Travelling to Warsaw for a rally, I wondered whether anyone would show up. It was a dark, freezing Thursday, and the march was scheduled for 4pm. Who would have the time?
But clearly, Jarosław Kaczyński, main man of the recently defeated right wing, populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, knows his clientele better than I do. His image greeted me as I left Warsaw’s main train station. An open-top Routemaster bus had a poster on its side featuring Kaczyński’s beaming face urging “Free Poles” to join the march.
The right have much to fight about. Under PiS, the state broadcaster had become a propaganda outlet. Donald Tusk, Poland’s new premier, wasted no time in cleaning it up, winding up the company and replacing its management. Second on their grievance list is the arrest of two PiS MPs, Mariusz Kamiński and Maciej Wąsik, both convicted of abuse of power. They took refuge in the presidential palace and the president, Andrzej Duda, who is close to PiS, pardoned the pair of them.
Though the demo crowd seemed to come from the older generations, my first encounter was with Martina, a young woman who claimed to speak no English – before speaking English. She was marching for “peace and freedom”, she said. “In some time, if enough illegal immigrants come, I will feel unsafe and unfree.”
I asked her about how under PiS, some Polish embassies sold visas to the highest bidder. She scowled, said she did not understand, and walked away. It was not the best start and my feet were getting numb from the cold.
So I was pleased when the march took on more of a carnival atmosphere. Stalls were doing a roaring trade in flags and scarves. Chants of “This is Poland, not Brussels” and “Free Poland, Free Media” broke out. An older lady, Longina, perked me up with boiled sweets and then pointed to a banner with a picture of Tusk next to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. She sucked her teeth and wrapped her arms around her back as if to embrace herself. “Oh, Ursula, I love you, I love you, I love you, Ursula”, she said, evidently very pleased with her impression of Tusk. She then pointed to a poster of a cartoon of the president sodomising a figure labelled ‘Poland’, insisting I take a picture.
Another banner in the distance read “TUSK STINKS”, with the “S” in Tusk spelled in straight-edged runes to mimic the logo of the Nazi SS. Two journalists from TVN, a television network seen as liberal, were pushed around before freeing themselves from the crowd. Suddenly it all felt a bit January 6.
I spoke to a younger man next to me, Sebastian, pausing every few seconds to brush a flag out of my face. Why the real hatred for Tusk, I asked? “In Poland, we say Tusk sold us to Russia and Germany.” But is that really true? “Maybe. Even in the biggest lie, there is an element of truth.”
Sebastian explained he was there out of curiosity. Is the march how he expected? “Yes. But I thought there would be fewer flags.”
The penny dropped. At 30, Sebastian was surrounded by people more than twice his age. No wonder Kaczyński dared to hold a rally on a Thursday afternoon. Pensioners do not work.
Tomasz, an academic from eastern Poland, was another young person in the crowd. Yes, PiS had turned state TV into propaganda, he said. Yes, PiS had been involved in “controversial” decisions. But “they did nothing like the new government, who just sent the strong guys” to take over the studios.
And here Tomasz is in partial agreement with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and much of Polish civil society, both of which are uneasy at the way in which Tusk took on the state media. No law authorised reform; parliament had merely passed a resolution. A law would have required the agreement of the president. “It’s incredible”, said Anna, another marcher. “They don’t want to listen to the president, they don’t want to listen to the law.”
I thought back to Sebastian’s words. Tusk and his coalition are not constitutional arsonists. But might there be an element of truth, even among the greatest exaggerations?