WARSAW, Poland (AP) — For years, Poland was considered a model of democratic transformation, with Lech Walesa's peaceful revolution heralding a new era based on the rule of law.
Now that image is threatened by a new conservative government that has plunged the Central European nation of 38 million into a deep political crisis and raised questions about the ruling party's commitment to democracy. Fears are running high in Europe and the United States that Poland could be on a path similar to that of Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has centralized power and restricted civic liberties in creating what he calls an "illiberal state."
Any serious backsliding of democracy in Poland would be a huge blow to democrats across the entire ex-communist region, which ousted communist governments beginning in 1989. Another discouraging sign came earlier this month when neo-Nazis in Slovakia won seats in parliament for the first time.
The turmoil in Poland is focused on steps taken in December by the new ruling party, Law and Justice, which have effectively paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal, the ultimate arbiter of legislation.
With the court unable to act as a check on the ruling party's power, lawmakers followed with other controversial laws that have centralized the government's power further. These include a law giving the government greater control of the state broadcast media and one increasing police powers of surveillance.
An international human rights commission weighed in on Poland's constitutional crisis Friday with a deeply critical report.
"As long as the situation of constitutional crisis related to the Constitutional Tribunal remains unsettled and as long as the Constitutional Tribunal cannot carry out its work in an efficient manner, not only is the rule of law in danger, but so is democracy and human rights," said the report by the Venice Commission.
The Venice Commission is an arm of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization separate from the European Union. Though its opinion is not legally binding, it carries moral weight and is expected to influence a separate investigation by the EU into the rule of law in Poland.
Some of the language in its report was softer than that of a draft report leaked in late February, an attempt by the commission to create an opening for the Polish government to roll back some of its changes, said Panos Kakaviatos, a Council of Europe spokesman.
Washington has also been trying to encourage Warsaw to resolve the crisis.
"We have expressed our concerns about rule of law developments in Poland," State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday. "We hope a solution to the current dispute will be found that conforms to Poland's constitution, maintains democratic checks and balances, and meets the highest international standards."
Washington has opted for a quieter, less confrontational approach that than of the EU, whose officials have at times used extreme language — "coup d'etat," a "Putinization of Poland" — to the annoyance of Polish leaders.
It's clear the government does not take well to criticism. Recent reports in the Polish media about U.S. concerns prompted party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski to say: "We will solve our Polish issues on our own, without outside intervention. And let nobody here invoke any friendly relations."
Kaczynski has harshly condemned Poles who have joined pro-democracy protests in recent months, describing them as unpatriotic and out to hurt Poland's interests. Despite deepening tensions between the government and its critics, the government remains popular with its conservative and nationalistic electorate.
The Venice Commission's opinion marks the end of a politically eventful week. On Wednesday the Constitutional Tribunal struck down as unconstitutional the new amendments passed in December that radically affect how it functions. The government said it would refuse to publish the judgment, a condition for it to be binding.
The Venice Commission said refusing to publish the judgment would be "contrary to the rule of law" and would "further deepen the constitutional crisis."
Adam Bodnar, Poland's ombudsman, a state-appointed human rights commissioner who acts with autonomy, said the situation creates a "dangerous" legal situation that could undermine human rights.
"The paralysis of the tribunal gives almost unlimited power to the parliament to adopt any laws it wants," he told The Associated Press. "This is a debate about the democratic regime in Poland. Either we go the way of Orban or we stay with those countries that have constitutional control over the laws adopted by their parliaments."
Law and Justice swept to power last year promising deep change, and vowing to help families and the poor and to support traditional Catholic values. It says its changes to the court were necessary to undo the influence of the previous governing party, Civic Platform, which it accuses of being corrupt and having packed state bodies, thus continuing to influence Poland.
Civic Platform last year acted illegally to appoint two judges to the Constitutional Tribunal before the terms of the outgoing judges had ended. Law and Justice says that illegal act justifies the disputed steps that it took.
"Both previous and present majorities of the Polish parliament (Sejm) have taken unconstitutional actions," the Venice Commission said. It urged government and opposition to work together to resolve the crisis.
The new law on the court includes a stipulation it take up cases in the chronological order in which they are brought to the court. With a huge backlog of cases waiting to be reviewed, it would take about three years before the court could even get to challenges against laws passed by Law and Justice. Once they would be heard, the other new rules would make it extremely difficult for any legislation to get struck down.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.