Sat, May 25, 2019 - Page 9 News List

EU election is Poland’s referendum on nationalism

Polish anti-nationalist forces have joined hands to resist the Orbanization of Poland

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Illustration: Lance Liu

In most of the EU, this week’s European Parliament election is a low-energy affair. Not in Poland, where tomorrow’s vote could determine the nation’s direction — and eastern Europe’s — for years to come.

The closely fought contest pits the ruling Law and Justice Party, the nationalist force known by its Polish abbreviation PiS, against five major anti-authoritarian parties and a number of smaller groups called the European Coalition.

“It’s a black-and-white situation,” said Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, No. 3 on the Coalition’s list of candidates in Warsaw. “If the Coalition wins, Poland still has a chance to be a democratic country. If PiS wins, Poland will drift toward an eastern model of government. We can either take the Europe express or the Trans-Siberian railroad.”

This might sound like the kind of exaggeration one is likely to hear from a politician in the heat of a campaign’s final days. However, the example of Hungary weighs heavily on the Polish moderate right, center-left and Greens, three factions that are normally disinclined to cooperate with each other, but have joined forces for this month’s contest.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won his third consecutive election last year against a divided opposition, tightening his stranglehold on the courts, media and civic organizations.

Even if Orban’s opponents manage to join forces by the next election in 2022, they might be too marginalized after 11 years of his propaganda and expanding enforcement machinery to be able to oust him.

In Poland, PiS only came to power in 2015 and it has tried to build up control in one legislative period. Under the nationalist leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it put the judiciary under political control, turned public media into a propaganda machine PiS opponents says is reminiscent of Poland’s communist past, enlisted the Polish Catholic Church to back its identity politics and boosted social benefits to appeal to poorer rural voters.

This race to Orbanize Poland has worked well enough that PiS can withstand scandals that would have brought down many a government in Europe. One involves the alleged entanglement of the supposedly ascetic Kaczynski in a real-estate project funded by a loan from a bank nationalized by the PiS government.

Another followed the revelation of lucrative land speculation involving Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (before he was appointed to the post) and the Catholic Church.

Both were uncovered by reporting in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza; Kaczynski and Morawiecki have denied wrongdoing.

Separately, a crowdfunded documentary that exposed a coverup of pedophile clergy by the church has implicated the one-time chaplain to Poland’s first post-communist leader, Lech Walesa, and has even cast a shadow over the revered late Polish pope John Paul II.

The film hit YouTube days after Kaczynski told a crowd of PiS supporter: “He who raises his hand against the church and wants to destroy it, raises his hand against Poland.”

After church figures expressed contrition, PiS had to look for a damage-control strategy, calling for harsher penalties for pedophiles.

However, the scandals have failed to dent the ruling party’s standing in the polls; its support has been fluctuating between 35 and 40 percent in public opinion polls since February.

“Even with such a bombshell as the church film, we probably see two trends canceling each other out — the public indignation and Kaczynski’s effective use of the idea that the church is under attack,” said sociologist Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Warsaw think tank Institute of Public Affairs.

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