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Poland's opposition gears up to fight PiS

Paul Flückiger
November 28, 2017

Poland's opposition is trying to reinvent itself to better take on Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the PiS' authoritarian policies. But a symbolic gallows erected for the opposition shows that right-wing sentiment remains strong.

poland opposition puppets politicians in the streets
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

For weeks now, Poles have been waiting for details of the government reshuffle announced by the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS). There's still speculation about who will actually be replaced. And while party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski (above center) keeps his ministers in a state of tension and fear, rumors abound that he himself may want to lead the government.

It's suggested that now, halfway through the PiS's term in office, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (above left) will be asked to stand instead for mayor of Warsaw. She's the only PiS politician thought to have a chance in this important election in the Polish capital, where there is still a liberal local government.

Renewal of the Modernists

However, it seems Kaczynski can't bring himself to return to active politics. Poland's strongman is said not to be keen on exhausting cabinet meetings, foreign trips and early mornings. While Kaczynski keeps the Polish people in a holding pattern, in the past few days the weak political opposition has managed an attempt at revamping itself.

The founder of "Modern" (Nowoczesna), former banker Ryszard Petru, lost his credibility after becoming embroiled in a series of scandals. Now the socially left-leaning and free-market friendly party has replaced him with the mathematician Katarzyna Lubnauer from Lodz. In the past few weeks the party's ratings had plunged from 24 to 7 percent. They're hoping to turn things around by presenting a social image, instead of the hard economic-liberal course they were following. Lubnauer was the first to recognize that only a revamp could save the opposition: The PiS has got it on the ropes.

Read more: Judicial reform: Polish civil society rises up 

Katarzyna Lubnauer of Poland's Nowoczesna Party
Lubnauer is aiming to redefine Modern in order to become a more effective opposition partyImage: Imago/Zuma Press

PiS revolution stalls

In the liberal Civic Platform (PO), on the other hand — the party that was in power for eight years before the current government took over — the old guard around party leader Grzegorz Schetyna is still firmly ensconced. Schetyna has been in parliament for 20 years. The PO has chosen a different route to renewal, proposing a constructive vote of no confidence in the Sejm. This was prompted by the Polish nationalists' march on independence day and the excessive tolerance of the PiS towards right-wing extremists. It's a surprising step that takes the wind out of the PiS's sails, as it delays the formation of the government and slows down the work of parliament.

In the government camp the mood is subdued. The weekly parliamentary sessions have quietened down. The PiS's attempts to pass constitutionally dubious reforms are growing less frequent. An electoral law reform, intended to secure a majority for the PiS in the local elections of 2018, has got stuck in parliament; It will presumably pass eventually, but later than expected. People are still waiting for the long-promised law on the re-Polonization of media companies with large — especially German — shareholdings. A controversial law that would bring non-governmental organizations (NGOs) under PiS control still awaits a vote.

Polish president Andrzej Duda
President Duda's reluctance to pass PiS-supported judicial reforms has slowed the party's momentumImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

A compromise is supposedly in the cards with Polish President Andrzej Duda over the controversial reform of the judiciary. Duda vetoed two PiS bills on this in the summer. However, the Polish public has not yet been told what exactly this compromise might be. Duda recently complained that his draft proposals have been waiting more than two months to be debated in parliament. Prime Minister Szydlo has now expressed the hope that the justice reform, at least, could be passed before the end of the year. The president, however — who has become a thorn in Kaczynski's side — has not ruled out further vetoes, against the controversial electoral law reform, for example. All this is slowing down the PiS's efforts to reorganize the state according to its ideas.

Gallows for the opposition

In many places, however, there's an icy wind blowing in the face of the liberal opposition.

On Saturday, three radical far-right organizations erected a gallows in a square in the center of Katowice and hung up pictures of liberal (PO) members of the European Parliament on it. The police didn't intervene. The state prosecutor is now looking into the matter to see whether any laws were broken. But the government believes the fault lies with the opposition. "It was the opposition who introduced the language of hate, at their demonstrations," the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro (PiS), commented on Monday.

The president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, has responded. "I will write to PM @BeataSzydlo to ensure the security of elected members of the European Parliament to express their opinions independently, without threat," he wrote on Twitter.