Analysis: Tempers flare between government and opposition

Opposition activists disrupted a state event on the Baltic Coast and a ruling party MP stuck a finger in an ‘up yours’ gesture to the opposition in Parliament. And the day of the Presidential election is still nearly three months away...

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Friday witnessed the opposition ritual of an attempt to remove a minister from the government via a vote of no confidence. This time it was the turn of Mariusz Kamiński, the Interior Minister, to face a motion of no confidence in the Lower Chamber.

Since the government has a majority in the chamber, there never was any danger of minister Kamiński losing. These motions are brought by the opposition to highlight problems a particular minister may be having on his watch. No opposition motion of no confidence in an individual minister has been successful since the passage of the present constitution in 1997. This time it was about the activities of the security forces which are being accused of hounding former left and liberal politicians. And as always, the PM Mateusz Morawiecki rose in defence of his minister and the ruling party united around him.

That was ritual. More unusual were the events surrounding a visit, earlier in the week, by President Andrzej Duda to Puck on the Baltic Coast, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Poland gaining access to the Baltic Sea. A group of protesters from the Committee in Defence of Democracy (KOD) appeared at the event and tried to shout the President down with some highly emotive and unparliamentary language. Public TV cameras later found the Civic Platform’s Presidential candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska meeting the protesters and saying that “you were certainly seen and heard”.

On Thursday, the opposition in Parliament attacked the government not only over the record of minister Kamiński but also over providing 2 billion PLN’s worth of funding to public TV and radio. Parliament passed a bill which granted public TV and radio funding to compensate for the loss of income due to license fee waivers for the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

The opposition accuses the public media of being biased in favour of the government and wanted the money to be diverted to fund the health service. After a heated debate on the subject, one of the ruling party MPs prominent in the debate, Joanna Lichocka, made a gesture using her index finger that was interpreted as being an “up yours” to the opposition. It did not exactly take the heat out of the situation.

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As the Presidential election campaign gathers pace we can expect more incidents of this nature. They do not generate much light, but certainly a lot of heat. Both the ruling party and the main opposition want to energise their electorates in opposition to each other. But it is important to understand the elements of theatre involved. In fact, Polish Parliamentary proceedings are tamer than in many other countries, and parliamentarians have never yet come to blows.

Dangerous liaisons

As the election debate gets increasingly heated, there is always a danger that actions by radicals and gestures by politicians in the heat of the moment may spiral out of control unleashing unexpected outcomes. While Poland has been largely free of politically motivated violence, incidents like the murder of a Law and Justice party worker a decade ago, or the murder of Gdańsk Mayor Paweł Adamowicz, both committed by disturbed individuals, can be incendiary.

A Presidential candidate who encourages her supporters and government opponents to be abusive, and a pro-government MP making rude gestures towards the opposition, are events that make hate speech harder to contain. Joanna Lichocka MP has apologised to people who felt offended by her gesture but no apology has been forthcoming from the opposition for applauding the actions of those who abused President Duda in Puck.

The Presidential election is critical for both the ruling party and the opposition. A win for the government would mean it would be safe from having to face any Presidential vetoes for years to come. If the opposition were to win, they could stop any piece of government legislation and would become favourites to take power at the next Parliamentary elections. High stakes make for high emotions.