The murder of the liberal mayor of Gdansk raises worrying questions about how polarised the Polish society has become.
The governing PiS (Law and Justice) party has striven to catch the wind from the sails of the far-right by deliberately incorporating their radical messages, and thus legitimising the extreme right subculture.
Stop the hate!
That was the slogan of the march by tens of thousands who gathered on the streets of Polish cities after the liberal mayor from Gdansk died on Monday night.
Paweł Adamowicz was attacked on Sunday evening at the closing ceremony of the Christmas Charity Grand Orchestra (WOSP) by a confused former prisoner, who stabbed the politician and loudly proclaimed “Adamowicz is dead”.
The man was arrested on the spot, but not until after he spoke on the stage, informing the horrified crowd that he was imprisoned when the opposition party, Civil Platform (PO), was in power.
A leader remembered
Paweł Adamowicz’s politics was against exclusion; he stood up for the rights of LGBT groups and refugees.
Last year, he ran as an independent mayoral candidate, but with the support of his former party PO. He abruptly criticised PiS’ xenophobic politics being one of the dozens of mayors who signed a declaration on “welcoming refugees in 2017”.
“What is most important are our Christian values, the humanitarian obligation to help people,” he said referring to the “Gdansk model” which is aimed at integrating asylum seekers and immigrants, including 25,000 people from Ukraine, Chechnya and Serbia.
He was brave enough to go against the Europe-wide mainstream anti-immigration rhetoric in a region where the majority of people rigidly reject other cultural backgrounds.
Adamowicz had been mayor of Gdansk for 20 years, and during that time, he was not spared by PiS’s propaganda media.
“Adamowicz could compete with the Red Army in the devastation of historical areas,” said TVP’s public media website last year.
The Christmas Charity Grand Orchestra (WOSP), which organised last Sunday’s event, is Poland’s most popular altruistic endeavour. The NGO has been collecting money for poor children and underfunded hospitals for 27 years; celebrities and volunteers alike were walking along the streets of Poland to give donors a red heart sticker in return of their donation.
For years, PiS has been attacking the charity for representing liberal values, and banned the Polish military and embassies from crowdfunding on their behalf.
PiS, apparently, was not on top of the crisis communication as the events unfolded; government representatives, on the one hand, most strongly condemned the murder, but the propagandist state television immediately came up with former speeches of PO politicians to prove that the opposition started incitement to hatred.
Also, the Head of State, Andzrej Duda, originally planned to lead a cross-party commemoration, but PO refused to meet with him.
In the end of the day, Warsaw inhabitants marched to the Zachęta National Gallery led by the mayor of the capital, Rafal Trzaszkowski. The location was fitting as the venue has become a symbol of the fight against political violence: on December 16, 1922, an extreme right-wing assassin killed Gabriel Narutowicz, the first President of the Republic of Poland..
The depth of distrust and vitriol
Although little is known about the intentions of the current perpetrator, the tragedy provides several important lessons for Poland and Europe ahead of the upcoming election marathon.
While the party is weak in the major cities, PiS is doing well in the less developed countryside with its anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic and populist rhetoric. Stemming from this bombast as well as the government’s actions, including the deterioration of the rule of law, PiS has a considerable responsibility when it comes to the extreme polarisation damaging Polish society.
Before the local elections just a few months ago, PiS’ mayor candidate for Warsaw published an inflammatory video, which stated that, in case of an oppositional victory, sexually aggressive Islamic immigrants will invade Warsaw.
The controversial video sheds light on the essence of the strategy epitomised by the phrase, “only a wall can be found to the right of PiS,” though it doesn’t mean others won’t try. Tadeusz Rydzyk, the influential ultra-conservative cofounder of the Catholic Radio Maria, has recently launched a new party called the True European Movement, which could take some of the rural, religious electorate of PiS.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party is often trying to catch the wind from the sails of the far-right by legitimising their radical messages, and, in so doing, legitimises the extreme right subculture.
Prior to the local elections, the far-right All Polish Youth issued death certificates for 11 liberal politicians from the opposition, including Paweł Adamowicz. Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, has recently appointed the former head of this radical organisation as the Deputy Minister for Digital Affairs. With his extremely strong social media outreach, Minister Adam Andruszkiewicz’s task might be to channel and attract the anti-establishment, radical voters.
PiS was, presumably, in a similar spirit when it took the lead in the Independence March on November 11th, traditionally organised by Polish extremist organizations.
The event attracting hundreds of thousands of people was held together with the state event last year, leaving foreign radical, pro-Russian organisations virtually separated by only a cordon from Polish families marching with their children.
According to preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Polish Academy of Sciences, PiS could successfully “overtake” the event. While most of the respondents said on the spot that they came to an event organised by the extremist circles, later on they marked the state organised event on the questionnaire that they returned.
To keep the extremist, authoritarian actors out of power, a coordinated strategy of mainstream parties is needed.
In their new book “How Democracies Die“, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt defined politicians who are putting aside short-sighted power politics considerations to combat anti-democratic forces as democracy’s gatekeepers.
Instead of restricting these anti-democratic forces, PiS and Fidesz strive to legitimise the extremist views by reinforcing the already divisive lines within societies In the run-up to the EP elections, Paweł Adamowicz, as the Polish gatekeeper of democracy, should serve as a role model for all European parties that are facing the temptation of the far- right.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project series run by Visegrad/Insight and the Res Publica Foundation in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as well as editors of leading newspapers across Central Europe. The original was published in Hungarian on 24.hu and can be found here.