28th Feb 2024


Poland's defeated PiS are now playing the 'martyr' card

  • PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński and his supporters now claim g to be "defending" democracy and casting Dondald Tusk as a "dictator" (Photo: Piotr Drabik)
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Since the victory of Donald Tusk's government Poland in the 2023 elections, the former ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has quickly rebranded itself as the new 'opposition'. No longer embodying the spectre of authoritarianism and democratic backsliding, PiS now fancies itself the victim of Tusk's "dictatorship."

On 9 January, a piece of political theatre played out on the steps of Poland's presidential palace, still occupied by PiS ally, president Andrzej Duda.

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  • Tusk's new government need to balance the need for rapid reform and the rule-of-law agenda they were mandated to uphold (Photo: Piotr Drabik)

Two fugitives, former minister of the interior Mariusz Kamiński and his deputy Maciej Wąsik, were finally arrested after sentences were handed down at the end of December.

Despite having been pardoned by Duda in 2015, the two are still being held responsible for a corruption scandal (the so-called 'Land Affair') dating back to 2007, when both were in the Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA).

This is not, however, the only controversy surrounding the two, in particular Kamiński who has also been implicated in an ongoing investigation on the use of Pegasus spyware in monitoring opposition members during the PiS tenure.

The entry of the police and the arrest of the two fugitives (who in the eyes of many PiS supporters are still 'pardoned') set the stage for a dramatic condemnation of PM Tusk's new government. PiS supporters and politicians on the ground decried the taking of "political prisoners" under a new "communist" regime, reported Gazeta Wyborcza.

Elsewhere, PiS politicians, including president Duda, called the arrest "a violation of the law and the constitution" and likewise referred to PM Tusk as a "threat to Polish freedom and democracy."

Since their imprisonment, the two have announced a hunger strike in a further appeal to their supporters.

This debacle has provided PiS with a prime occasion to outline their new position as the would be "defenders" of Polish democracy, an ironic turn for a party that was until recently accused of undermining that same democracy.

Yet this is not the only situation where PiS has jumped at playing the victim, the ongoing 'state media crisis' has also provided for the former ruling party a platform to criticise the new government and flip the democratic narrative.

One of the new government's first moves was to oust the leadership of state media organisations, most notably Polish state television TVP.

During the PiS rule, TVP garnered a reputation for being a 'PiS mouthpiece', and a "propaganda" channel for their government, often attacking Tusk and other political opponents.

In response to this move, not only did president Duda veto the 2024 state budget, he also took the opportunity to condemn it, stating "There cannot be consent to this in view of the flagrant violation of the constitution and the principles of a democratic state of law. Public media must first be repaired honestly and legally."

PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński likewise stated that "We must defend these media, precisely because we are defending democracy, defending citizens' right to access information." Across the board, this refrain of "defending" democracy and casting Tusk as a "dictator" is coming to characterise PiS's opposition strategy.

This strategy, which is apparent in both these cases, marks the beginning of a conflict of political attrition, which, as PiS slowly retreats from power, seeks to undermine the reputation and standing of Tusk's government.

At the same time the flipped narrative provides a convincing rallying cry for PiS supporters, who now find themselves suddenly on the side of democracy and the "rule of law." On 11 January a protest of "free Poles" against the "the dictatorship of force and violations of the law by Tusk's government" took place, with around 50,000 registering to take part — although estimates put actual turnout at 35,000.

Despite its striking similarity to the "anti-government" and "pro-democracy" march June 2023, this pro-PiS protest cannot boast roughly half a million participants.

Tusk's government on the other hand, will need to continue balancing between the need for rapid reform and the rule-of-law agenda they were mandated to uphold. Some independent voices have already expressed "concern" over the new government's aggressive approach to reform, but it is too early to tell where they will ultimately draw the line.

Many challenges remain for the new government, not the least of which is a budget crisis pending the presidential veto, and in the following months we will see if they can be overcome by conflict or reconciliation.

Author bio

Nathan Alan-Lee is the general editor of Slovo, the journal of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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