On Thursday, the lower house of the Polish Parliament, the Sejm, passed a controversial bill put forward by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which, if ratified, would give the government powers to effectively replace all of Poland’s supreme court justices with its own appointees. Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported that 235 Polish MPs voted in favour of the bill, with 192 voting against.

The bill is part of a broader package of reforms targeting the country’s judiciary. Just days ago, the Sejm passed another bill, which would dissolve the National Judicial Council, a body responsible for judicial appointments. If passed, the law would allow the government to appoint members to the council.

The latest reform would terminate the tenures of all existing supreme court justices, giving Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro the discretion to retain individual judges. Poland’s ombudsman Adam Bodnar and leading experts on Polish law previously warned that the move would largely eliminate the constitutional separation of powers in Poland. To come into effect, the bill now has to be passed through the upper house of the Polish parliament and signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda.

On Wednesday, Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, warned that the EU could impose sanctions on Poland if the legislation was passed; under a special procedure set out in Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU could strip Poland of voting rights in the Council of Ministers. “Each individual law, if adopted, would seriously erode the independence of the Polish judiciary,” Timmermans said in a statement. “Collectively, they would abolish any remaining judicial independence and put the judiciary under full political control of the government.”

The suspension of a Poland’s voting rights under Article 7 would only require the support of a qualified majority of EU member states, although all member states would need to determine that Poland had committed a “serious breach” before further steps could be taken. Opposition from Hungary, Poland’s illiberal ally in the EU, could thwart efforts to take action against Poland.

“Backwards and eastwards”

Since the nationalist party came to power in late 2015, PiS has been in almost constant conflict with the EU, which has criticised the Polish government for its attempts to erode democratic norms in Poland.

In a series of legislative actions taken soon after winning its Parliamentary majority, PiS tightened its grip over state-owned news media, appointing party loyalists to key posts. It took steps to ensure the loyalty of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, a high court that serves as a check on the legislature. And it cracked down on civil society and non-governmental organisations.

PiS sees these moves as necessary to fight corruption and “purge” Poland of the continuing influence of “Communists”. Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS party leader who is widely seen as the de facto ruler of Poland, believes that Polish institutions are subordinate to “foreign forces” and the remnants of Poland’s Communist elite—“communists and thieves”, as he calls them in public appearances. He has used these accusations to discredit political opponents and democratic institutions alike, while promising his electorate that he will remake Poland from the ground up. To PiS’s opponents, the government’s actions represent exactly the opposite: a return to the authoritarian politics of the 1980s.

PiS’s successes have steered Poland from a path of progress that Poland had exemplified among post-Communist states, and onto a path towards illiberal democracy. PiS’s rule has already invited unfavourable comparisons to Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey and even Putin’s Russia. The latest move comes just two weeks after Donald Trump’s Warsaw visit, during which he praised the populist ruling party, a startling reminder of the changing shape of trans-Atlantic alliances.

Protesters gathered in Warsaw on Thursday to support the judiciary and call on President Duda to veto the bill on the supreme court. Kuba Snopek

In a Facebook post, former Polish prime minister and European Council President Donald Tusk said that, in a political sense, PiS’s actions “move Poland through time and space: backwards and eastwards”. The “actions are a violation of European values and standards and risk compromising our international standing,” he wrote. “We can stop this dangerous trend, but this will require dialogue, a readiness to engage and quick decisions that are acceptable to Polish citizens.”

PiS was quick to reject calls for dialogue, dismissing Tusk for his attempts to “interfere” with Polish politics. But, by evening, thousands had gathered in Warsaw and other cities throughout Poland to support the judiciary and to demand that Duda veto the new bill when it reaches his desk.

This might be too much to ask of the man who once promised that he “will not be the government’s notary”.

Update (24/07/2017): After days of nationwide protests, Polish President Andrzej Duda announced on Monday morning that he will veto the bill on the Supreme Court and the bill on the National Judicial Council.

Lead photo by Krzysztof Belczyński / Flickr.

Pawel Wargan is a writer and photographer based in London.