Thursday, February 22, 2024

After eight years of consistently criticizing opponents of Poland’s ruling party, state-controlled television has surprisingly shifted its stance to advocate for a free media and fair play. Concerned by the recent election results that saw a new Parliament controlled by political forces they once vilified, Poland’s main public broadcaster has established a telephone hotline as part of a “special campaign to defend media pluralism” and combat “increasingly frequent attacks on journalists.” This sudden change in direction by a broadcaster known for its biased coverage reflects the tense political atmosphere in Poland. Supporters of the defeated Law and Justice party, desperate to retain their positions, are portraying themselves as victims of persecution and a compromised election.

The consequences of the October 15 vote, in which loyalists have much to lose, were highlighted by Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, when it published an extensive list of journalists and other Law and Justice supporters who will be removed from their positions in media, state corporations, and other state-controlled entities. The list continues to expand as readers submit additional names of individuals they want to see ousted.

Although the calls for “media pluralism” from a public broadcasting system that previously excluded opposition voices and acted as a propaganda mouthpiece for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the nationalist party’s chairman, have been met with derision and accusations of hypocrisy, this effort demonstrates the challenges ahead for the election winners as the losing side clings to power. They are promoting wild conspiracy theories to justify and at times deny Law and Justice’s defeat.

Jakub Majmurek, an influential commentator on Polish politics and culture, remarked that the defeated party is attempting to create the myth of a stolen victory. However, he noted that “Kaczynski is not Donald Trump,” and he does not believe Poland will witness scenes like the storming of the Capitol. While Polish politics are highly unpredictable and polarized, they are unlikely to escalate to that level, as it would require confronting large crowds in the streets and an uncertain response from the police.

Most experts believe that Law and Justice appointees, who now control public broadcasting, the judiciary, and other institutions, will engage in a protracted struggle to resist being replaced by more neutral or less overtly partisan figures. TVP Info, the public broadcaster’s news channel, allocated 66% of its airtime this year to Law and Justice and only 10% to the main opposition party. In comparison, the previous governing party held a 5% advantage in 2014, the year before Law and Justice rose to power.

Though Law and Justice received the most votes of any single party in the recent election, an alliance of its opponents secured a clear majority in Parliament. They have proposed Donald Tusk, the leader of the largest opposition party, to be prime minister of a new coalition government. However, more than two weeks after the victory, the opposition has not been asked to form a government by President Andrzej Duda, who is aligned with Law and Justice.

According to the constitution, Mr. Duda has 30 days to make a decision, a lengthy pause that diehard supporters of the defeated party are exploiting to delay and potentially thwart the consequences of their electoral loss. Daniel Milewski, a Law and Justice Member of Parliament, appealed to President Duda to prevent Donald Tusk from becoming prime minister and vowed that Law and Justice will employ all measures to prevent this from happening. Additionally, Law and Justice has asserted that foreign interference caused their defeat, echoing the claims of Democrats in the United States following Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss in 2016.

Law and Justice legislators have made sensational claims, with Antoni Macierewicz, a veteran lawmaker, accusing the leader of a centrist group allied with Tusk of having ties to Russian intelligence, and Ryszard Terlecki, another senior legislator, warning of dire consequences such as a surge in L.G.B.T.Q. activism if the opposition forms a government. However, he assured supporters that “all is not lost” and “we still have hope” that right-wing forces could potentially form a coalition government to prevent a catastrophe.

Law and Justice’s defeat is particularly shocking because they maintained near-total control over public broadcasting, a nationwide network of television and radio stations, and many regional newspapers that were acquired in 2021 by the state oil giant, PKN Orlen, led by a former Law and Justice politician. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the election for its “distorted and openly partisan coverage by the public broadcaster,” which favored the ruling party and undermined the democratic separation of state and party.

Reestablishing this separation will prove difficult due to Law and Justice’s lingering influence on various bodies it established after coming to power in 2015. These bodies were designed to ensure that the party’s supporters maintain entrenched positions, regardless of future election results. One such entity is the National Media Council, which, controlled by Law and Justice appointees, possesses the power to hire and fire executives in public broadcasting. In a statement issued after the election, the council rejected any attempts by the opposition to break Law and Justice’s control over public media and pledged to “defend public media and their employees” against what it labeled as “illegal activities” by the new parliamentary majority.

Removing the council and similar bodies created by Law and Justice to control judicial appointments would require new legislation, but any efforts by Parliament to level the playing field would likely face a veto from President Duda. The opposition lacks a sufficient majority to override his veto. Mr. Majmurek, the commentator, stated that Law and Justice built numerous traps into the system and took every measure to ensure its control over vital state institutions even after losing an election.

The opposition now faces the difficult task of dismantling a complex and potentially dangerous bomb.

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