THE genius of democracy is that voters can boot out a government without damaging the state. But sometimes a new government, not content with whisking the old one from the podium, will take a hammer to the stage itself. That is the worry in Poland. The populist Law and Justice party (PiS), swept back into power after eight years in opposition, is remaking the country in a hurry (see article). It has violated the constitution to replace the previous government’s appointees on the constitutional court, put partisans in charge of the intelligence agencies, purged officials and backtracked on Poland’s commitments to the European Union. When PiS was last in power, its tenure was marked by erratic policies and nationalist paranoia; it appears not to have mellowed with time.
Poland matters. It is the anchor of east-central Europe, the region’s biggest country and largest economy by far. It has been the flagship of the EU’s eastward expansion, proof that democracy and the rule of law can spread. Its stability, prosperity and pro-European orientation have won it respect and diplomatic clout. If PiS wants that era to end, it is going about it the right way. The party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, admires Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, who says he favours “illiberal democracy”. PiS is taking its first steps in the same direction. An EU weakened by crisis is ill-prepared to resist it.