Liberal democracy is in trouble worldwide. Times are tough for those of us who believe in old fashioned virtues such as the rule of law and divided government. But nowhere in the world is democracy in decline so painful to watch as in Poland.
Poland is large – its population is nearly 40 million – and it is exceedingly important strategically. It straddles the line between East and West Europe – Germany to the West; Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania to the East – with Russia not far in the distance. It has had, moreover, a history, if only rather a brief one, of democracy. Unlike, say, Russia, which has no experience with democratic governance, Poland has. In fact, during the decades between the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) and now, Poland has been more democratic than not. Not long after the fall of the wall, democracy, and capitalism flourished in Poland, making it by most measures the single most successful country of the former Soviet bloc.
But, in recent years, it’s been straight downhill. Rightist, some would say fascist governments have prevailed in Poland, and though there have been predictable protests, large ones, in fact, they have, so far at least, failed to stop populists and nationalists from having their way with their country.
This week things came to a head. Poland’s rightist government brazenly ordered a sweeping purge of the country’s Supreme Court. In response, many members of the judiciary said, in effect, “no, no, we won’t go,” while people without power took to the streets to protest people with.
Poland’s judicial system is in total turmoil. Still, it’s not clear which way the country will go. What is clear is that Poland’s problem is Europe’s problem. If Poland quits democracy, as recently have several smaller European states, such as Hungary, several things will die on the vine. Much the most prominent among them, much the most important among them, is the European dream – the idea that out of the bloodlands of World War II could grow a continent with a measure of unity and a measure of security. It seems obvious to me that if the first, unity, turns to dust, so, inevitably, will the second, security.