WARSAW, Poland – European Union flags have disappeared from government press conferences. The constitutional court has suffered a huge blow to its authority. Grassroots initiatives have sprung up to protect the country's young democracy.
Poland is in the grip of dizzying political changes since the nationalistic right-wing party, Law and Justice, took power last month and acted quickly to solidify its hold over this nation of nearly 38 million people. Their most controversial move has been an attempt to pack the Constitutional Tribunal — the only real check on the party's power after it took control of the presidency and parliament in elections this year — with loyal supporters.
Many Poles fear their hard-earned democracy is in jeopardy.
"They have started to violate the foundations of the democratic state of law. This is unprecedented. In Poland's 26 years of democracy, a ruling party has never behaved like this," said Hanna Szuczewska of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a movement founded days after the new government took power in October.
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo lashed out Wednesday against such accusations, saying the "opposition is trying to provoke a political row ... that is harmful to Polish citizens."
Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski says the Constitutional Tribunal was filled with people loyal to the previous centrist government, led by the Civic Platform party, and changes must be made so it "no longer protects the previous crony system."
"We must reorganize Poland and it must be a huge reorganization," Kaczynski told supporters at a pro-government march Sunday. "But we are denied that right today, even though we won the election."
Accusations of anti-democratic behavior are powerful in a nation where fighting for freedom is a deep tradition. Poland is the birthplace of two major figures in the struggle against Soviet communism: Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II. Millions joined Walesa's Solidarity movement in the 1980s. More recently, Poland has been the region's most successful post-communist transformation, with fast economic growth and an increasingly prominent role in European affairs.
Walesa, alarmed by the country's political direction, called this week for a referendum on shortening the government's four-year term.
Law and Justice rule "will lead to a lot of misfortune. It will end badly," Walesa told private Radio Zet.
A pro-democracy demonstration Saturday drew 50,000 people to Warsaw's streets. Some marchers compared the recent political changes to the authoritarian turn taken in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
"This is Warsaw, not Budapest!" went one chant.
The next day, however, some 35,000 rallied in Warsaw in support of the new government — underlining the deep chasm between those who support the government's Catholic and Euroskeptic vision and those who support a secular, pro-European world view.
A conflict over the appointment of new judges to the court — a legally complex drama that has played out over past weeks — has appeared to reduce the court's impartiality. Law and Justice is still not heeding a ruling by the court that said three judicial appointments by the previous government were valid.
Another controversy has been a presidential pardon for Mariusz Kaminski, the new government's minister for security services who was convicted of abuse of power during a previous stint in power.
"What is happening in Poland has the character of a coup d'etat," the head of the European Parliament, Martin Schutz, said Monday.
Schutz's comment sparked an angry reaction by Polish leaders, with Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski calling it "irresponsible" and noting that democracy in Poland remains strong. He pointed out that the election that brought Law and Justice to power was free and undisputed and that all developments now taking place are being monitored by a free press.
Law and Justice says it simply wants to fix what it sees as damage done 26 years ago by a political compromise between the former communists and Solidarity. That negotiated political transformation allowed former communists to take control of some of the nation's resources and maintain some political influence. Kaczynski and his allies also object to what they consider to be excessive power by foreign countries, corporations and banks in Poland.
His party wants to reshape many aspects of society and replace hundreds of officials in government institutions — something that offends many Kaczynski opponents, but also often happens regularly after a change of power in Poland and in older democracies like the United States. Another law being drawn up would give the government greater control over the state-run media, a cause of concern for Polish journalists and media watchdogs.
"They want to control every aspect of life, every sphere of the public scene," said Krzysztof Izdebski, a human rights lawyer who co-founded another new democratic initiative, We Are Watching You.
Yet Kaczynski and his allies say they are fulfilling will of the nation. The party won nearly 38 percent of the vote in the October but its support has since dropped to 27 percent, according to a poll by the TNS agency published Tuesday. The poll has a margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
At the heart of the controversy is Kaczynski, seen to be the real power behind both the prime minister and the president. A former prime minister himself from 2006-2007, Kaczynski's rule was marked by domestic political turmoil and tensions with neighboring Germany and other European powers. Law and Justice, however, says it was just protecting the country from outside powers that wanted to erode Poland's sovereignty.
Signaling a return to a more nationalistic agenda, Szydlo has abandoned her predecessors' practice of holding government press conferences in front of both Polish and EU flags, saying she prefers Poland's "most beautiful white-and-red flags."