Just two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump visited Poland and praised the nation as a beacon of freedom, mass protests are sweeping the country. Around 50,000 people took to the streets of Warsaw alone as demonstrators across Poland marched on Thursday to protest harsh crackdowns by the country’s increasingly authoritarian government.
In an increasingly bold show of power, the reigning Law and Justice party (PiS) has moved to impose tight restrictions on Poland’s judiciary, limiting the power of the Supreme Court. Legislation adopted by the PiS-controlled Sejm — Poland’s lower house of parliament — would force justices into retirement, exempting those chosen by the justice minister. The PiS-controlled Senate and President Andrzej Duda are both likely to approve the proposal, which is only the latest in an almost two-year long battle targeting the judiciary.
Left with few options, protesters have swarmed the streets of cities across the country. Waving flags and holding candles, Poles called for “Free courts!” while thousands begged the PiS-aligned Duda to reject the overstep. Many told reporters they were there to defend democracy, and that recent moves by PiS brought back harrowing memories of Poland’s time under communist rule.
“In the 1980s I fought for a democratic country, and that’s why I’m here again,” Maria Wojnicka, a 57-year-old teacher, told Politico EU. “This is like a horror movie. Even six months ago I didn’t think anything like this was possible. Now I’m afraid that Poland will again be a totalitarian country.”
🔴 SENSITIVE |
— Vocal Europe (@thevocaleurope) July 20, 2017
The protests came shortly after harsh threats from the European Union. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, warned Warsaw on Wednesday that the European Union was growing “very close” to invoking Article 7, an unprecedented move that would strip the country of voting rights in the council of ministers. European Council President Donald Tusk, who previously served as prime minister of Poland, also issued a stern warning to the country.
“It has been a long time since Poland was in the centre of attention so much, and even longer since this attention was so negative,” Tusk said in a statement. “We can stop this dangerous tendency, but it will require dialogue, a readiness to engage in talks and swift decisions that are positive for the people of Poland.” He went on to add that “there is very little time left” to save Poland’s democracy.
Since PiS took power in 2015, the European Union has become increasingly critical of Poland. At the time, the party’s election was viewed as a referendum on the policies of the outgoing centrist Civic Platform party, whose numerous scandals and undelivered economic promises were exacerbated by the region’s refugee crisis. A government agreement to take in 7,000 people fleeing crises in the Middle East and elsewhere was deeply unpopular with Poles — helping to usher in PiS, which has refused to take in a single refugee over “security” concerns.
That hardline mentality has driven general government policy since PiS came to power. Under the direction of far-right party head Jarosław Kaczyński, who arguably wields more power than Prime Minister Beata Szydło, Poland has cracked down not only on the judiciary but on the media, public assembly, and a range of other freedoms. Among those are reproductive rights, something the government has found surprisingly challenging to curtail even in devoutly Catholic Poland. Efforts to introduce a near total ban on abortion last fall failed after thousands of protesters, most of them women, marched in opposition to the crackdown. (PiS has still successfully curtailed access to emergency contraception.)
Poland’s increasing creep to the right is in step with several other Eastern European countries, most notably Hungary, which has also seen a wave of anti-refugee sentiment, in addition to crackdowns on both universities and non-governmental organizations with foreign funding. Like Poland, Hungary has also been threatened by the European Union with legal action — making the two nations natural allies against the bulk of the bloc’s members, something Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto made clear on Thursday.
“We stand by Poland, and we call on the European Commission not to overstep its authority,” Szijjarto said in a statement, warning the Commission to avoid behaving “like a political body.”
But Hungary isn’t the only country maintaining warm ties with the Polish government. Thursday’s protests came shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Poland, where he was warmly greeted by the government. At the time, Kaczyński argued that other countries had “envy” for Poland over the visit, which he labeled a “new success” for the nation.
The feeling seemed to be mutual. “We’ve come to your nation to deliver a very important message: America loves Poland and America loves the Polish people,” Trump told a large crowd, many of whom had been bussed in by PiS parliament members.
Still, support from other right-wing leaders has done little to endear PiS policies to many Poles. Polish activist Marta Lempart expressed pride in the protesters marching against the government’s legislative efforts, but said she was pessimistic about the country’s future.
“We lost. We don’t have a Western judicial system, a European judicial system anymore,” Lempart said. “We have an Eastern, back-to-the-communist-times judicial system now.”
Seemingly in an effort to calm unrest, Duda acknowledged the demonstrations. “The judiciary is a very serious issue,” the president said. “It needs to be reformed — but wisely.”
Duda pledged not to sign the legislation in its present form, but he indicated he would sign if minor amendments were made. For many protesters, that’s far from enough, but without outside help, some said it’s unclear what can be done.
“I don’t agree with what’s happening,” 27-year-old Marta Magot told Politico. “We’ll try on our own, but we need help from the European Union.”