Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Politics of Hate

Polish politics has entered a dangerous spiral of aggression and conflict. Yesterday afternoon a man entered the offices of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the city of Łódż and shot dead one man (assistant to the MEP Janusz Wojciechowski) and seriously injured another (assistant to the MP Jarosław Jagiello). After being arrested the attacker shouted that he wanted to kill PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and that he hated PiS.

Now this all could be the actions of an insane attacker and will perhaps be remembered as a tragic but isolated incident - let's hope so. However, whatever the mental state of the perpetuator, this crime seems to be the culmination of a worrying trend in Polish politics behind which deep social tensions and divisions lie.

Within less than an hour of the attack PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński had already gone on the offensive. He stated that the attack was “the result of the great campaign of hatred against his party pursued by the ruling party Civic Platform (PO) and its leader, Prime Minister Donald Tusk" Meanwhile PM Donald Tusk called for calm, stating that 'the most important thing is joint actions of all Poles and different political groups towards extinguishing the atmosphere of conflict and anger'

It is certainly the utmost political cynicism, and unfortunately true to form, for Kaczyński to use such a tragic incident to build his own political capital. It is also breathtakingly hypocritical for such a politician to deride others for using the language of political aggression. After all this is a political leader who divided society and attacked his political opponents whilst in power - often using the institutions of the state (including those he created) against his political enemies. It was whilst Kaczyński was in power that the SLD MP Barbara Blida died, (ostensibly by suicide but in very unclear circumstances) whilst being visited by the Internal Security Agency (ABW). I could go on and those who remember the period of the PiS government will recall the atmosphere of political conflict and the bending of the standards of democratic practice that existed during this time. All this however does not tell the whole story.

Firstly, PO was partly responsible and have certainly been the beneficiaries of the rise of PiS and the political move to the right in Poland. One of the PiS government's great projects was its failed attempt to create a new constitution and build a new Fourth Republic. This project was actually first mooted by politicians from PO and Tusk built up PO as a party fighting against the 'corrupt' Third Republic. It should also be remembered that prior to the 2005 parliamentary elections it was widely predicted that PO would form a government with PiS and that their two-thirds majority would allow the coalition government to drive through their constitutional reforms. All of this was derailed when PiS unexpectedly emerged as the largest party in these elections and then built a coalition government with the nationalist and agrarian populist parties. The major political divide that has dominated politics ever since was formed at this moment.
Yesterday Kaczyński claimed that the period of political aggression was started when Tusk called the supporters of PiS 'Mohair Berets' (Moherowe Berety) - that refers to the hats which elderly women at Church are supposed to favour. Now once again Kaczyński is wildly exaggerating and re-writing history by forgetting his own dominant role in building political conflict and aggression in Poland. However, this turn of phrase used by Tusk was one part of a verbal political war not just between political parties but amongst different social layers and generations. Such phrases have become commonly used by those on either side to deride the other and create simplified characateurs of different social groups.

In order to build their political position as the dominant party in Polish politics PO have had to repeat and exaggerate the threat of PiS and demonise its leaders and supporters. PO politicians have painted PiS as being a quasi-fascist party that endangers democracy and that only Tusk and his team are preventing the country from falling into the abyss. On the other side PiS now taint PO as a party and government that threatens Poland's very existence as an independent nation. The political differences between the two parties - on matters of real substance - are in reality minimal. Rather than offer a clear political alternative to PiS and the conservative right PO can only use its marketing machine to show PiS as being the enemies of reason and itself as the representatives of rationality and progress.

Behind this lie deep social divisions and frustrations. I remember watching a political discussion programme shortly before the Presidential elections on PO's favourite private TV station TVN. One of the guests was a typical representative of Poland's liberal elite. She talked coherently and passionately about wanting to live in a 'normal' country and seemed to yearn for life in a stable western liberal democracy (scarce as they are to find nowadays.) One comment from her sticks in my mind. When discussing PiS and Kaczyński she blurted out that she wishes they would just go away and disappear. It was as if her life would be so much more bearable if these annoyances simply ceased to exist. The problem is however that the issue of Kaczyński and PiS do not concern the thoughts of extreme individuals or extroverts on the margins. Rather they express - in a very confused and often regressive form - the social reality of marginalisation that millions find themselves in today.

Of course this woman and her friends may be able to comfort themselves by increasingly pivatising their lives, living within gated communities, and existing in a cultural and social ghetto of privilege (of course with a progressive liberal tinge.) But beyond these secure walls lives a wider society. With little or no political choice on offer that can actually change the lives of the majority, then cultural conflict has become the order of the day. The demonstrations outside the presidential palace grew louder and more aggressive and their counter-demonstrators more vocal and direct. The political slanging matches between the two political 'sides' - talking about things that seem so removed from one's everyday life that it is almost surreal - have become deafening to the point that they can no longer be listened to. And now this internal phoney war has its first victim. Alongside the victims of the accident in Smoleńsk some new martyrs have been created. Let's hope they are the last.

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