The 2019 European Parliament election campaign was quite exceptional. First of all, because of the extraordinary political circumstances surrounding it. But also due to the election results and the themes of the campaign that determined a landslide victory of one of the parties. So, what happened in Poland? And how did it actually happen?
The elections to the European Parliament were treated primarily as a prelude to the elections to the Sejm and the Senate planned for the autumn of the same year. They fell in the middle of the two-year electoral relay that started with local elections in 2018 and will be completed by the presidential elections in May 2020.
Thus, Poles go to the polls more or less every 6 months. And the stakes are enormous. Many say they have been the highest since 1989, when the Solidarity trade union won the first (partially) free elections and the communists were ousted from power.
This time, it is about the future of the Law and Justice (PiS) government.
Law and Justice came to power in 2015, as the first party in the history of the Third Republic of Poland to gain a majority in both chambers of the parliament, and was able to form a government on its own.
What is extremely important is that a few months earlier the candidate of Law and Justice unexpectedly became the President of Poland, which gave Jarosław Kaczyński’s party full control over the legislature and the executive.
This resulted not only in filling of all ministries with politicians faithful to Law and Justice, but also filling of all possible functions and posts in public offices and state-owned companies with not always qualified, but certainly faithful, right-wing supporters.1
The same applies to the public media, which turned into the government’s propaganda mouthpiece, reminiscent of the regime’s television known from the 1980s.2 Funds from government grants and state-owned companies began to flow in a wide stream to friendly businesspeople (including church ones) and conservative NGOs (often newly established for the needs of a specific design contest).3
But, Jarosław Kaczyński was hungry for more. In a frenzy of obsessive aversion to all political opponents, he wanted to take over full power in the country and subjugate all spheres of public life. In order to make it happen, Law and Justice initiated activities aimed at taking control over the judiciary.
The PiS majority annulled the appointment of five Constitutional Tribunal judges nominated right before the elections by the previous parliament dominated by the Civic Platform and packed it with its own loyalists.4 Later on, the law on the National Council of the Judiciary of Poland (KRS), a body responsible for nominating judges, was amended.
According to the new legislation, a majority of KRS members will be elected by the Sejm. In other words, they will be PiS nominees.
Finally, he retired some of the Supreme Court judges, by enacting a new law, to make vacancies for his nominees. In December 2017, for the very first time, the European Commission activated a provision of the European Treaties (Article 7 TEU) in relation to the rule of law situation in Poland.
According to the Commission, there was and still is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law by the Polish authorities.5
Each Election Matters
In such circumstances, each subsequent election in Poland has a national dimension. They are as it were a referendum for or against the rule of Law and Justice, a referendum for or against further trampling on the constitution and human rights, wrecking the rule of law and pushing Poland to the margins of European integration.
This was the case with the local government campaign of 2018, which focused on defending Polish cities and provinces against Law and Justice and on a fight to maintain their status as areas of freedom6 whose authorities can cultivate the values that PiS fights against and implement social projects that PiS eliminates.7
Similarly, the election to the European Parliament focused primarily on national affairs, and not on European, international or global issues. The Law and Justice’s campaign revolved mainly around credibility in an attempt to convince Poles that the team of Mateusz Morawiecki, and earlier of Beata Szydło, was the only one that fulfilled the election promises, and to threaten that the victory of the opposition will mean the closedown of social programs such as 500+8.
Moreover, in its campaign Law and Justice announced the “Kaczyński’s New Five”, namely a PLN 43 billion package of reforms having nothing to do with the EU.9
On the other side of the political scene, the European Coalition was formed. It was an alliance of the centre-right Civic Platform (EPP), the liberal Modern party (ALDE), the agrarian Polish People’s Party – PSL (EPP), the nominally left-wing Democratic Left Alliance – SLD (S&D) and the Greens.
In other words, it was an alliance of all the moderate opposition against Law and Justice.10 Since it was a very broad coalition, from PSL fighting for right-wing and small-town voters, to the progressive Modern party and the Greens, it was difficult to create an electoral programme that would go beyond the general framework and would fire the enthusiasm of Poles.
The Coalition’s programme was limited to criticism of the current government, slogans to restore the rule of law and Poland’s strong position in the EU and in the world, as well as uncontroversial demands related to environmental protection and security.
LGBT+ and Paedophilia in Church
It turned out, however, that the campaign mainly revolved around topics that surfaced in a way next to the mainstream themes planned by the staffs, i.e. cultural and social topics, which polarized large parts of the society, drawing them into a fierce dispute that flared up the emotions of the general public.
