Letter from Poland: ‘It legitimizes right-wing demagoguery’

And so Poland went to the polls this week in an election contest in which the once powerful populist Law and Justice Party remained the favorite to form the next government. And yet the…

Letter from Poland: 'It legitimizes right-wing demagoguery'

And so Poland went to the polls this week in an election contest in which the once powerful populist Law and Justice Party remained the favorite to form the next government. And yet the issue that dogged the campaign was not money, anger or the leading candidate’s retrograde views — but a story of political meddling and government abuse. In April of 2018, and again in August of this year, the government claimed it had to separate and deport about 1,300 migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

And so Poles went to the polls this week in an election contest in which the once powerful populist Law and Justice Party remained the favorite to form the next government. And yet the issue that dogged the campaign was not money, anger or the leading candidate’s retrograde views — but a story of political meddling and government abuse. In April of 2018, and again in August of this year, the government claimed it had to separate and deport about 1,300 migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Warsaw was not alone in its decision to withdraw migrants from the country. All Eastern European countries, with the exception of Belgrade, refused entry to migrants without papers. But the Polish move provoked widespread outrage across Europe. Even Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who was proud to pursue the same narrative, eventually backed off after facing pressure from his center-right partner, Hungary’s Fidesz.

The outrage in Poland drew little attention from the mostly left-leaning mainstream media — which Poland’s ruling party has used to endorse a xenophobic and anti-Semitic agenda that fits well with its survivalist and escapist worldview. A few days before the election, the Poland Today website featured an interview with the prime minister’s sister, Mariusz Lozinski, a former translator at the Ministry of Defense and current member of the Polish National Remembrance Institute. In the article, Lozinski, who was pushing for a return to the old party in government, stressed the number of migrants’ graves he’d visited during a trip to the border.

Journalists who cover the Polish media coverage of this issue call it de facto censorship. They say that the government has in effect taken control of Poland’s press, denying coverage to stories that it dislikes and vilifying journalists who report on them. Many of these journalists are involved in journalism organizations that are almost exclusively devoted to covering certain issues. And some even hold memberships in Pod Krakow, the youth wing of PiS, which is defined by a strict ideology espoused by some of its members, opposing all feminists, homosexuals, and Jews.

Early polls suggest that PiS could win a plurality of the vote and even, perhaps, become the single largest party in the next parliament. But that victory depends on the single greatest advantage the party has to play with — voters’ willingness to believe that politicians who have now lied to the public about the plight of asylum seekers are telling the truth now. This lie is the same one that turned right-wing populism in the United States into a political phenomenon during 2016. And just as with President Trump, the Polish government’s actions have legitimized right-wing demagoguery in Eastern Europe. Just as with the United States, the lesson of the election may be the power of public perception.

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