Populism and conspiracy theories winning votes among disillusioned Poles

Political scaremongering could score points for hard right at the ballot box in upcoming elections amid refugee crisis

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, front left, and other Polish leaders at the swearing-in of President Andrzej Duda, in Warsaw, Poland, in August 2015. The likely return to power of his right-wing Law and Justice party after Oct. 25 parliamentary elections raises stark questions for the nation.
Adam Guz / Getty Images Poland

WARSAW, Poland — To some Polish voters packed into a Warsaw church hall, the book launch was far more than a minor literary event; it was an homage to a fallen president and a vow to cleanse and renew their country at the ballot box on Sunday.

Clutching copies of “Buried Truth”, which re-examines the 2010 airplane crash that killed Poland’s then-President Lech Kaczynski and many senior allies, they pledged to return his right-wing Law and Justice (PIS) party to power this weekend and crown a remarkable comeback for his identical twin brother, who survived him.

The hall, in the Warsaw suburb of Zoliborz, seemed a curious place to promote a book, but made perfect sense to the PiS supporters present, many of whom took time to say a prayer in the adjoining church.

From the altar, Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko preached resistance to Poland’s communist rulers until their secret police murdered him in 1984, and he is buried there and honored with a statue in striking red stone. For Poles, he belongs to a centuries-long line of national heroes killed by treacherous compatriots and foreign foes — a grim roll call that, for many supporters of the PIS, now includes Kaczynski and other victims of the air disaster.

On April 10, 2010, Kaczynski and dozens of senior political and military figures flew to western Russia for a memorial ceremony at Katyn, where 70 years earlier, Soviet secret police massacred 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals. Their jet plunged into trees as it tried to land at a fogbound Smolensk Airport, 15 miles from Katyn, killing Kaczynski, his wife and the 94 other people on board.

Russian and Polish investigators broadly agreed that the pilots bore most blame for the crash for trying to land at Smolensk despite terrible visibility, having apparently been pressured to do so by officials on the airplane. But that conclusion is questioned or rejected by millions of Poles, including victims’ relatives interviewed in “Buried Truth,” people attending its launch and the late president’s twin, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who appears set to return the PIS to power this weekend.

It will be a moment that will confound his many doubters. Nine years ago, the Kaczynskis’ political duet, with Lech Kaczynski as president and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as prime minister, divided Poland with calls for a moral revolution along ultraconservative lines and angered its neighbors with a clumsy and aggressive foreign policy. But their drive to create a new republic, purged of communist-era power structures that they claimed still ran Poland from the shadows, did not last long.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s chaotic coalition government collapsed in 2007, and the PIS was ousted that fall by Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, which charted a moderate course and repaired Polish relations with Germany and the rest of the EU.

Surveys predict the PIS will take 32 to 40 percent of votes cast on Sunday — at least 10 points more than the ruling Civic Platform, whose popularity has dwindled because of Tusk’s departure, a string of sleazy scandals and the listless performance of its current leaders, one of whom lost the presidency to a PIS-backed challenger in May.

The PIS has pledged to lower the retirement age and to boost social spending, salaries and employment, but its populist bent runs much deeper than economic change.

The party appeals to those who feel marginalized in modern Poland and crave a strong, benevolent state run with an emphasis on patriotism and tradition and a wary eye on the EU, Russia and the uklad — a supposed network of shadowy enemies within. Eight years ago, the Kaczynskis introduced a law requiring 700,000 Poles to disclose whether they spied for the communist regime, which ended in 1989. When the constitutional court struck down the legislation, the twins formed an anti-corruption agency that was accused of attacking their political enemies.

For Poland’s 38 million people and leaders from Brussels to Moscow, the PIS’ likely return to power raises a stark question, Who is in its crosshairs this time? One answer, some observers believe, may be the thousands of mostly Muslim refugees arriving in Europe every day.

“Do you want to stop being masters of your own country?” Kaczynski asked of Polish parliamentarians during a recent debate, warning that the refugees would impose their traditions and values wherever they settle.

On the campaign trail last week, Kaczynski stoked fear about the refugees. “There are already signs of the emergence of very dangerous diseases that haven’t been seen in Europe for a long time — cholera on Greek islands, dysentery in Vienna, various types of parasites, protozoa, that aren’t dangerous to these people’s organisms but could be dangerous here,” he told residents of a rural town. “This doesn't mean anybody should be discriminated against, but it must be checked.”

Jaroslaw Sellin, a PIS deputy, said a government led by his party would join neighboring Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary in rejecting a German plan for refugees to be distributed among EU nations according to quotas.

“We want to avoid the mistakes of Western countries in the scale of immigrants [coming] from another civilization,” Sellin said. “This should be an independent decision, not quotas decided in Brussels or Berlin … We want the right to decide what kind of people we have as immigrants in Poland.”

‘We want to avoid the mistakes of Western countries, in the scale of immigrants [coming] from another civilization … This should be an independent decision, not quotas decided in Brussels or Berlin.’

Jaroslaw Sellin

deputy, Law and Justice party

Beloved by party loyalists but a divisive figure among the broader electorate, Kaczynski has avoided the limelight for most of this campaign and nominated Beata Szydlo to be prime minister if the PIS takes power in the parliamentary elections.

But his authority as chairman of the party dwarfs that of the prime minister and the president (the politically independent Andrzej Duda), meaning Kaczynski’s outsize role in future decision-making is inevitable. A vote for the PIS on Sunday is essentially a vote for Kaczynski.

“It’s not that Mr. Kaczynski will dominate Mr. Duda or Mrs. Szydlo but that they themselves will call him and ask, ‘Chairman, what should we do?” said Ludwik Dorn, who co-founded the PIS and was dubbed the Kaczynskis’ third twin. “They are not major politicians, but only half- or even one-third-size politicians. In Law and Justice, only Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a full-size politician.”

Dorn’s dismissal as interior minister in 2007 signaled deep problems in the Kaczynski government, and he is now running for parliament as an independent candidate with backing from Civic Platform.

“I saw him change under the pressure of being prime minister,” Dorn said of Kaczynski. “He couldn’t handle it, so he escaped into his imagination, where he is an absolute ruler … He has a vision, but it has very little to do with reality.”

In the PIS, Kaczynski is seen as a visionary, its chief strategist and its driving force.

“Among active politicians, he has played the biggest role in Poland in the last 25 years … His role in history is decided,” said Sellin, claiming that three postcommunist Polish presidents and four — soon probably five — prime ministers owed their nominations, at least in part, to backing from Kaczynski.

“But I know he has ideas and energy to create many new things. He is only 66 years old, and so in future, he will also be one of the biggest players,” Sellin added. “In my party, it is obvious to everyone that it is worth consulting Jaroslaw Kaczynski on all the big decisions.”

The likely return to power of Kaczynski’s party has his critics worried, both at home and in Brussels, where Tusk’s prominent role could complicate relations with a PIS-run Poland. Slawomir Sierakowski, the head of Political Critique, a movement of left-wing Polish intellectuals, said of the time the twins ran Poland together, “What we saw then was a very liberal version of what we will see now.” 

For Kaczynski’s supporters, by contrast, their long wait seems about to end.

“The PIS is a party of believers, patriots and true Poles, who work for the good of Poland and not Germany or Russia,” said Kamila Maciejczyk as she left the church hall and walked out into the Warsaw evening past Popieluszko’s grave. “If the PIS wins, things will change. It’s the last chance for Poland.”

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