliamentary caucus of the opposition party Nowoczesna, welcomed the veto. “What we had wasn’t a reform, but appropriation of the courts,” she said. “I congratulate all Poles, this is really a great success.”
Human rights organisations welcomed the president’s veto but urged vigilance. “With this decision President Duda has pulled Poland back from the brink of all-out assault on the rule of law,” said Gauri Van Gulik, the deputy Europe director at Amnesty International. “These reforms would have brought the justice system fully under the heel of the government, removing judicial independence and jeopardising fair trial rights in Poland,” he added.
Van Gulik said the demonstrations had helped to bring about the veto, which was a “tribute to the power of public protest”, adding: “It is partly thanks to people power that this alarming scenario has been averted.”
But opponents of the law urged Duda to go ahead and also veto the third bill, which would give the government the power to appoint the heads of common courts.
Hundreds of participants of the protest rallies face trial in the courts, having refused to pay fines for barricading the streets or penetrating police barriers.
Kaczy?ski’s government has staunchly defended the law changes, calling them vital in the fight against corruption and necessary to help make the judicial system more efficient. It has accused opponents of the moves of being representatives of the elite trying to protect their privileged status.
Among the experts Duda said he had consulted were lawyers, sociologists, historians, philosophers and anti-communist dissidents.
The person who had guided him most, he said, was Zofia Romaszewska, a prominent campaigner of the 1970s and 80s, who he said had told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.”
Among those to praise Duda was Lech Wa??sa, the former president and erstwhile shipworker and leader of the Polish labour union Solidarno??, which helped bring down communism across Europe. Wa??sa called his decision “difficult and courageous”, saying it showed that Duda “begins to feel like a president”. But he urged Poles to continue their protests to force Duda to also reject the third bill.