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Trump praised Poland as a defender of the West. But their democracy is unraveling.

A man makes his hand into a peace sign and holds a candle. Protestors around him also hold candles and Polish flags.
Protestors demonstrate against the Polish government’s plans to undermine its Supreme Court in July.
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When President Trump visited Poland earlier this month, he praised the country as a defender of Western values and democracy. But now, the country’s democratic institutions are quickly unraveling as the government pushes legislation that would essentially make its Supreme Court irrelevant.

On Thursday, lawmakers in the lower house of the Polish parliament voted in favor of a controversial bill that would give the government complete control over the Supreme Court.

The bill would essentially grant the ruling party the power to appoint new Supreme Court judges and calls for the immediate dismissal of the court’s current judges, except those who had been chosen by President Andrzej Duda.

Specifically, the bill states that the National Judicial Council will select new judges. A law passed earlier this month made it so that the council’s membership predominantly consists of people appointed by the president.

In a hard-hitting column, the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum argued that having a supreme court packed with pro-Duda judges could enable the government to falsify elections, evade corruption investigations, and prosecute opponents.

“This is a blatant attack by Poland’s government on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law,” said Lydia Gall, a Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

The bill was submitted by the right-wing, EU-skeptic, and nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), which controls both the upper and lower houses of parliament and picked President Duda. Since winning October 2015’s democratic elections, the party has been determined to dismantle Poland’s checks and balances.

Now that the bill has been approved by the lower house, it moves on for a vote in the upper house. If it passes, it would then go to the president to be signed and passed as law.

Trump jumped the gun in celebrating Polish democracy

In his July 6 speech in Warsaw, Trump questioned “whether the West has the will to survive” in its fight against “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Repeatedly throughout the speech, Trump praised Poland as a defender of the West.

“Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken,” Trump said. “Our values will prevail, our people will thrive, and our civilization will triumph.”

His nationalistic message was clear: The United States has Poland’s back even as the government is undermining its democracy. His speech may have even emboldened Polish legislators to consolidate the government’s power by making it clear that the US was perfectly content with the country’s rightward drift.

“I am here today not just to visit an old ally, but to hold it up as an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization,” said Trump.

Polish protestors and the EU oppose the government’s actions

Over the weekend, thousands of government opponents protested the bill and the government’s attempts to consolidate power in Warsaw and several other cities.

The Krakow Post interviewed a number of protestors who said they were afraid for their country’s future. One protestor said it was his first time demonstrating since communism ended in Poland 27 years ago.

“Now it is more dangerous. Very, very dangerous,” Robert, a local 51-year-old engineer, told the Krakow Post. “Communism was part of external control by Russia. But [the Law and Justice Party] is an internal thief of law.”

The European Union, which Poland joined in 2004, has warned that the Polish government could be sanctioned and have its voting rights suspended if it passes the supreme court law.

Frans Timmermans, the European commission’s first vice president, said on Wednesday that the EU is “very close” to triggering Article 7, a never-before-used rule that allows the EU to suspend member countries’ voting rights. It was established to ensure “that all EU countries respect the common values of the EU,” according to Politico.

Trump, in other words, should have probably held off in holding Poland up as an example of a smoothly-functioning democratic nation.

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