Polish Democracy in the Balance

Democracy dies while the president looks the other way.

Past U.S. presidents have used their bully pulpit to campaign for human-rights and democracy. By encouraging the unprecedented wave of democratization that has swept the world since 1945, their words and actions had consequences. That’s not something that Donald Trump does. Far from it; he positively praises dictators. His words have consequences, too, and they are not good.

After Trump praised Rodrigo Duterte for his war on drugs, which involves sending out death squads to kill thousands of people, the Philippine president was emboldened to impose martial law on Mindanao. After Trump visited Saudi Arabia and praised its rulers, they were emboldened to launch a counterproductive boycott of Qatar that is splintering the anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East. And after Trump visited Warsaw on July 6 and embraced the ruling Law and Justice Party, it was emboldened to push through parliament a law that would essentially destroy the independence of the Polish judiciary, the last major institution standing in the way of its authority.

Now, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that, in each case, local officials reacted to their own imperatives and that the words of Trump were not decisive. The president of the United States does exercise an outsized influence on allies, though; especially allies like Saudi Arabia and Poland, which rely on American protection for their very existence. Strong words of censure from Trump might not have dissuaded any of these rulers from the path they chose, but his words of support undoubtedly encouraged him to take actions that are antithetical to American values.

That’s particularly the case in Poland, which has long been held up as a shining star of the post-Communist world. Now its star is faded, its stature diminished because the populist Law and Justice Party appears intent on imposing quasi-authoritarian control over its unruly democracy. Party members have just pushed through parliament, without the benefit of hearings, a law that would remove all of the country’s supreme court judges and replace them with alternatives handpicked by the justice minister, who is a party member.

Under pressure from crowds of protesters and the European Union, President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly vetoed the supreme court bill, while signing other legislation that increases political control over the lower courts. The question now is whether Law and Justice will try again to politicize the judiciary as part of its larger assault on Polish democracy.

Already, Law and Justice has taken over the state-owned news media and turned it from the BBC model to the RT model, labeling political opponents as traitors to the Polish people. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, “has accused the opposition of conspiring to kill his identical twin brother, who died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia. ‘You murdered him, you scumbags,’ he said to the opposition during the parliamentary debate on the new law.”

There is not a shred of evidence to support this incendiary accusation; the plane crash was almost certainly an accident. Poland’s own investigation “blamed the disaster on a combination of factors, including bad weather and errors made by a pilot who was not adequately trained on the plane he was flying, a Tupolev-154. That probe also said Russian air traffic controllers gave incorrect and confusing landing instructions to pilots — but it stopped short of alleging intentional wrongdoing.”

In his disdain for political opposition and the media and his embrace of conspiracy theories, Kaczynski is reminiscent of Trump, except that he operates in a much more fragile political system without the protections enshrined in a centuries-old constitution.

During his ballyhooed speech in Warsaw, Trump defended “Western civilization,” but he had not one word of rebuke for his hosts in the Law and Justice Party over their efforts to undermine Polish democracy. The State Department, to be sure, is speaking up against the Law and Justice power grab. “The Polish government has continued to pursue legislation that appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland,” it said in a statement. “We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.”

Nice words, but they don’t carry much weight. The whole world knows that the State Department does not speak for the president. And, while Trump tweets about a plethora of other topics, he remains conspicuously silent about the sabotage of Polish democracy. Despite the veto of the supreme court bill, the future of Poland’s institutions remains very much an open question. It’s not too late, Mr. President, to speak up for the very principles of Western civilization that you praised in Warsaw when you said: “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”