Those included LGBT+ and paedophilia in church.
In March, Rafał Trzaskowski (KO11), as a newly elected Warsaw mayor, signed a declaration on behalf of the city, pledging support to the LGBT+ community.
“Everyone is equal before the law. No form of discrimination is allowed, and Warsaw should be open to everybody. Guided by the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, the country’s fundamental law, and the vision of the Capital City as a friendly and inclusive place”, the document starts.12
The declaration provides guidance in such areas as security, education, culture, sport, administration and work. “Warsaw is for everyone. This is not just a political slogan, but a vision I have for my beloved City as one where there is a place for everyone.
Political leaders, also at the local government level, need to take a determined stand against homophobia and discrimination, to bring about a positive change in social behavior. This equality is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Poland,” says Trzaskowski.
PiS immediately started an all-out counter-attack.13 It focused on sex education and linked it to LGBT+ issues. Right-wing MPs condemned a school sex education programme planned in Warsaw, designed to teach pupils about sexual orientation, discrimination and reproductive health, according to the standards set by the WHO. The party wants to keep sex education mainly in the hands of parents, instead of schools or non-government organizations.
A public TV broadcaster (TVP), fully controlled by an ex-MEP from PiS, used all its tools to attack new Warsaw authorities. Manipulations and fake news about the declaration based on WHO guidelines dominated national media for two weeks or so.
All right-wing journalists kept repeating that the mayor wanted to teach 4-year-old kids how to masturbate. Visions of BDSM lessons in primary schools were described by ultra-catholic and nationalistic commentators.
PiS leaders willingly joined the battle against the LGBT+ community. The Speaker of the Senate Stanisław Karczewski posted on his Facebook page a meme with a family protected from the rainbow by an umbrella with PiS logo. Elżbieta Kruk said she wanted her home town to be “LGBT free”.14
Pawel Rabiej, a gay deputy mayor of Warsaw, representing Modern party, added fuel to the fire backing adoption rights to same-sex couples. Rabiej is in charge of Warsaw nurseries and kindergartens, which provoked even more vulgar attacks on the Coalition. The media linked to the government were full of defamatory articles equating homosexuality with paedophilia.
At a party conference, Jarosław Kaczyński warned all voters that by supporting the European Coalition they would allow nefarious forces to influence the upbringing of their children.
“Our opponents attack our social policy and, even worse, attack families. They even attack children,” Kaczyński said, calling the LGBT+ declaration “unbelievable”.
“I did not believe it until I read it,” he said.
“This is an attack on the family, and an attack conducted in the worst possible way, because it’s essentially an attack on children. We will say no to the attack on children. Polish parents have the right to raise their own children. We will not be intimidated. We will defend the Polish family.”15
Trzaskowski and Rabiej also came in for harsh criticism by members of the Coalition. Civic Platform leaders did not know how to react to attacks of the Right.
Grzegorz Schetyna dissociated himself not only from all the considerations concerning adoption rights to homosexual couples, but also from the postulate of introducing civil partnerships.
Thus, he once again let down the liberal voters, for whom a failure to introduce civil partnerships during the government of the Civic Platform in the years 2007-2015 is one of the main criticisms and reasons for aversion to that party.
On the other hand, Modern party politicians manifested their support for LGBT+ people by taking part in all marches for equality organized in Poland.
As mentioned above, the second important theme of the election campaign was paedophilia in the Catholic Church.
On the one hand, it may seem to be extremely important issue in Poland, which is a Catholic country. On the other hand, however, it is a topic that used to be absent from mainstream public debate.
From time to time, stories of paedophile priests were presented in the media, but there was no deep analysis of the problem, no reaction of the Church or state authorities – and such a reaction was not even expected by the general public. Much has changed in the spring of 2019.
First, on 21 February, the “Don’t Be Afraid” (Nie lękajcie się) Foundation published a report on paedophilia in the Polish Church. It states 24 names of Polish hierarchs who are accused of hiding paedophiles and transferring perpetrators to other parishes.
The document contains descriptions of sexual offences against minors committed by 20 Polish clergymen, and also explains how they were protected by bishops.
The list includes among others the names of: Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, Archbishops: Sławoj Leszek Głódź, Tadeusz Gocłowski or Henryk Gulbinowicz. The authors of the report affirm that they present
“the most scandalous cases in Poland in which paedophile priests were protected by bishops and other superiors and in which the obligation imposed by the document entitled “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela” was grossly violated16.
