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How Poland's Polarization Led to the Murder of Gdansk Mayor
13 January, 2020
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Gdansk mayor Paweł Adamowicz speaks at the Christmas charity concert in Gdansk on January 13, 2019, minutes before he was assassinated. EPA-EFE/GRZEGORZ MEHRING/GDANSK.PL

Exactly one year ago today, Gdansk mayor Paweł Adamowicz was assassinated. A 27-year-old man ran up onto the stage during a benefit concert in the center of the city and stabbed the mayor multiple times with a knife. Adamowicz died the next day in hospital. 

Adamowicz’s murder revealed a serious problem in modern Poland: that society is too divided. The political opposition between the ruling right-wing party “Law and Justice” (PiS in Poland – ed.) and political centrists from the “Civic Platform” and left-wing “Lewica” has resulted in a clash of conservative and liberal values. Politicians, activists, and journalists who spoke to Hromadske agreed that Polish society has never seen such polarization since the fall of Communism. What’s the cause of this polarization, and can conservatives and liberals co-exist in today’s Poland?

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“Words Can Kill”

“This is where the coffin was placed. A long line stretched from here to the other side of the museum, not only on the inside, not only on its outskirts. People ended up waiting for 3-4 hours to say goodbye to their mayor. People came at midnight or at 3 a.m. to stand next to the coffin and say 'Forgive me.' It may have only lasted for a few seconds, but they felt that they needed to do this,” explained vice-mayor Piotr Grzelak. He worked with Adamowicz for 5 years.

Vice-mayor of Gdansk Piotr Grzelak at the Center for European Solidarity, Poland, October 10 2019, Photo: Oleksiy Nikulin / hromadske

We met with Grzelak at the Center for European Solidarity, a museum and investigative center dedicated to the anti-communist labour union Solidarity, in Gdansk. According to Grzelak, the building, which was built in 2014, is Adamowicz’s “child.” “This isn’t about the past, it’s about the present. He wanted Gdansk to have a place where people could talk,” said Grzelak.

The Center for European Solidarity is a museum and investigative center dedicated to the anti-communist labour union Solidarity, in Gdansk, Photo: Oleksiy Nikulin / hromadske

Paweł Adamowicz was known for his liberal views in support of migrants and LGBTQ rights. He was often the target of criticism from state-owned Polish media, such as public broadcaster TVP (Telewizja Polska). Magdalena Adamowicz, the mayor’s widow, who now services as an MEP in Brussels, thinks that TWP repeatedly used hostile language against Adamowicz. She considers TVP partly responsible for the murder of her husband.

“If we were to look at the mood surrounding Mister Adamowicz as a whole, then he was a huge target of unbelievable hatred from the side of the public broadcaster,” said Adam Bodnar, a Polish ombudsman. “Over the course of the year prior to his murder, there were over 100 different pieces against him that showed him in a negative light. This was connected to local elections at the end of 2018.”

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Piotr Grzelak tells us that one of the factors that drove the attacker was the hostile language used in Polish media. “If you’re a political leader then you have to understand that your words can kill. I think that the words of politicians killed the mayor. They heightened these emotions in society and it all ended in tragedy.”

Polish ombudsman Adam Bodnar, Warsaw, Poland, October 14 2019, Photo: Oleksiy Nikulin / Hromadske

Protests formed at the TVP building after Adamowicz’s murder. They demanded an end to hateful propaganda. One of the protesters was Wojciech Maruszewski, an activist and student at the University of Warsaw, who works to support migrants and LGBTQ rights. He shared the values defended by Mayor Adamowicz, which is why Adamowicz’s murder was so shocking for him. 

He says that the channel constantly criticized members of the Civic Platform party, founded by EU Council president Donald Tusk. Adamowicz was a long-time member of Civic Platform. “A lot of their messaging was full of hate towards people from Adamowicz’s party. The painted an image of the other part of society as better, privileged,” explains Maruszewski.

The Law and Justice Party has ruled Poland for the past four years, and it once again won the Parliamentary elections on October 13. The government formed by this political force is accused of controlling the public broadcaster, though the party itself denies allegations that TVP criticism of Adamowicz led to his murder. 

