How Poland's conservatism is playing home and abroad

A new wave of conservatism is limiting freedoms within Poland and hurting the country's relationships with neighbours.

    Protesters shout anti migrant slogans as thousands of right wing nationalists march through Warsaw [AP Photo/Alik Keplicz]
    Protesters shout anti migrant slogans as thousands of right wing nationalists march through Warsaw [AP Photo/Alik Keplicz]

    Last Saturday morning I was escorted into studio 5 at TVP, Poland's state broadcaster. On stage, a punk band called Sexbomb was covering Ca Plane Pour Moi in front of a live audience, including a fairly large number of small children.

    The madcap TV host was running round, banks of young people manned the phones. And outside the studio, in towns and villages across this large country, thousands of people were out in the street, shaking tins and raising money.

    The telethon is a Polish cultural institution. In 1992, only a few years after the end of communism, the presenter realised that children's hospitals were badly underfunded and started the programme to raise money for them. This was the 24th edition. It raises more than $10m a year now.

    Yet the sight of things like Sexbomb playing on stage appears to have offended the new political and cultural elite in Poland.

    Politicians have begun complaining that perhaps Catholic charities would do a better job than this. Subtext: the show is too "liberal" and doesn't, or shouldn't, fit with Poland's cultural and social fabric. 

    Protest against European liberalism

    The threat to the programme has also come about because the new Polish government has passed a new law giving its treasury minister the power to appoint the head of TVP.

    It follows that the government may decide to take the programme off the air, or at least have it moved to a private channel.

    Never mind its place in the Polish psyche, the government appears to be on a moral crusade.

    Read More: Poland enacts court reforms despite opposition

    That crusade had come about at least in part because of a revolt against the perceived over-liberal standards of the European Union and in particular Germany in a bloc of countries including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

    The revolt gained momentum because of the refugee crisis. The argument, led by Hungary, that Europe was losing its values, gave the Polish Law and Justice Party a boost before recent elections.

    That, and a sense in Poland that the previous government under Civic Platform was useless and corrupt, propelled Law and Justice to power on a platform of restoring Polish pride. The telethon doesn't fit the right profile any more, however successful it has been.

    Polish President Andrzej Duda [AFP]

    Law and Justice goes further, planning changes to the constitutional court that would allow it to insert judges compliant with their way of thinking to help ratify new laws.

    The party also plans changes to Poland's education system (will it teach creationism?) and other things too. Friends of Law and Justice point out that the previous government tried to do similar things, so what's so unfair?

    That is true, but the real change is in how this government sees its neighbours.

    Tensions with neighbours

    This description of European liberalism as an insult in Poland has led in particular to a collapse in relations with Germany.

    There is a double-pronged set of criticisms, firstly that Angela Merkel betrayed Europe with a stupid promise to let in all the migrants, and secondly a view that Germany treats Poland with a mix of economic and social imperialism - outsourcing labour in car factories while trying to bully Poland into accepting refugees it doesn't want.

    The front cover of a political magazine this week has Merkel and her colleagues dressed as Nazis. That rhetoric runs through politics in Warsaw suddenly, and it is hugely damaging to an EU which just over a decade ago was celebrating Poland joining the club and freeing itself from Russian influence.

    Talking of which, the President of the European Parliament has described Law and Justice as operating politics "a la Putin", a reference to the treasury minister getting to decide who runs the newsroom on state TV and presumably what's on the news as well. Implication - only good news for Law and Justice.

    The previous government influenced the media in much the same way, but Brussels and Strasbourg and Berlin never complained because Poland had a pro -European outlook.

    That's all changing.

    How odd that the refugee crisis is allowing right-wing Eastern European governments to enact changes which, many say, attack the civil liberties not of refugees but their own citizens.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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