“The cases described below are mostly those in which a final judgement has been passed in court, and so their number does not reflect the magnitude of the problem. The presented cases are documented and described in the Polish media”, the document reads.17
The Foundation’s management, including MP Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, a former member of Modern party, passed the report to Pope Francis in the Vatican, which was reported by all Polish media.
About a month later, the Polish episcopate revealed the results of its own investigation into paedophilia in Church.18
According to Church authorities, since 1 January 1990, 382 cases of sexual abuse of minors by the clergy have been reported. 74.6% of the cases had already been concluded, but only one in four ended with the expulsion of a clergyman from priesthood.
In 40.3% of cases, other penalties were imposed, including suspension, canonical admonition, prohibition to work with minors, deprivation of office, limitation of service or a ban on public speaking.
In 11.5% of cases, paedophile priests were transferred to another parish, to a pensioner’s home or sent to therapy. 10.4% of all proceedings ended with acquittal.
Most cases of paedophilia that priests were aware of have never been reported to state authorities.19
However, a breakthrough moment for the public interest in Poland in the subject of paedophilia in Church was the première of a documentary entitled “Tell No One” by the Sekielski brothers,20 in which for the first time not only victims, but also their perpetrators, are presented. It tells heartbreaking stories about abuse, fear and trauma.
The documentary presents victims psychologically destroyed, even in adulthood, by their childhood experience, priests caught on hidden cameras confessing to wrongdoing, and convicted offenders still working with children.
One of the priests exposed in the documentary was personal chaplain of Lech Wałęsa, former president of Poland, who initially refused to believe the story, but ultimately condemned the cleric. The film also shows examples of paedophile priests who, instead of being punished, are transferred to other parishes where they keep working with children and commit sexual crimes against them.
Across the country, the film has triggered soul searching and raised questions, including whether the same bishops who moved perpetrators from parish to parish for years will be capable of cleansing the Church.21
Church leaders called it “nonsense”. Some of the bishops ignored it. But others apologized the victims and offered help. On Sunday before the EP elections, a letter from the Church leadership was read in all Polish churches. They apologized and asked for forgiveness.
However, the reaction of politicians of the ruling right-wing party was unequivocal. Jarosław Kaczyński described a discussion about paedophilia as a “brutal attack” on the Church and portrayed the LGBT+ rights movement as the key threat to children in the country. Another PiS MP, Zbigniew Gryglas, compared the documentary to “Mein Kampf”. Deputy Speaker of the Sejm Ryszard Terlecki asserted that it was part of a conspiracy to shift the EP election results.22
The opposition tried to take advantage of the interest in the subject and the social outrage, demanding the establishment of a special parliamentary committee which would investigate the issue of paedophilia in Church and submit notifications to the prosecutor’s office on suspicion of committing crimes by hierarchs who did not report cases of abuse to the police.
Jarosław Kaczyński did not agree to setting up such a committee and stated that he could possibly agree to a committee fighting against paedophilia as such.
In addition, under the guise of combating the phenomenon, the ruling party pushed through the parliament an amendment toughening the provisions of the penal code, in order to show the public how it fights sex offenders.
The purpose of the amendment was to totally toughen penalties, limit suspended sentences and non-custodial penalties, as well as toughen the conditions for parole, including deprivation of the right to it.23 That was done only for show, had little to do with helping the victims of cassock rapists and was criticised by human rights defenders.24
Of course, the public media and the private media that are financially dependent on the Right have come to the government’s rescue. They all trivialized the problem of paedophilia in Church.
For instance, TVP emphasized in the main news bulletin “Wiadomości” that in Poland only 0.08% of clergymen are sex offenders (in Germany – 4.4%, in the US %, in Australia – 7%) and presented infographics, which showed that the largest group of people convicted of paedophilia are… bricklayers.
Paedophilia and LGBT+ became the main themes of the EP election campaign in Poland. In particular, in the last few days of the campaign, these two topics have dominated the public debate. This happened quite unexpectedly and was not planned by the electoral staffs.
Both topics attracted a lot of publicity thanks to external entities over which the parties had no influence, and were immediately pressed into campaign machines.
The emergence of the topic of LGBT+ has been definitely beneficial to Law and Justice, which has always had a very categorical opinion on all, and in particular sexual, minorities. Law and Justice went for its old manoeuvre known from the campaign against the “gender” ideology.25
Like “gender”, the term “LGBT+” has been dehumanized, depersonalized, and called a hostile ideology. Jarosław Kaczyński, using best practices from the Kremlin, described LGBT+ as a factor alien to the Polish tradition and culture, as a destructive movement that does not deserve protection or acceptance.