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“There’s not a single piece of supporting evidence that the murderer committed this crime out of a political motive. Everything points in the direction that it was simply a criminal,” claims Jarosław Sellin, a newly elected MP from PiS. “Probably, his motives were psychological. But we should wait for a final accounting of the situation from the prosecutors.” 

Newly-elected MP from governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Sellin, Warsaw, Poland, October 14, 2019 Photo: Oleksiy Nikulin / Hromadske

The Split

The reason for this conflict of values is the atmosphere of hate introduced into the informational sphere by politicians, thinks former Civic Platform MP and current business ombudsman of Ukraine, Marcin Święcicki. “The polarization of society is currently very strong, we didn’t have this before. Even families are polarized. They don’t talk to each other. There’s really a very deep split,” said the ombudsman.

Ex-MP, business ombudsman of Ukraine Marcin Święcicki, Warsaw, Poland, October 12, 2019 Photo: Oleksiy Nikulin / Hromadske

But Marek Ziemian, a member of PiS, thinks that it’s incorrect to draw a direct connection between the Polish people’s political preferences, and their values.

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“In Poland, it’s accepted to talk about a liberal-civil coalition. But it isn’t true. It’s not the whole truth. It’s as liberal as the Christian Democratic union in Germany, which is reality is center-right,” explained Ziemian. “Actually, in Poland, there are only three left-wing parties that go to elections as a coalition. That’s why most Poles today consider themselves conservative.”

But Poles have actually been divided into two, due to their differing values. Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of left-wing Polish magazine “Krytyka Polityczna”, believes there is also a third group, found in the center – the so-called ‘gray zone.’ He considers this group to be the largest, and that they, most of all, influence elections.

“People want prosperity right now, and they don’t care who offers it – conservatives or liberals. If Donald Tusk was unable to do this, then excuse me, people will vote for Kaczyński,” said Sierakowski. He noted that the degree of conflict in today’s society is high, but it applies only to people with strong political beliefs: “In reality, Poland is not an exception. In the U.S., in the United Kingdom, there is a big difference between open and closed society as it’s often said. And these two parts of society actually don’t just dislike each other – they abhor one another. These two groups are not just fighting, they want to extinguish the other.”

Founder and editor of Polish journal Krytyka Polityczna, Sławomir Sierakowski. Warsaw, Poland, October 12, 2019. Photo: Oleksiy Nikulin / Hromadske

Human rights defender Adam Bodnar thinks that one of the factors that led to this conflict of values are the actions of the government. “They constantly talk about traditional and conservative values. To do this, it’s useful for them to create this sort of polarization on the political arena,” he said. He explained that the base of support for PiS have traditional values, and typically live in small towns and villages. The majority of left-wing and centrist voters live in larger cities.

A monument to fallen shipyard workers at the Center for European Solidarity in Gdansk, Poland. October 10, 2019. Photo: Oleksiy Nikulin / Hromadske

Gdansk Today

The murder of mayor Paweł Adamowicz united the people of Gdansk for some time, even those who have different political leanings. The day following the news of the mayor’s murder, thousands of Gdansk residents went out on the streets to commemorate the mayor who had served them for 20 years.

“We, as residents of Gdansk, feel united. We are united in the values that Paweł Adamowicz promoted: openness, diversity, and respect for others. I think that these values brought us all together to his coffin,” said Piotr Grzelak.

The Old City neighborhood of Gdansk, Poland. October 10, 2019. Photo: Oleksiy Nikulin / Hromadske

But the political sympathies of Gdansk residents remain divided. During the 2019 parliamentary elections, Gdansk cemented its status as the main liberal city – 41% of votes of city residents went to the opposition political force Civic Coalition. The main party in the coalition, Civic Platform, is aiming to set itself as a liberal center-right movement. At the same time, conservative support for PiS, compared with 2015, grew by 2.5%: it received 32% of the vote from Gdansk residents.

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/Original report by Sashko Shevchenko

/Translation by Romeo Kokriatski