Pawel Adamowicz, longtime mayor of Gdansk, was holding up a Roman candle at a charity event on January 13 when a man leaped onstage and stabbed him repeatedly. Thousands of Adamowicz’s constituents saw him fall. Many rushed to donate blood; others remained glued to screens overnight as doctors tried to save the mayor with emergency surgeries and a near seven-gallon blood transfusion. But two of the wounds had touched Adamowicz’s heart, and a third had pierced his bowels. He died the following day.

Dziki kraj: “a savage country.” Such was the immediate response of Adamowicz’s friend Jerzy Owsiak, a journalist and the founder of the charity at whose event Adamowicz had been speaking. A public assassination of this kind had not occurred in Poland for almost a century. To some, it called to mind the 1922 shooting of the first Polish president, Gabriel Narutowicz.

Adamowicz’s murder cast a somber light on the vertiginous rightward turn Poland has taken in recent years. The mayor of Gdansk was a progressive figure who had defended the rights of women, gay people, minorities, and immigrants. In 2017, Poland’s right-wing youth movement issued Adamowicz a symbolic “death certificate” as punishment for his liberal policies. The ruling party in Warsaw, Law and Justice (PiS), did not condemn this display. Pro-government public television stations even heaped their own unproven accusations onto Adamowicz throughout 2018, suggesting that he had ties to corrupt real estate developers and bankers. Earlier this week, the ethics committee of the Polish Journalists Association issued a statement describing public television’s coverage of the mayor as deliberate and consistent misrepresentation.

The week after Adamowicz’s death, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and two of the party’s deputy Speakers of the House absented themselves from a scheduled minute of silence for the slain politician. PiS also refused to sign a multipartisan condemnation of Adamowicz’s killing because it praised too many of his achievements.

Dziki kraj indeed. Adamowicz’s assassination illustrates the great difficulties Poland’s opposition still faces. But it also suggests strategies through which this opposition might resume power. The tragedy has helped galvanize support for new grass-roots movements that have allowed the Polish left to reclaim national attention through local politics. If these efforts prove successful, the Polish left can serve as a model for divided and demoralized leftist forces elsewhere, demonstrating that political divisions are better mended by delving into local concerns than by trying to transcend them.

THE DIVIDED LEFT

For the Polish opposition, the clock is ticking. Poland will hold elections to both houses of parliament—the Sejm, or lower house, and the Senate—in the fall of 2019. Four years ago, these elections devastated the left, as no leftist politicians (except a few agrarian activists) entered either house of parliament. The majority of seats went to PiS; the centrist Civic Platform (PO) and the libertarians took the rest. These results shocked both sides and came under close examination. Media commentators accused members of PO, the liberal-conservative, Christian democratic former ruling party, of cronyism and complacency. PO had come to power in 2007 by promising swift and dramatic social and economic liberalization. In the eight years that followed, it retrenched itself into lusterless, directionless centrism. The left, meanwhile, did much soul-searching after 2015 over its internal fragmentation. Under Polish law, a party can win seats in parliament only if it pulls in at least five percent of the vote. Had they run as a unit rather than competing with one another, some leftist parties might have met this requirement.

Today, the politicians of the Polish leftist opposition still represent incompletely overlapping interest groups. Some, such as the Polish People’s Party, lobby for a protectionist farming economy. Others, including Razem, focus on liberal social policy, labor rights, and urban development. Although young Poles may no longer associate leftism with the Soviet Union, that link remains potent and troubling for their elders. Today’s left comprises explicitly pro-Western factions that advocate for Poland’s conformity with EU standards, including those Poland has currently refused in areas such as media law and refugee acceptance. And on the very far left, there are Trotskyist groups that wish to do away with capitalism altogether. 

The questions facing Polish leftist groups this year should not look unfamiliar to American Democrats preparing for 2020.

With right-wing parties ascendant across Europe, many on Poland’s left see an urgent need to unify the opposition and supply credible candidates for the parliamentary and presidential elections coming up in 2019 and 2020. A series of wins this year and next year would buck the continental rightward trend. Some polls and politicians suggest PO as the party best able to broker a compromise among the left’s disparate constituencies. One of PO’s leaders, Donald Tusk, currently presides over the European Council. In presidential polls, voters look to him as a possible front-runner in 2020. But the lost 2015 election still casts a long shadow over Tusk and other PO leaders, and Tusk has not declared any intention of leaving his current post.

Leaders from Polish opposition parties at a convention in Warsaw, Poland, September 2018
Leaders from Polish opposition parties at a convention in Warsaw, Poland, September 2018
Agencja Gazeta / REUTERS

The questions facing Polish leftist groups this year should not look unfamiliar to American Democrats preparing for 2020. What should a strong anticonservative movement look like? Will moderation or polemics appeal more to a public increasingly disinclined to turn out to vote? And what kind of political platform can unify a fractured, multigenerational left? Like their counterparts across the Atlantic, Polish leftists are torn between a need for compromise and a desire for sweeping, radical change. And like their American counterparts, they are eager to replace, or at least reshape, their party elite.

ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL

Hope for the Polish left has sprung from unexpected places. In polls, PiS maintains approval ratings of around 40 percent. But the opposition has begun to chip away at the right’s dominance—and to coalesce internally—through grass-roots campaigns. Last year, the opposition won elections to local government in most major cities. This year, some of these newly elected mayors and city council members have made ambitious efforts to garner support across larger regions and perhaps even the nation.

Before his death, Adamowicz was an example of such a rising local leader. He was hardly a radical so much as a unifying figure. A practicing Catholic, Adamowicz had run for office as a conservative in the early 1990s. When he first became mayor of Gdansk, he rejected petitions for a gay pride parade. But Adamowicz gradually moved leftward, taking many of his religious constituents with him. He worked to make Gdansk safe for LGBTQ people, refugees, and others. This inclusiveness marked a strong contrast to PiS’ unapologetic fear of the other. Adamowicz showed that social tolerance could infuse a Polish Catholic belief system. Holding office in Gdansk, where the Solidarity movement was founded in the 1980s, magnified the symbolic import of Adamowicz’s attitudes. Where PiS had sought to equate patriotism with a conservative outlook, Adamowicz’s progressive traditionalism reclaimed it for the left.

In the wake of Adamowicz’s death, the style of grass-roots politics he typified has gained momentum. Robert Biedron, an activist and former mayor of the city of Slupsk, independently began ambitious grass-roots work earlier this winter. Biedron finished a highly lauded term as mayor in December 2018, and instead of running for reelection, he spent the past two months touring Poland, holding what he called “brainstorming sessions.” In one town after another, Biedron asked locals to add their demands to a portable blackboard. Over the course of multi-hour town hall meetings, he and his audiences homed in on a shared political platform.

Biedron’s tour was an explicit bid for creating a new leftist party, whose name and platform he finally announced last week. Wiosna (Spring) will fight climate change by phasing out Polish coal mines. It will improve the health-care system, increase the minimum wage, and impose taxes on the Catholic Church. It will liberalize Poland’s conservative abortion laws and legalize gay marriage, or at least domestic partnerships. In 2011, Biedron became the first openly gay man to serve in the Polish parliament. Both before and after winning that seat, he suffered homophobic physical assaults. The bravery of his LGBTQ advocacy has long garnered him international recognition.

Thousands of Poles attended the brainstorming sessions and Wiosna’s inaugural convention. Biedron recruited a diverse campaign staff for his national tour, which ramped up popular enthusiasm, leading the international press already to compare him with French President Emmanuel Macron. For his part, Biedron continues to draw parallels between himself and the deceased mayor of Gdansk. “We must fulfill [Adamowicz’s] legacy,” he announced last week. “The values he defended are our values.”

Political attention is shifting away from the usual suspects in Warsaw and toward constituencies outside the mainstream and outside the capital.

For all that, Biedron’s public image is in many ways very different from that of Pawel Adamowicz. Adamowicz drew on Poland’s multicultural past and his own mainstream, anticommunist credentials. Biedron, on the other hand, embodies an unprecedented future. While Adamowicz attracted moderate voters through his Catholicism, Biedron is a worldly, self-declared atheist who attracts a different segment of the political center. But at 42 years old, Biedron, like Adamowicz, is a charismatic crossover candidate who emphasizes inclusiveness and took a purposeful step back into local politics. The local political activism of these two men has given contemporary Poland a new model for how to form political alliances. They have filled some onlookers with hope and others with a sense of dread.

Biedron’s test run will come in May, when Wiosna takes part in elections to the European Parliament. If the party performs well, it might become competitive on the national stage. Some fear that Poland isn’t ready for a gay prime minister, but Biedron dismisses such criticism. He has already heard it, when he ran for mayor in 2014 and won.

Whatever happens in this year’s elections, Biedron’s rise and Adamowicz’s assassination augur political change. Political attention is shifting away from the usual suspects in Warsaw and toward constituencies outside the mainstream and outside the capital. Only 51 percent of eligible voters took part in the last round of Polish parliamentary elections. If voters concerned about the nationalist violence and political turmoil seizing Europe decide to head to the polls, PiS’ reign might just come to an end. A Wiosna victory, on its own or in a coalition, would set an encouraging example for leftist parties trying to restructure themselves throughout the West. Four years ago, Poland became the second European country, after Hungary, to experience a rightward electoral upset. This year, one hopes, its renewed local politics might signal a contrary trend. 

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