The main ally of the Right in the crusade against LGBT+ was the Catholic Church, which principally opposes everything that does not comply with the so-called traditional family model.
PiS presented the fight against LGBT+ as a fight for the protection of the Polish family and Polish children. In constant media coverage, it equated LGBT+ with paedophilia and sexualization of small children.
For two weeks, politicians of the ruling party reiterated a message that the aim of the Warsaw LGBT+ declaration was to teach masturbation in kindergartens. This approach to the issue meant that even people who had previously been indifferent turned against sexual minorities and their demands.
Such a presentation of the subject caused the European Coalition to be driven into a corner. It was difficult for them to fight absurd accusations of promoting paedophilia and masturbation. The rational discussion on the protection of the rights of non-heteronormative people turned out to be extremely difficult also due to the divergence of views on that within the Coalition itself.
On the one side, there was conservative PSL, on the other, the politicians of Modern and Green parties who support marriage equality. And in the middle, there was a very indecisive Civic Platform, which was not able to clearly support civil partnerships. The message was inconsistent, and thus it provoked further attacks. The Coalition was losing.
The fact that the issue of paedophilia in the Church surfaced seemed to be favourable to the opposition. Showing pathology in the Church that explicitly supports the government of Mateusz Morawiecki, and the lack of reaction of state authorities to this phenomenon could have an adverse effect on the ruling party’s reputation.
After all, it was all about sex crimes against children that outraged the public.
Demanding clarification of the scandal and punishment for the culprits, opposition politicians could draw attention of the general public to the problem important for progressive voters, namely the lack of actual separation of church and state in Poland, and to remind the general public about a number of scandals at the meeting point of church and public money.
Calls to face the issue of paedophilia in church symbolized the need to redefine the role of clergy in public life in general.
Law and Justice, initially insecure, started a counter-attack. The party presented itself as a sheriff who would solve the problem by toughening penalties.
But most importantly, PiS equated the subject of paedophilia in the Church with LGBT+. It presented the whole thing as an attack on what is most important for its voters – on the Church and on the family/children.
Mobilisation turned out to be the key to winning these elections. It seemed that the European elections, which normally attract city dwellers to the polls, favoured the opposition. What is more, commentators were convinced that the issues related to the worldview, so important for progressive voters, will draw a lot of them to the polling stations. And that was exactly what happened.
However, another issue was not taken into account. By constantly talking about a threat to the most important conservative values, Law and Justice also caused mass mobilisation of its voters.
Over one million people who did not vote in the previous elections voted for Kaczynski’s party this time. These were largely people who wanted to show that they would not allow the good name of the Church to be tarnished and for introducing a threat to the “man+woman+children” family model.
At the same time, part of PSL’s voters, who could not find their place in the broad opposition coalition or accept the opening to the demands of minorities, stayed at home. Thus, the votes of the parties making up the European Coalition did not add up.
The final election results surprised everyone. The turnout was 45.42%, easily the highest for any European election since Poland joined the EU in 2004. It was almost 20 pp higher than five years ago.
Law and Justice (PiS) gained the greatest support – winning as much as 45.38% of votes – while the European Coalition (coalition of Civic Platform, SLD, PSL, Modern party and the Greens) came second with 38.47%.26
The campaign based on emotions gave PiS a yet another success – it suggested topics for the next election campaign and brought them closer to winning the elections to the Sejm.
This article was originally published in Handbook of Storytelling: https://www.liberalforum.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/HANDBOOK-OF-STORYTELLING.pdf
1 Szłapka, A. (2017). Repolonization and State Patronage: Current Challenges for Poland, in 4Liberty.eu Review, 7, p. 64.
2 Compare: Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index: https://rsf.org/en/poland
3 E.g. Harper, J. (2019, August 14). Polish priest in hot water, in Politico.eu. Retrieved from https://www.politico.eu/article/polish-priest-rydzyk-in-hot-water-over-green-energy/
4 Szuleka, M., Wolny, M., Szwed, M. (2016). The Constitutional Crisis in Poland. Warsaw: HFHR.
5 Rule of Law: European Commission launches infringement procedure to protect judges in Poland from political control (2019, April 3). Retrieved from https://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-19-1957_en.pdf
6 After the 2014 election, in 106 largest Polish cities there were 28 mayors from Civic Platform (PO), 13 from Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), 5 from Polish People’s Party (PSL), 1 from Your Move (Twój Ruch) and 45 independents. PiS won in only 12 cities and the biggest of them was Nowy Sącz.
