On Sunday 13 January, Mayor of Gdansk Pawel Adamowicz was stabbed while on stage at a live charity event. He died in hospital the following day. The tragic event shook Poland and sent waves across the world. Many saw it as a consequence of the heated political climate present in Poland after over three years under the ultra-conservative and increasingly authoritarian rule of Law and Justice (PiS).
Contrary to some reports, Adamowicz wasn’t a figure of the left. He had, until 2015, been a member of the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), currently the biggest opposition party. With that said, he was known for taking positions that were highly controversial in Poland – including among the anti-PiS opposition. He welcomed refugees while the PiS-controlled national broadcaster ran almost daily stories about the ‘Muslim threat’ descending upon Europe. He supported the growing feminist movement as the powerful Polish Catholic Church declared war on the so-called ideology of gender. He carried a rainbow flag during local Pride parades when even fellow PO-backed mayors were distancing themselves or outright trying to ban them. No wonder he was a hate figure of the radical right.
In 2017, the nationalist group All-Polish Youth issued a ‘political death certificate’ for Adamowicz, citing his liberal views as the cause of his demise. More recently, he was accused by a prominent PiS MP of serving German interests – an obvious dog whistle in a country that survived over a century under partitions, followed by a Nazi occupation.
Equally significant is the event during which the assassination took place. The Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity is an annual gala which raises millions for hospital equipment. In recent years, the event has been the target of a smear campaign by the right-wing press. The popularity of the charity and of its charismatic founder, Jerzy Owsiak, is seen as a threat to PiS’ agenda. Vocally pro-choice, supportive of LGBT rights and religious minorities and critical of the influence of the church, he represents the very cosmopolitan values that PiS defines itself against. Owsiak’s catch phrase “róbta co chceta” (do what you want) has been interpreted as an endorsement of promiscuity and moral relativism and the charity itself as a secular alternative seeking to undermine catholic charities. Why hospitals need to rely on charity at all is rarely discussed in a country without a major left force.
The controversy has escalated to the point that the national broadcaster, after over two decades of live streaming the gala, for the last three years decided to boycott it. Instead, it ran an animation showing Owsiak as a puppet of PO politicians, hoarding notes with a prominent Star of David in the corner.
Adamowicz’s murderer, as PiS supporters were quick to point out, is not known to have belonged to any political groupings. He had a history of violent crime for which he had previously spent time behind bars. After the attack, he grabbed the microphone and blamed PO for his imprisonment. But, no matter how troubled the individual, the political significance of both the victim and the circumstance seemed too telling to be easily dismissed as coincidental. The tragedy quickly acquired a symbolic meaning. The normalisation of hate speech in the national media, and law and justice’s attempts to delegitimise the opposition have been blamed for enabling a fertile climate for political violence.
The success of PiS – which still regularly exceeds 40% support in opinion polls – lies in bringing together a broad coalition of support: from radical right ideologues to a large number of working class families, rooted in a patriotic-catholic tradition but more concerned about putting food on the table. A few headline redistributive policies, such as the famous “500+” child benefit programme, have undeniably lifted people out of poverty – but they come in a package, with a narrative about protecting the traditional family and the great Polish nation from what threatens it – Muslims, atheists, queer people.
Meanwhile the government’s flirtation with the far right has turned into a fully-fledged romance. In November, to honour 100 years of Polish independence, President Andrzej Duda sponsored a march organised by fascist groups – the same ones that in previous years raised slogans of “white Poland, white Europe” and chants including “and on trees, instead of leaves, will hang communists.” Government officials took part in a 200,000-strong demonstration whose participants included the Italian neofascist group Forza Nuova along with, undoubtably, thousands of ordinary citizens who wished to join the official celebration of a national holiday.
The normalisation of the radical right is helped by a martyrological vision of Polish history, present in the collective imagination and keenly used in political discourse. It is through historical re-enactment that far right ideas and symbols often make it to the mainstream. Fascist marches are disguised as merely patriotic ones, commemorating important events; slogans inciting to political killings as references to the past. It is easier to dehumanise political opponents when images of the great wars are evoked. ‘Patriotic’ fashion brand Red Is Bad gained iconic status among Polish nationalists, with t-shirts featuring historical slogans such as “death to the traitors of the fatherland.” Among fans of brand is President Duda.
If Adamowicz can be counted among victims of Poland’s culture wars, he is most definitely not the only one. The names of migrants, women or LGBT people, hurt by the dominant ideology of intolerance and exclusion, rarely make the headlines. Whether the tragedy will serve as a wake-up call remains to be seen but without a clear, positive alternative in sight, no radical transformation appears on the horizon. Meanwhile, the mainstream opposition struggles to define itself by anything other than not being PiS.
The mayor’s death was received with vigils and protests against hate speech across the country. During one of them, in Lublin, someone decided to roll out a rainbow flag. The organisers of the gathering, a local branch of the cross-party anti-PiS movement Committee for the Defence of Democracy, took it away within minutes. “This is not the right place for such symbols,” they said.