The seventh week of the election campaign in Poland (20-26 September 2023)

by | Sep 26, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

Written by Filip Bialy

The seventh week of the election campaign in Poland (20-26 September 2023)

Law and Justice is endeavouring to combat the visa scandal by increasing nationalist rhetoric and attacking the acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland, while also attempting to attract Confederacy voters by quarrelling with the Ukrainians. So far, the opposition has failed to capitalize on the government’s troubles, apparently hoping that the last two weeks of the campaign will secure enough seats for a coalition government.

During the six weeks since the campaign officially began, Law and Justice has almost exclusively dictated the narrative and the issues others talk about. Thus, the 2023 campaign is cantered on immigration and a unilateral understanding of Poland’s place in Europe. Even the visa scandal, which directly contradicts the governing party’s narrative, has not significantly changed the poll numbers.

If the opposition has failed to recapture the narrative, it has certainly not been for a lack of trying. In fact, Kinga Gajewska, a Civic Coalition MP, was arrested while protesting the prime minister’s rally and speaking about the visa scandal. Even though parliament members have legal immunity from being detained, the police forced Gajewska into a police van. But even when not campaigning, opposition politicians are not safe. Another Civic Platform MP and former minister of justice, Borys Budka, was physically assaulted by a man in a shopping mall. Budka claims the man called him “a German” and “Tusk’s swine.”

Cornering Confederacy

There seems to be at least a rhetorical connection between that last event and the increasingly brutal language of the Law and Justice campaign. The party clearly aims to hostilely take over Confederacy voters, and in their march to the right side of the political spectrum, they take no prisoners and have no qualms.

This is clearly visible in how the government’s approach to Ukraine has changed in recent weeks. Responding to Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s criticism of Poland banning Ukrainian grain imports, the Polish prime minister announced an end to Poland’s arms transfer to Ukraine. The announcement was widely reported in international media as Poland has been considered Ukraine’s staunchest ally thus far. While tensions around the grain import have some economic justification (Polish farmers have been hit by low prices), the government’s effort to distance itself from Ukraine is an attempt to corner Confederacy voters, whose politicians have been against giving wide-ranging help to their eastern neighbor. Some of them, including Janusz Korwin-Mikke, the elder godfather of the movement, were accused of repeating Russian propaganda talking points.

But the nationalists are struggling on their own after a series of mishaps, including a now-discarded candidate who suggested that eating dog meat should not be considered a crime. More importantly, the core free-market, anti-tax message of Confederacy has been ridiculed in a confrontation between Sławomir Mentzen and Third Way’s candidate and economist Ryszard Petru (who previously founded the Modern party, which is now part of Civic Coalition). Petru followed Mentzen to a rally in Poznań and asked whether he could join the nationalist candidate on stage. While there, he asked Mentzen a series of pointed questions about the feasibility of Confederacy economic policies. After Mentzen failed to respond on how pensions would be paid if the national insurance system is abolished (per the Confederacy program), quoting supporters instead, Petru asked him to tell the audience about his concrete proposals. Mentzen turned to the supporters and asked, “Do you want the concretes?”. “No!”, responded the crowd. The video of the exchange went viral.

Troubles with the Green Border

Law and Justice found another useful target in the award-winning director Agnieszka Holland. “The Green Border,” a movie that received a prize during the Venice Film Festival and has now been released, is a topical story about the migrant crisis in the forests at the Polish-Belarus border. Since 2020, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has been pushing Middle Eastern and African refugees into Poland. Polish activists who help the refugees have been repeatedly threatened by border guards. The crisis at the border is perceived as a Russia-supported attempt to intervene in Polish politics or even as an act of hybrid warfare.

Holland’s movie tells a story about a young activist who helps a Syrian family harassed by Polish border guards. For Law and Justice, the movie is a shameful attack on national interest. Pro-government online activists organized a review bombing campaign by posting negative reviews of “The Green Border” on Filmweb, the biggest film site in Poland. Zbigniew Ziobro, the minister of justice, wrote on Twitter: “In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing Poles as bandits and murderers. Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that.”

In this context, an old World War II slogan has been used by right-wing politicians: “Tylko świnie siedzą w kinie” (“Only swines sit in the cinema”) was used by the resistance movement during the German occupation to shame Poles who attended German-run cinemas. Agnieszka Holland, whose father was Jewish and a revisionist Communist Party member (who committed suicide by jumping out of a window while arrested by the secret police on suspicion of treason in 1961), is presented as serving foreign, anti-Polish interests.

