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Poland’s Ruling Party Casts Doubt on Election That Cost It Power

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After eight years of pumping out vitriol against opponents of Poland’s governing party, state-controlled television has rallied to an unlikely new cause: a free media and fair play.

Unsettled by the election this month of a new Parliament controlled by political forces it previously vilified, Poland’s main public broadcaster last week set up a telephone hotline as part of what it described as a “special campaign to defend media pluralism” and counter “increasingly frequent attacks on journalists.”

The abrupt about face by a public broadcaster notorious for its often vicious, one-sided coverage reflected Poland’s febrile political atmosphere as loyalists of the defeated Law and Justice party scramble to keep their jobs by presenting themselves as victims of persecution and of a compromised election.

That loyalists have much to lose as a result of the Oct. 15 vote was made clear last week when Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, published a long list of journalists and other Law and Justice supporters who “will have to say goodbye to their positions” in media, state corporations and other state-controlled entities. The list has since been expanded as readers send in the names of more people they want gone, too.

Pleas for “media pluralism” by a public broadcasting system that for years froze out opposition voices and served as a propaganda bullhorn for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the nationalist governing party, have mostly been met with guffaws and cries of hypocrisy.

But the effort pointed to the obstacles ahead for the election victors as the losing side digs in, fighting to hang on to jobs, and promotes often wild conspiracy theories to explain and, in some cases, deny Law and Justice’s defeat at the polls.

“They are trying to create the myth of a stolen victory,” said Jakub Majmurek a prominent commentator on Polish politics and culture. But, he added, “Kaczynski is not Donald Trump” and “I don’t think we are going to see scenes of January 6 in Poland.”

Polish politics, he said, “are very unpredictable” and “very polarized” but are still even-tempered enough to make a replay of the storming of the Capitol highly unlikely in Warsaw. “It wouldn’t work. They would have to confront huge crowds on the streets and they don’t know how the police will react,” Mr. Majmurek said.

More likely, most observers say, is a long drawn-out struggle by Law and Justice appointees — who are now in control of public broadcasting, the judiciary and other institutions — to resist being replaced by more neutral, or at least less brazenly partisan, figures.

TVP Info, the public broadcaster’s news channel, this year gave 66 percent of its airtime to Law and Justice and just 10 percent to the main opposition party. This airtime gap was only 5 percent in favor of Poland’s previous governing party in 2014, the year before Law and Justice rose to power.

Law and Justice won more votes than any other single party in the recent election but an alliance of its opponents won a clear majority in Parliament. They have proposed Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Coalition, the biggest opposition party, as prime minister at the head of a new coalition government.

But, more than two weeks after its victory, the opposition has still not been asked to form a government by Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, an ally of Law and Justice.

The constitution gives Mr. Duda 30 days to make a decision, a long pause that diehard supporters of the defeated party are now using to try to delay and even derail the consequences of their electoral defeat.

Daniel Milewski, a member of Parliament for the governing party, appealed to Mr. Duda “to prevent Donald Tusk from becoming prime minister” and vowed that Law and Justice “will do everything to stop this from happening.”

As well as veering close to Trump-like pleas to “stop the steal,” Law and Justice has insisted that foreign interference cost them the election, echoing the claims of Democrats in the United States stunned by Hillary Clinton’s upset defeat in 2016.

“A question worth asking,” the party’s chairman, Mr. Kaczynski, told Gazeta Polska, a conservative magazine, is “to what extent is our public life autonomous from external forces?” Pointing a finger at Germany and Russia, he complained of “forces at work here all the time” to unfairly influence Polish voters.

Antoni Macierewicz, a veteran Law and Justice legislator notorious for promoting apocalyptic conspiracy theories, on Monday accused the leader of Third Way, a centrist grouping allied with Mr. Tusk, of having ties to Russian intelligence and predicted that letting the opposition take power would risk World War III.

Another senior Law and Justice legislator, Ryszard Terlecki, warned of dire consequences, including an upsurge in L.G.B.T.Q. activism that he described as a “rainbow flood,” if the opposition was allowed to form a government. But he assured supporters that “all is not lost” and “we still have hope” that right-wing forces might be able to form a coalition government “that will stop the catastrophe.”

Particularly shocking to Law and Justice is that it lost the election despite having near total control of public broadcasting, a nationwide network of television and radio stations, and a firm grip on many regional newspapers that were purchased in 2021 by the state oil giant, PKN Orlen, which is itself headed by a former Law and Justice politician.

A report on Poland’s election by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election had been tarnished by “distorted and openly partisan coverage by the public broadcaster.” This, the observers said, “provided a clear advantage to the ruling party, undermining the democratic separation of state and party.”

Restoring that separation, however, will be difficult because of the lingering grip of Law and Justice on a raft of bodies it set up after it took power in 2015 and began remaking the system to try to ensure that, no matter the results of future elections, its supporters would remain deeply entrenched.

One such body is the National Media Council, an organization that, controlled by Law and Justice appointees, was given the power to appoint and dismiss public broadcasting executives. In a statement released after the election, the council rejected any attempt by the opposition to break Law and Justice’s hold on public television and radio, vowing to “defend public media and their employees” against what it described as “illegal activities” by the new majority in Parliament.

Getting rid of the council — and similar bodies set up by Law and Justice to control judicial appointments — would require new legislation, but any move by Parliament aimed at creating a more level playing field would likely be vetoed by President Duda. The opposition doesn’t have a large enough majority to override his veto.

Law and Justice, said Mr. Majmurek, the commentator, “built a lot of traps into the system and did everything to make sure that it still controls many vital state institutions even after losing an election.”

The task now faced by the opposition, he added, is “like dismantling a very complicated and potentially deadly bomb.”

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.

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