WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- On the heels of electoral defeat four years ago, Polish right-wing party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski stood before supporters and declared that eventually victory would be theirs. "I am convinced the day is coming," he told his followers, "when we will have Budapest in Warsaw."
It was an expression of admiration for Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has consolidated power by weakening the judiciary, media and other institutions in a manner condemned by Western powers as undemocratic.
Now, with Kaczynski's Law and Justice party back in power since last month, critics say he is making good on that promise that he made back in 2011, as the government is acting with huge speed to embark on a path reminiscent of that in Hungary.
On Tuesday the parliament, dominated by Law and Justice, approved controversial new legislation which will paralyze the Constitutional Tribunal, essentially eliminating that court's ability to act as a check on any legislation passed by the new government. One of the party's next goals is to consolidate its hold over the state media, which is expected to bring purges of journalists who are critical of the new government.
The ruling party maintains that it has a mandate for deep social change from voters, who gave it the strongest victory a party has ever enjoyed in post-communist Poland: a clear majority of seats in parliament and the ability to rule without a coalition partner.
It says it must make changes to the tribunal because the court is filled with appointees of the previous government who will block its mandate for change.
The tribunal job is to examine contested legislation to ensure it does not violate the constitution. Its members are legal professionals appointed by the parliament. It is now filled with many appointments made by the centrist Civic Platform party, which held power for the past eight years. The last time Law and Justice held power, from 2005 to 2007, it saw its ambitions for deep change stifled by that legislative court.
After eight years of rule by a pro-market and pro-European Union party, those changes involve greater state spending on the economically disadvantaged and pushing for other deep change consistent with Law and Justice's Catholic, nationalistic and anti-migrant agenda.
But civil rights observers decry what they see as a backsliding of democracy in a part of Europe that emerged from dictatorship only 26 years ago. The case of Poland is considered especially concerning given that it is the largest nation in the region, with nearly 38 million people, and the one that has been considered a huge economic and political success.
"This government acts against Poland, against our achievements, against freedom, against democracy," Lech Walesa, the former president and founder of the anti-communist Solidarity movement, said on Radio Zet on Wednesday.
"And I am not even talking about how it is causing us ridicule around the world," added Walesa, a longtime political opponent of Kaczynski's. "I am ashamed to travel abroad."
The drama that played out late Tuesday in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, was emotional and dramatic. One after one, opposition lawmakers stood before the hundreds of lawmakers gathered together to denounce the legislation as the death-knell to Poland's constitutional and democratic order.
Then a Law and Justice lawmaker, Stanislaw Piotrowicz, stood up and denounced those who claim to be fighting for democracy.
"The defense of democracy is just a smoke screen. You are defending dark interests," he told opposition lawmakers, sparking an uproar in the chamber and chants of "down with communism!"
Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said the new legislation "compromises civil rights and liberties."
"From now on, the Polish Constitution will play a similar role as it did during the communist era, namely there will be no mechanism to compel the ruling party to abide by it," said Jacek Kucharczyk, director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank in Warsaw.
Tens of thousands of Poles -- among them many who belonged to Walesa's Solidarity movement -- turned out for street protests over the past two weekends. They chanted "constitution!" and voiced their fears that democracy is at risk. A large pro-government demonstration also took place in Warsaw, with Kaczynski defending the moves to change the regulation on the court -- saying it was necessary to fight the cronyism of the previous political elite.
All of this has raised alarm abroad as well. A critical editorial in the Washington Post on Wednesday suggested President Barack Obama should intervene and on Monday, the foreign minister of Luxembourg -- which holds the rotating EU presidency -- called developments in Poland "frightening" and said the EU may have to get involved to try to alter Warsaw's course.
Jean Asselborn told Germany's ZDF television that the Polish government apparently doesn't know "that we are a community of values, that we not only can intervene but must intervene if things are going the wrong way in terms of the rule of law."