Jarosław Kaczyński gave a special statement about the movie, claiming that the film is an attempt to prepare the ground for removing the border fence and accepting the EU’s refugee relocation scheme. The movie aims “at showing that the defense of the Polish border is a crime.” He went on to accuse Holland of “oikophobia” (the hate of one’s home in Greek), which is a term Kaczyński has been using for years to attack opposition politicians as not patriotic or even not truly Polish. “Shame, shame, and shame again,” Kaczyński said before adding that “Anyone who will not condemn all of that is clearly on the anti-Polish side.” And that side wants to transform Poland into “a condominium governed by Poland’s eastern and western neighbors.” That last phrase is a straightforward takeover of Confederacy rhetoric: one of the nationalist leaders, Grzegorz Braun, famously has been warning against the prospect of Poland being transformed into “Russian-German condominium under Jewish governance.”

Using anti-Semitic dog whistle, Kaczyński also said that “Agnieszka Holland is simply part of the history of her milieu. An environment that originated from the Polish Communist Party. From people who served Stalin, who was exactly the same genocide as Hitler.” Some of the prominent Polish communists after World War II were Jewish, and the stereotype of the Jewish-communist has been one of the most widely used anti-Semitic tropes in Polish public discourse. (Whatever one may think, it must be observed that it is quite a rhetorical achievement to simultaneously use antisemitism to attack a person while also comparing that person to Nazi occupiers.)

Opposition’s hope against hope

The attack on the moviemaker is well-aligned with the wider strategy to strengthen a more nationalist message while presenting Law and Justice as the only true defender of Polish independence. This line of attack has been supported by the defense minister Mariusz Błaszczak, who revealed military defense plans prepared by Donald Tusk’s government in 2011. The plans explored a scenario in which NATO assistance would be delayed. To resist the Russian forces, the Polish army would move west, taking defensive positions along the Vistula River, which roughly divides Poland into western and eastern parts. Strategically speaking, the plan had merits: some commentators pointed out that a very similar manoeuvre allowed Polish forces to defeat the Soviets in 1920. But in the context of the campaign, the message was that the Civic Coalition is willing to give up half of the country to Putin.

The opposition politicians seem to pin all of their hopes on the last two weeks of the campaign. On 1 October, the Civic Coalition organizes the Million Hearts March. A similar event in June was attended by as many as 500 thousand people. While the Left leaders decided to join the march, the Third Way announced that their leaders, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz and Szymon Hołownia, will not attend. The march is mainly a Civic Coalition event, but as the coalition struggles to get more than 30% in the polls, it needs both the Third Way and the Left to win enough seats to help form a new government. That is why Donald Tusk and Rafał Trzaskowski, who has now been all but officially named the Civic Coalition candidate for prime minister, stress that regardless of who will eventually join the march, the new government will unite all pro-democratic parties.

Online advertising

The 2023 parliamentary campaign will probably be remembered as the one dominated by video advertising on social media. Just the number of clips produced by the two main campaigns is stunning in comparison to previous years. Since August, Law and Justice has spent more than 3.3 million PLN (more than 600 thousand GBP) on advertising on Google, with 92% of almost 800 ads being videos. Civic Coalition spent less than a fourth of that sum – 800 thousand PLN (150 thousand GBP) with 72% of video format ads. The sum is slightly bigger when Civic Platform’s separate spending is added, but it still amounts to no more than a third of what Law and Justice has thus far spent.

In the polls

Despite the visa scandal, Law and Justice has managed to maintain its lead in recent polls. In one poll, the governing party leads with 33.8%, before Civic Coalition (28.1%). The support for the Third Way, Confederacy, and the Left oscillates around 9% each. It means that neither of the two main contenders would be able to form a new government without help from the smaller parties. But according to some projections – which are not straightforward as country-wide support does not easily translate into how many seats the parties would get – a Law and Justice-Confederacy coalition could get only 224 seats, with a majority of 231 seats required to form a government.

But if party support polls give an unclear picture of the future, there is more clarity in the results of another survey which asked respondents not about their voting preferences but about their prediction of the election outcomes. Almost 58% responded that the United Right / Law and Justice will be the winner, with only 16.5% saying it will be the opposition. Among Law and Justice supporters, 74% think the party will win and 26% have no opinion – none of them think the opposition could win. Even more surprisingly, among the opposition supporters, 51% think the United Right will win and only 30% predict the Civic Coalition victory. Only 1.2% of all respondents and 3% of the opposition supporters think the Civic Coalition will be able to form a new government without the help from other parties.