Aleks Szczerbiak – How will mayor Paweł Adamowicz’s killing affect Polish politics?

The brutal, high-profile killing of the opposition-linked mayor of one of Poland’s largest and most politically important cities produced fiercely contested interpretations of its meaning and significance. But experience suggests that ‘martyrdom politics’ is not an effective political strategy and, although the tragedy was an extremely traumatic one for Polish society, it will probably be subsumed within existing divisions rather than representing a game changer.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe?(Routledge, 2012) and ‘Politicising the Communist Past: The Politics of Truth Revelation in Post-Communist Poland‘ (Routledge 2018). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at

Cross-posted from The Polish Politics Blog

A hate-fuelled ‘political murder’?

In January, Paweł Adamowicz, an opposition-affiliated politician who was mayor of the northern Polish coastal city of Gdańsk since 1998, died after being fatally stabbed while taking part in the local finale of the so-called Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (WOŚP), Poland’s largest annual charity drive organised outside of the Catholic Church. Such an unprecedented and high profile killing involving a prominent, well-known local politician was clearly an extremely traumatic experience for Polish society. However, it is not clear how, and to what extent, the tragedy will impact upon the country’s political scene, in a year which sees European Parliament (EP) elections in May and a crucial parliamentary poll in the autumn. This will depend, in part, on which of the fiercely contested interpretations of the meaning and significance of the tragic Gdańsk events becomes accepted as the dominant public narrative.

Opposition politicians and anti-government commentators have tried to link the killing to the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, arguing that it was a ‘political murder’. They pointed to the fact that, immediately after stabbing the mayor, the culprit, identified in the media as ‘Stefan W.’, seized the microphone and claimed that he had been wrongly imprisoned and tortured by Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s liberal-centrist ruling party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. Mr Adamowicz was previously a member of Civic Platform since it was founded in 2001, although his membership was suspended in 2015 and he stood as an independent candidate in last autumn’s local elections.

Comparing the Gdańsk tragedy to the 1922 assassination by a fanatic of the then-Polish President Gabriel Narutowicz, who had earlier been fiercely criticised by the nationalist right, the government’s opponents argued that Mr Adamowicz’s killing could not be blamed solely on the attacker and that the mayor’s death was linked to his political beliefs. They held Law and Justice responsible for creating what they argued was an increasingly toxic social and political climate by feeding the presence of, and normalising, ‘hate speech’. The ruling party did this, they claimed, both through their rhetoric and the alleged weak response of state institutions to manifestations of such hatred directed against opposition politicians.

They pointed to the fact that Mr Adamowicz’s high profile criticisms of the government’s opposition to Poland accepting EU quotas of Muslim migrants, and increasingly vocal liberal stance on issues such as the rights of sexual minorities, meant that he was regularly subjected to personal abuse from government supporters and radical political groupings. For example, two years ago in a publicity stunt the radical nationalist All-Poland Youth (MW) grouping published a series of fake ‘political death certificates’ for a number of local politicians, including Mr Adamowicz, putting the cause of death as ‘liberalism, multiculturalism and stupidity’.

In particular, the government’s critics said that the barrage of criticism to which Mr Adamowicz had been subjected prior to his killing by Law and Justice’s media allies – especially Polish public TV news which, they argued, had been turned into an instrument of brutal pro-government propaganda – legitimised violence and made attacks on him more likely. Such harsh criticisms, they argued, created a fertile ground for individuals who may not have been directly associated with Law and Justice and more radical political groupings but were motivated by their rhetoric and felt attracted to committing such crimes; making Mr Adamowicz’s murder ‘political’ in the broader sense.

No evidence of political motivations?

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, accused the opposition and its media allies of trying to cynically exploit, and create a political myth surrounding, Mr Adamowicz and his tragic death by engaging in ‘martyrdom politics’. They argued that the opposition deliberately used the ambiguous term ‘political murder’ to create a moral panic by conflating the killing of a politician with a murder that was overtly politically or ideologically motivated. Pro-government commentators said that there was no clear evidence that the perpetrator was in any way linked to, or involved with, Law and Justice, nor that the ‘political climate’ led to such extreme behaviour. They pointed out that Stefan W. was a career criminal with a reported history of severe mental health problems who had recently been released from prison after serving a five-and-a-half year sentence for a series of violent armed bank robberies. They suggested that it was likely that Stefan W. felt that Civic Platform was to blame for imprisoning him because it was in government when he was convicted in 2014, and thus saw Mr Adamowicz as a symbol of the state authorities at that time.

Law and Justice acknowledged that there needed to be greater mutual respect among political adversaries and that the language of public debate should be toned down. However, they insisted that political divisions were not the cause of the Gdańsk tragedy, and argued that opposition parties and their media allies had also used inflammatory rhetoric against Law and Justice. They pointed out that, although Civic Platform was trying to present Mr Adamowicz as a political martyr, the party also distanced itself from him due to alleged irregularities in the Gdańsk mayor’s financial statements. Indeed, it was during the previous Civic Platform-led government’s term of office that the public prosecutor levelled tax fraud charges against him. Civic Platform, they noted, stood its own candidate against Mr Adamowicz in last autumn’s local elections and only supported him in the second round run-off against Law and Justice.

