Armed with candles and Polish and EU flags, thousands of Poles gathered in front of the country's supreme court in Warsaw. They were there to support the country's judiciary in the face of the government's push to reform it. The protesters projected a statement onto the court building: "This is our court."
The demonstration, while moving, cannot paper over the fact that it amounted to a paltry, estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people in a city of nearly two million. Polls give the ruling, conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) a consistent 35 to 40 percent approval rating, while the most important opposition party garners just 22 to 25 percent.
It is no wonder, then, that the PiS and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, feel confident in their ability to push through reforms of the supreme court and regular court system, following an already controversial reform of the Constitutional Tribunal.
Their case against the courts has been building: They lack democratic legitimacy, PiS lawmakers say judges are building a state within a state, lacking a "moral core;" and commit crimes that are covered up by their judicial colleagues. That is why, they say, the chief justice now needs to be appointed by the justice minister and the newly reformed National Council of the Judiciary.
It is not uncommon in democratic countries that judges are selected by lawmakers. But it is the fine print that counts, such as when it comes to who confirms the candidates. Generally the opposition also has a say, a check on power that the PiS reforms do not envision.
Pure partisan interests
The ruling party's unwillingness to compromise suggests that when the PiS talks about "democratic legitimacy" it actually means whipping partisans into line.
Much the same as with state media, which has been turned into an instrument of propaganda for the PiS under the banner of "news diversity," there is good reason to fear that when Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks of "returning the courts to the people," he really means tightening his grip on power by way of his conservative revolution.
In Poland, it is the supreme court that certifies parliamentary elections. Should supreme court justices, as planned, be relieved of their posts and replaced by PiS loyalists, it would be unclear what would happen were the PiS to lose an election. The potential conflict of interest would be a catastrophe for democracy. As such, we can only hope that the thousands of protesters did not carry their candles to the supreme court in vain.