7 Only local authorities had the powers to, for example, develop projects regarding IVF, access to gynaecologists, sexual education or support Pride Parades or progressive modern art.
8 A flagship social project of the PiS government, which in 2015 gave every family the equivalent of EUR 120 for every child starting from the second, regardless of income. And ahead of parliamentary elections in November, PiS has promised to extend “Family 500+” to cover all children.
9 Read more: Ruling party presents five major proposals for 2019 election year, in PAP. Retrieved from https://www.pap.pl/en/news/news%2C410195%2Cpoland-stake-2019-campaign-ruling-party-leader.html [in Polish]
10The new left-progressive “Spring” of Robert Biedroń and extreme groups, the Confederation (Konfederacja) on the right and Together (Razem) on the left, remained outside the coalition.
11 KO stands for “Koalicja Obywatelska”, Civic Coalition, an electoral alliance of Civic Platform and Modern party created for 2018 local elections, recreated for 2019 general elections (with the support of a leftist Polish Initiative of Barbara Nowacka and a group of popular mayors).
12 The Warsaw Town Hall explained on its official web site why the declaration is important: out of the nearly 2 million people who make up the community of Warsaw residents, up to 200,000 are members of LGBT+ groups, nearly 70 percent of LGBT people have experienced some form of violence over the last two years. For LGBT teenagers, a place where they experience aggression is usually school (26%), with their peers as the usual perpetrators (19%).
13 Shah, S. (2019, March 11). Poland’s ruling party launches attack on LGBT community at party convention. Retrieved from https://emerging-europe.com/news/polands-ruling-party-launches-attack-on-lgbt-community-at-party-convention/
14 After the elections, the campaign concerning LGBT-free zones was creatively developed by Law and Justice local government officials, who adopted official resolutions declaring their cities and regions to be LGBT-free zones. Gazeta Polska, which sympathizes with the authorities, attached an “LGBT-Free Zone” sticker to one of its issues, which was banned by a court.
15 Op. cit. 13.
16 A code promulgated by Pope Benedict XV in 1917 recognized the existence of a number of canonical crimes, or “delicts”, reserved to the exclusive competence of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office.
17 Charity says 24 Polish bishops covered up sex abuses of minors (2019, February 21), in Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-abuse-poland-report/charity-says-24-polish-bishops-covered-up-sex-abuses-of-minors-idUSKCN1QA20C
18 Poland’s Catholic Church admits clergy sexually abused hundreds of children (2019, March 14), in DW. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/polands-catholic-church-admits-clergy-sexually-abused-hundreds-of-children/a-47925597
19 Since 13 July 2017, an obligation to notify the authorities of the offence of paedophilia has been introduced to the Polish law.
20 The documentary was crowdfunded. The film was released on YouTube and was viewed there over 21 million times in the first week. Later on, it was broadcasted by TVN, a private TV station.
21 The money for the documentary was crowdfunded. The film was released on YouTube and was viewed there over 21 million times in the first week. Later on, it was broadcasted by TVN, a private TV station.
22 PiS is also implicated in abuse cover-ups. One of the party’s top MPs, Stanisław Piotrowicz, made his name in 2001, when as a prosecutor in the Subcarpathian Region he dismissed a case against a priest accused of raping six girls. Today Piotrowicz is the face of PiS’s attack on the courts, the Constitutional Tribunal, the National Committee, the Judiciary and the Supreme Courts.
23 Only a few of the changes concern sexual crimes against children under the age of 15. The maximum penalty for rape is to be 30 years, the offence is not to be time-barred and the court in such cases will be obliged to impose a lifetime ban on working with children. Such a change does not hit the nail on the head with the problem which has become a pretext for bringing this bill forward as a matter of urgency, because the majority of crimes committed by priests against children consists in forcing them to engage in what is known as “other sexual activities”, i.e. not rape.
24 There was criticism from lawyers and human rights activists, especially as regards the introduction of life sentences without parole. Especially in the light of the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling that claims that a life sentence without any possibility of parole is inhumane.
25 For many years now, the Right and the Church have fought against “gender” as a leftist ideology, incompatible with the Polish culture and tradition.
26 Robert Biedroń’s Spring with 6.06% will also have its MEPs in the new five-year term. The 5-percent threshold was not exceeded by the Confederation (4.55%), Kukiz’15 (3.69%), Left Together (1.24%), Poland Fair Play Non-Partisan Gwiazdowski (0.54%), Polexit – Coalition (0.06%) and Unity of the Nation (0.02%).
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