Poland’s attack on the judiciary and Hungary’s campaign against George Soros are part of their dangerous, illiberal course

Poland is “on the road to autocracy”, the outgoing president of its highest constitutional court warned late last year. Since then it has travelled an alarming distance: thousands of Poles protested at the weekend against changes that undermine the rule of law by handing politicians control of who is in the judiciary and what they do. The response of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has been to step on the accelerator – its proposals to terminate the appointments of all supreme court judges, unless the executive allows them to stay on, could be passed within days or even hours. The court is not only the final tribunal of appeal for all criminal and civil cases: it rules on the validity of elections, approves the financial reports of political parties and adjudicates on disciplinary proceedings against judges. This comes on top of laws passed last week giving parliament control over the previously autonomous body appointing judges, and ministers the power to appoint the president of each court, who decides which judge will sit in each case. The government had already manoeuvred its way to control of the constitutional court.

These developments are probably the most frightening manifestation yet of the rightwing, nationalist, populist illiberalism that has taken root in Poland and Hungary (predictably, PiS has portrayed the judiciary as corrupt and in service to the elite). The international community has struggled to respond – and some have encouraged and abetted such tendencies. Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw, and his speech playing to the xenophobic tendencies of his host, sent all the wrong signals; many believe it encouraged the government to push on quickly with the judicial changes.

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