Government supporters also claimed that the ‘hate speech’ narrative was invented by liberal elites and being used instrumentally by Law and Justice’s opponents as a political weapon to morally and politically discredit the ruling party and its (as they saw it) legitimate (if sometimes harsh) criticisms of the Poland’s post-communist establishment. Criminalising ‘hate speech’ in other countries, they argued, resulted in attempts to censor and eliminate from public life defenders of national identity and culture, and supporters of traditional social values. Rather, the broader lessons that needed to be drawn from the tragedy were, they said, about lax security arrangements at public events and changing the penal code to ensure that those found guilty of the most serious crimes faced harsher sentences, and dangerous offenders with psychiatric problems did not slip through the net.

Complicating Law and Justice’s ‘de-mobilisation’ strategy

Knowing that (whatever Poles’ evaluations of him as a politician) the human tragedy of Mr Adamowicz’s killing has evoked a great deal of natural sympathy for him, the liberal-centrist opposition is likely to return to this topic in political debates running up to this year’s elections. Its strategy will be to try and draw upon the Gdańsk mayor’s legacy by presenting him as a symbolic political martyr of the struggle against the Law and Justice government. It will thereby cast the political choice facing Poles in the forthcoming elections in moral terms; presenting Law and Justice as a pariah party responsible for what they argue was the toxic atmosphere that led to Mr Adamowicz’s ‘political murder’.

At the same time, whether one believes the ruling party’s motives were instrumental or genuine, in the wake of the tragedy Law and Justice tried to present itself as the party of conciliation in apparent contrast to the opposition whom it accused of escalating tensions by pursuing ‘revenge politics’. For sure, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński was heavily criticised for missing the minute’s silence for Mr Adamowicz in parliament (some commentators argue that this was because he was concerned that Civic Platform leader Grzegorz Schetyna would use a preceding eulogy speech to accuse the ruling party of political responsibility for the killing; Mr Kaczyński says he was simply delayed) and the mayor’s funeral. The government’s opponents also accuse Law and Justice of hypocrisy arguing that it tried to politicise the October 2010 killing of one of its party workers, Marek Rosiak; although Law and Justice supporters respond that the killer’s motivations in this case were much more clearly political: upon his arrest the perpetrator said that he had also wanted to kill Mr Kaczyński.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice’s response to the Gdańsk tragedy dovetailed with its broader strategy of trying to lower the emotional temperature of political debate and downplay more controversial issues ahead of the elections in order to de-mobilise its opponents, especially in the larger towns and cities. However, Mr Adamowicz’s killing complicates the ruling party’s plans as it will be very difficult for Law and Justice to maintain its moderate, unifying tone when the opposition accuses it of being politically responsible for the ‘hate’ that led to the Gdańsk mayor’s death. If Law and Justice does not offer a counter-narrative to this then it will appear to be passively accepting the opposition’s arguments. On the other hand, if it does respond in kind then Law and Justice will find itself on the defensive rather than promoting its own positive policy agenda. Moreover, such a response also risks undermining the party’s broader ‘de-mobilisation’ strategy by prompting a further escalation of emotions and potentially greater polarisation of the political scene.

‘Martyrdom politics’ is not an effective strategy

On the face of it, the unprecedented, brutal killing of an incumbent mayor of one of Poland’s largest and most politically important cities should have a major impact on the country’s political scene, and some opinion polls carried out in recent weeks do show a small dip in support for Law and Justice. However, this may well be due to other factors, there is no clear trend, and Civic Platform does not appear be the beneficiary. For sure, the effect of such dramatic events in re-shaping public opinion can sometimes be delayed. However, experience suggests that, while may they remain part of the broader public debate, even traumatic and emotional occurrences such as Mr Adamowicz’s death – which, at the time, appear to have the capacity to be political turning points – gradually decline in salience as the news cycle moves on relentlessly and Poles turn their attention to other issues. For example, the April 2010 Smolensk tragedy – a plane crash in which the then Law and Justice-backed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s twin brother, and 95 others were killed, and which Mr Kaczyński’s party tried to blame on the incumbent Civic Platform-led government (and Russia) – did not benefit it in electoral terms (nor, indeed, did Mr Rosiak’s killing).

The experience of the Smolensk tragedy, therefore, suggests that – other than consolidating and building strong emotional links between Law and Justice and its core supporters for whom, at one point, it became almost a touchstone issue – ‘martyrdom politics’ is not an effective political strategy. Indeed, it can actually prove a distraction from the more prosaic and painstaking, but ultimately electorally rewarding, task of developing popular and credible programmatic alternatives. So rather than representing a political game changer with the capacity to influence the outcome of this year’s elections and re-set the political scene, Mr Adamowicz’s killing is more likely to be subsumed within existing political divisions and debates between Law and Justice and its opponents. Most Poles will, therefore, probably simply accept the narrative of the political current with whom they already identify most strongly as to what the Gdańsk tragedy represents: a hate-filled ‘political murder’ or the actions of a mentally-ill, violent convict with no broader political context.

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