Poland is among the more striking recent cases of countries taking a sharp turn to the right. For more than a decade it was the pride of Eastern Europe: an exemplary example of a country recovering from decades of communist stasis, with a thriving economy, a growing middle class, and a political sensibility closer to America than to Russia.
But, over the last two years Poland has changed. Under the right-wing leadership of the Law and Justice party, the government has shifted sharply, away from democracy and toward autocracy. According to Freedom House, an independent watchdog group, in the last couple of years the government has, for example, interfered excessively in the affairs of public media, and placed increasing restrictions on speech regarding Polish history and identity. Retreats like these “have collectively contributed to increased self-censorship and polarization.”
Things came to a head this week, when Poland’s parliament approved a measure, by a vote of 55 to 23, that would have drastically reduced or even eliminated judicial independence by, among other measures, putting the Supreme Court under the control of the governing party.
The European Union (EU), of which Poland is a member, made its opposition clear. It warned that the EU was “very close” to asking its member states to “issue a formal warning against Poland” over its attempts to subject the judiciary to political control.
But it was not the EU that suddenly motivated Poland’s President Andrzej Duda to announce today that he would veto the two bills that threatened judicial independence. It was the Polish people. Polish people protesting by the tens of thousands in more than 100 cities across the country – expressing their anger over the prospect of a return to rule by autocrats.
Still, today’s presidential veto notwithstanding, this battle is by no means over. Poles who prefer democracy over autocracy will, likely for years to come, have to fight for what they think right.