WARSAW, Poland – When Poland's right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice, held power nearly a decade ago, one of its key projects was a law aimed at vetting Poles for collaboration with the Soviet-era secret police. The legislation got struck down by the constitutional court — amid criticism that it was vengeful and undemocratic.
Back in power, Law and Justice is now acting quickly to place its supporters on the Constitutional Tribunal, seeking to neutralize it before proceeding to reshape this Central European nation of nearly 38 million people in line with its nationalistic and Catholic worldview.
"It was the one branch of government that they theoretically couldn't touch and which curbed its power 10 years ago," said Jacek Kucharczyk, the director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw and a critic of the new leadership. "They decided to start with it right from the start."
On Wednesday, the Law and Justice-dominated parliament is to vote in five new members to the 15-member tribunal, part of a wider constitutional dispute. The party says the crisis was sparked by the previous Civic Platform-led government, which itself bent the rules with last-minute nominations before it was ousted in October.
"The Constitutional Tribunal in today's reality is an organ of the party (of Civic Platform)," Law-and-Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said. "This is not acceptable and is why it had to be changed."
On Thursday the tribunal is itself to rule on the legitimacy of the October nominations, which even Civic Platform supporters admit were wrong.
The attempt by the new government to change the make-up of the court, combined with several other controversial steps taken since Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and her Cabinet took power Nov. 16, is raising alarm that the party — which now controls presidency and parliament — is overstepping democratic norms.
"The attack on the Constitutional Tribunal is a danger to democracy," former President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in a radio interview this week. "The image of Poland is being damaged every day."
The liberal Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, also a critic of the new government, included a copy of the constitution in its weekend edition: "Let's get to know our rights before they take them away," the paper said.
Critics typically compare the ambitions of party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski — who was prime minister from 2006-2007 but chose not to take that role this time — to those of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has greatly undermined the independence of the judiciary and other institutions in his nation while also fostering an anti-migrant and Euroskeptic mood.
Like Orban's Fidesz, Law and Justice is strongly anti-migrant, leaving the new leadership seeking a way out of a commitment made by the previous government to accept 7,000 refugees. Before the election, Kaczynski said migrants carry "various types of parasites, protozoa, which aren't dangerous in the organisms of these people, but which could be dangerous here."
A recording also recently emerged in which Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz made anti-Semitic comments during a radio interview in 2002, prompting the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish rights group, to protest that nomination.
Some people believe anti-migrant and anti-Semitic language from those on high is encouraging xenophobia. They point to an incident on November 18 in Wroclaw when far-right activists protesting migrants burned the effigy of an Orthodox Jew. After that, Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said anti-Semites from the extreme right "are under the belief that they have support from this new government for such actions. We are certain that this is not true but we also hope to hear clear and moral statements to this effect in the very near future."
In another controversy, President Andrzej Duda pardoned a government minister who has been convicted of abuse of power. That minister, Mariusz Kaminski, was put in charge of coordinating the country's secret security services. Earlier this year he was sentenced to three years of prison for abusing power back in 2007, when he ran an anti-corruption office in the previous Law and Justice government.
He was pardoned even before his appeal of the verdict could be heard — something experts say has never happened in democratic Poland.