POLITICS

A hard-right party gathers strength in Poland, pushing a new, less friendly course on Ukraine

Sep 26, 2023, 9:11 PM

Slawomir Mentzen, left, and Krzysztof Bosak, right, the co-leaders of the hard right Confederation ...

Slawomir Mentzen, left, and Krzysztof Bosak, right, the co-leaders of the hard right Confederation party, present their party slogan "Mozemy Wszystko!" (We Can Do Anything) at a convention in Katowice, Poland, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Confederation has been growing in popularity, especially among young men. The party has been riding a wave of growing support for far-right parties across Europe, and polls show it could increase its presence in parliament in a national election Oct. 15. No matter how they do on election day, the party has already done a lot to push the government to take a more confrontational stance to Ukraine, which is fighting for its survival against Russia. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

KATOWICE, Poland (AP) — Poland’s hard-right Confederation party opened its electoral campaign convention as if it were a rock concert, with a singer riding up on a motorcycle, its engine revving, and a pyrotechnic show of flames and sparklers.

The party has been growing in popularity, especially among young men fed up with the political parties that have dominated Poland for most of the post-Communist era. Its convention in Katowice on Saturday, billed as its largest ahead of parliamentary elections on Oct. 15, was aimed at energizing more voters and at playing down antisemitism and other extreme views among some of its members.

Through smoke and fire, Confederation’s leaders made their case for lower taxes, less regulation and an anti-European Union and anti-Ukraine foreign policy.

Confederation has turned up the heat on the Polish political establishment, riding a wave of support for nationalist conservative parties across Europe. Similar political forces have surged on opposition to widespread migration to Europe and anger over COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates. Such parties now govern in Italy, belong to the government in Finland and support a minority government in Sweden.

The Polish party, which won nearly 7% of the vote four years ago, was polling at around 15% in the summer, creating the prospect of a third-place finish after the governing national conservative party Law and Justice, which is the frontrunner in surveys, and the opposition Civic Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, which is trailing in second place.

That created speculation that it could end up as a coalition partner in the next government with Law and Justice. Such a scenario could push the EU and NATO even further to the political right and weaken Poland’s support for the Western alliance defending Ukraine.

For now, Confederation’s leaders insist they have no intention of joining established powers at the table.

“We are going to these elections to overturn the table where all the politicians are sitting,” said Krzysztof Bosak, a party co-leader, speaking at the convention in Katowice where the party introduced its campaign slogan, “We can do anything.”

No matter what happens on election day, Confederation has already altered the central European nation’s relationship with neighboring Ukraine, which is fighting for its survival against a brutal invasion from Russia.

The party’s poll numbers rose as its leaders hammered their message that Poland, a key ally, was not getting the gratitude it deserved for sending Kyiv weapons and helping large numbers of refugees.

Like other European hard-right parties, Confederation not only opposes vaccine mandates and mass migration, it is also hostile to LGBTQ+ people and skeptical on climate change.

But on Ukraine, it had to tread carefully. Poland spent more than 40 years behind the Iron Curtain and memories of Russian domination still sting. The party used a wedge issue to build support for its stance. Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products have entered Polish markets, causing a glut and driving down prices for local farmers.

Feeling the heat, Poland’s government hardened its line. It has banned imports of Ukrainian grain, triggering angry words and retaliation from Kyiv at the World Trade Organization. Ties fell to their lowest point since Russia’s invasion. Prime Minister Morawiecki suggested last week that the days of sending Polish weapons to Ukraine could be over.

Confederation’s leaders are gloating — but their poll numbers have fallen as the government moved closer to their position.

“The myth of this (Polish-Ukrainian) partnership … lies in ruins,” Bosak said. “It is clear that Confederation was the only one that correctly read the dynamics of relations between Poland and Ukraine, which was based on taking advantage of Polish naivety.”

The party, whose full name is Confederation, Liberty and Independence, is an alliance of radical nationalists and free-market libertarians founded in 2018.

The party criticizes the government’s social spending and regulations, saying they stifle small businesses. It opposes a monthly payment of 500 zlotys ($116) to families, regardless of their income, for each child under 18. During the campaign, the governing party voted to raise the payment to 800 zlotys ($185).

Confederation argues that such policies are contributing to double-digit inflation. It says it prefers tax cuts over cash handouts, a stance that appeals to some entrepreneurs and adults with no children who are paying into the system but not seeing the money flow back to them.

While Confederation stresses its free-market credentials, many Poles remain concerned over troubling statements by some of its members.

One that keeps coming back to haunt them is a comment by Slawomir Mentzen, another party co-leader. “We don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes or the European Union,” he said in 2019, describing his supporters.

Mentzen, who runs a brewery, also faced allegations of racism in 2021 by producing a beer called “White IPA Matters.” He said it was just a humorous reference to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

“Poland has no racist or colonial past. We don’t have to apologize to anyone for anything in connection with this,” he told the AP at the time.

And the party counts other controversial men in its ranks.

One, 80-year-old Janusz Korwin-Mikke, was suspended as a lawmaker in the European Parliament for making Nazi salutes during sessions. He has said that Poland should have cooperated with Adolf Hitler, and repeated a false claim that Hitler did not know about the Holocaust.

He has questioned whether women should have the right to vote, claiming wrongly that they are “less intelligent.” And he also defended Russian President Vladimir Putin after the invasion of Ukraine.

Another, Grzegorz Braun, has falsely claimed that there is a plot to turn Poland into a “Jewish state” and has called for homosexuality to be criminalized.

The largest applause on Saturday was for those two men.

Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe, said that extremist voters only make up a small fraction of Polish society. If Confederation wants to win more votes, it must move to the political center, putting “a brighter face on the nationalism and extremist policies it represents,” he says.

The party is working to improve its image. Participants who registered for Saturday’s convention were warned that unless they arrived in elegant clothes, they wouldn’t be let in.

Mentzen seemed to try to take on the issue head on and use it to the party’s advantage.

“We may be a bit unconventional. We sometimes have controversial views or controversial statements,” he said. “But believe me, you don’t have to agree with every statement of every member of ours to be able to vote for us.”

Some supporters who were interviewed after the convention stressed that they were voting for the party for its economic policies. Most did not want to give their last names.

A sales representative from Poznan said he was giving Confederation his vote because “another power wanted to suffocate us with vaccinations and lockdowns” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Confederation was on our side and they fought for us,” Rafal Iks said as he left the convention. “We are fighting for them today.”

___

Associated Press journalist Rafal Niedzielski contributed reporting from Warsaw and Katowice.

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A hard-right party gathers strength in Poland, pushing a new, less friendly course on Ukraine