The sixth week of the election campaign in Poland (13-19 September 2023)

by | Sep 19, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

Written by Filip Bialy

The visa scandal dominated the sixth week of the election campaign in Poland. As much as 250 thousand Polish worker visas were reportedly awarded to immigrants from Asian and African countries as a result of an illegal scheme, orchestrated by officials from the Law and Justice government. The scandal undermines the party’s narrative about keeping Polish borders safe but has yet to show its impact in the polls.

The opposition parties, who have been struggling for months to find a way to regain momentum in the campaign, could not have wished for a better opportunity. Although the full picture and details of the visa scandal are unclear, the main message seems to be clear: while campaigning against immigrants and fighting the EU refugee relocation scheme through a referendum question, the Law and Justice party did not prevent corruption within its own government that resulted in “Polish visas being sold at market stalls in Africa,” as the opposition frames it.

The government is trying to downplay the affair, arguing that the people responsible, including Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Piotr Wawrzyk, were discovered by the anti-corruption services. However, the media is full of stories, including one about Indian migrants posing as a Bollywood film crew to obtain Polish visas to then migrate illegally to Mexico. If Wawrzyk, who has been hospitalised after a suicide attempt, was supposed to be the head of the operation, the scheme itself involved foreign visa agents colluding with personnel in Polish embassies to ensure that migrants who paid thousands of dollars were given priority in the queues.

As the scandal unfolded, the public TV audience witnessed an unprecedented situation. On Thursday, the Civic Coalition-appointed Marshal (Speaker) of the Senate delivered a prime-time speech in which he strongly criticised the government over the scandal. Although public television is legally obligated to grant the Marshal airtime for such an address, it is apparently not obligated to remain objective. Immediately after the speech ended, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro was given a chance to respond. On the following evening, the Law and Justice-appointed Sejm Marshal delivered her address, rejecting all the charges and attacking her “lying” Senate counterpart. However unprecedented the Marshals’ duel was, for the public media audience, consisting mainly of Law and Justice voters, it might be the first time they have heard about the visa scandal.

Online Campaigning

As expected, the visa scandal has been widely discussed on social media and utilized in political advertising. On X/Twitter, the hashtags #AferaWizowa, #AferaWizowaPiS, and #StraganyZwizami (“market stalls with visas”) were trending for several days. Civic Coalition produced a YouTube ad titled “They attempted to scare you with immigrants, and then they let them in themselves,” which garnered more than 4 million views. Law and Justice responded with ads attacking, simultaneously, the EU’s migrant relocation policy and Donald Tusk, portrayed as the main supporter of the policy.

Some media attention was focused on the temporary suspension of the Instagram account of Sławomir Mentzen. Mentzen is a right-wing, conservative, pro-free-market entrepreneur and social media celebrity who tours the country with fellow Confederacy candidate Krzysztof Bosak in a two-man stand-up-style campaign show. His rhetoric, as in the case of Confederacy, resonates mainly with young men. His account was followed by 340,000 users, the same number as Donald Tusk and President Andrzej Duda. Among Polish politicians, Civic Coalition’s Rafał Trzaskowski has the highest number of Instagram followers – 390,000. Mentzen’s account was reinstated after just one day, but it gave the politician (who is also active on TikTok) enough time to complain about political censorship on the Meta platform.

In the Polls

The polls have yet to show whether the visa scandal will redefine the campaign. In a survey conducted over the weekend (15-17 September), Law and Justice is leading with 32.6%, followed by Civic Coalition (26.6%), Third Way (10.6%), the Left (9.9%), and Confederacy (9.5%). This would translate into 190 seats for Law and Justice, 142 for Civic Coalition, 50 for Third Way, 41 for Confederacy, and 36 for the Left. The theoretical Law and Justice-Confederacy coalition would have 231 seats, giving them a majority of exactly 1 seat.

In another survey, respondents were asked which party is better at campaigning. 40.7% of the respondents said it is Law and Justice, with only 21.5% favoring Civic Coalition. More than 24% could not decide.

According to yet another survey, 47.4% of respondents who are going to vote in the election will not participate in the referendum, with 46.6% declaring they will answer the referendum questions. That last number is higher than the support for Law and Justice, which some commentators interpret as a success for the party.

In a different kind of poll – the primaries, organised in the small town of Wieruszów – Civic Coalition won with 34%, ahead of Law and Justice (32%), Third Way (12%), Confederacy (6.6%), and the Left (6.3%). The organisers advertise the primaries as an accurate predictor of the actual vote, and most of the political parties actively participated in the event. Historically, the election results in Wieruszów have been very similar to the nationwide results, but some experts criticised the event as insignificant. On X/Twitter, Donald Tusk said: “Are you happy that you won the primary elections in Wieruszów? From now on, for a month, you work twice as hard, hit twice as hard, and love your voters even more. Because this win is a sign of hope, not a guarantee of victory. Everything is in our hands!”