Protesters hold umbrellas while lying on the ground next to a barrier guarded by police during a demonstration in front of the Sejm building in Warsaw on Thursday. (Bartlomiej Zborowski/European Pressphoto Agency)

In a vote that has been described as an assault on democracy by European officials, the Polish Senate approved a rushed and controversial law on Saturday that will retire all Supreme Court judges and allow the president to replace them with more favorable alternatives. The measure still has to be signed by the Polish president, but he is expected to approve the changes.

Proposed by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (Pis) party, the legislation has been widely condemned as the most worrisome development in a country where democratic institutions are under mounting pressure. If signed, the changes would constitute “an unprecedented attack on judicial independence,” according to a joint statement by leading judges from the neighboring Czech Republic.

It is the latest of many unprecedented attacks.

Only two years ago, Poland was widely considered a success story that had managed to seemingly leave behind its communist past, and turned into a “robust” role model democracy praised by officials across the European Union.

Now, it is becoming a case study for why liberal democracy should not be taken for granted. The Polish government has pursued a number of strategies to weaken its opponents and democratic institutions, including repressions against journalists or judges and the dissemination of conspiracy theories, which preceded Saturday’s vote.

A populist election campaign that paved the way

When Polish voters decided it was time for a new, populist administration two years ago, the reasons for the election outcome appeared hard to understand from the outside. Poland’s economy had grown by nearly 50 percent over the previous decade, benefiting from an integration with the rest of the continent.

But the landslide victory of Poland’s right-wing and anti-E. U. Law and Justice party revealed deeper divisions, which were harder to measure than the country’s GDP. Senior party officials took a decidedly anti-immigration stance in the days before the election, even warning that migrants might carry dangerous diseases.

The timing was right for the Law and Justice party. Europe faced the peak of its massive refugee influx in the second half of 2015, which provoked fears in more conservative nations, like Poland, and ultimately paved the way for Law and Justice’s victory. In particular, rural voters there had long felt neglected by their previous government and complained that economic prosperity had not been accompanied by improved social services.

Repressions against journalists

With its sweeping mandate, Law and Justice quickly began to consolidate its power. The country’s public broadcaster, TVP Info, essentially turned into a mouthpiece of the government months after the election. Through amendments to the country’s media law, the government gained control over the public media network’s executives, which triggered the resignation of more than 140 employees.

Soon thereafter, the government went after independent newspapers and broadcasters, as well. It attempted to limit the number of journalists allowed access to parliament but had to abandon the plans after large-scale protests.

As a result, Poland’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index dropped to “partly free” this year “due to government intolerance toward independent or critical reporting, excessive political interference in the affairs of public media, and restrictions on speech regarding Polish history and identity, which have collectively contributed to increased self-censorship and polarization,” according to Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington.

Despite international protests, the government’s control over state media outlets has created a parallel reality in parts of Polish society, where protests against the “illiberal” Law and Justice party are being portrayed as a “coup against the democratically elected government.”

Conspiracy theories

State media outlets have also repeated some of the conspiracy theories that have further deepened divisions in the country over the last two years. Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has blamed former Polish prime minister and current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, for somehow being complicit in the death of Kaczynski’s twin brother seven years ago.

Tusk campaigned for Law and Justice's rival party, the liberal-conservative Civic Platform, and was prime minister in 2010 when President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash in Russia. Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party has long believed that the crash was not an accident but an assassination.

Last year, the party pushed for the exhumation of the bodies of the 96 victims to investigate the theory, but critics have said the move was timed to stoke anti-European Union tensions. There is no evidence to prove Kaczynski’s suspicions.

The government vs. the justice system 

The emergence of investigations that are being criticized as politically motivated by critics has been accompanied by a parallel effort to restrict the independence of judges.

Saturday’s vote on the Supreme Court law is only the latest governmental interference with Polish courts. After the 2015 election victory, for example, Law and Justice initiated the replacement of a number of judges of the country’s Constitutional Tribunal — and then essentially paralyzed the tribunal by requiring two-third majorities for rulings and a mandatory participation ratio.

Threats to jail opponents

The more recent legislation would give parliament large sway over the appointment of judges, stoking fears among government critics who believe the changes would make the prosecution of political opponents more likely. Human rights advocates say such fears may be warranted, given that Law and Justice published photos of anti-government protesters and threatened to prosecute them earlier this year, despite warnings by NGOs that the move would have a “chilling effect” on the opposition. There has been little resistance to such measures inside the civil service, which has largely been replaced by loyalists over the last two years.

With the next parliamentary elections expected to take place in 2019, Law and Justice is unlikely to run out of time in its effort to weaken its opponents and to politicize previously independent institutions.

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