Europe's Autocracy Problem

Polish Democracy's Final Days?

Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks at a pro-government demonstration in front of the Constitutional Court building in Warsaw, Poland, December 2015. Kacper Pempel / REUTERS

Winter has come to Europe, but it seems to be springtime for the continent’s autocrats. Following the example of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party, Poland’s new government, led by the nationalist-populist Law and Justice party (PiS), has launched assaults on the country’s judiciary and public media, putting Polish democracy and the rule of law at risk. In December, tens of thousands of Poles demonstrated against the government’s illiberal actions; European Commission officials, meanwhile, have promised to investigate whether the developments in Poland constitute a “systemic threat” to the rule of law there. Unsurprisingly, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the PiS, has dismissed the protestors as traitors and rejected criticism from abroad.

Poland’s constitutional order is locked in a standoff.

In Poland’s political crisis, the European Union is reaping the consequences of its inaction against Hungary’s drift toward authoritarianism over the past five years. By failing to aggressively counter Orban’s grab for power, the European Union signaled to aspiring autocrats across the continent that they could commit similar attacks on democracy and the rule of law without facing meaningful consequences. Clearly, Poland’s PiS took note and has acted accordingly. If the European Union allows a second, much larger state to turn away from pluralist democracy and the rule of law, then the EU’s standing as a union of democracies and a beacon for liberty in the region will be damaged irreparably. European Union leaders need to act quickly and forcefully to help preserve liberal democracy in Poland by making it clear that the country could face costly sanctions, including the suspension of EU funding, if the PiS-led government does not respect democratic principles. 


The current crisis began with an illegal move by Poland's previous government, led by the liberal Civic Platform party, to exert influence over the Constitutional Court, a 15-member body that judges the constitutionality of legislation passed by Poland’s parliament.

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