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Poland’s ruling populists risk isolation in bid to stay in power

Law and Justice party manages to pass controversial media ownership law and bill restricting claims on properties seized after WWII, which has strained relations with Israel

The leader of PiS Party, Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks during a campaign convention in Warsaw, Poland, October 8, 2019, (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
The leader of PiS Party, Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks during a campaign convention in Warsaw, Poland, October 8, 2019, (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AFP) — Weakened by a split in its coalition, Poland’s government is battling to stay in power even at the cost of international isolation and accusations of muzzling independent media.

Votes this week on a new media ownership law and on curbing claims on properties seized after World War II have angered the United States, traditionally a strong ally of Poland.

The row comes on top of a confrontation with the European Union over judicial reforms wanted by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and volatile relations with both Germany and Israel.

“Poland today finds itself very isolated internationally,” said political expert Marcin Zaborowski, adding that relations with Washington would now become “very problematic.”

The votes came a day after the Agreement party, a junior coalition partner of the PiS, abruptly left the government after months of ever more bitter recriminations.

That left the PiS without a stable majority, although it was able to scrape together enough votes to push through the controversial laws.

Protesters show the victory sign as they hold up placards with the letters of Poland’s main private TV network TVN, a US-owned broadcaster, as they demonstrate in defence of media freedom in Warsaw on August 10, 2021. (JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

Opponents say the new media law is aimed at silencing the news channel TVN24 by forcing its US owner, the Discovery group, to sell a controlling stake.

The government says it is just closing a loophole that could allow hostile foreign powers such as Russia to hold undue influence in Polish media.

The law on WWII-era property claims has rankled particularly in Israel, which has accused Poland of trying to erase the memory of its once-thriving Jewish community.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asked PiS-allied Polish President Andrzej Duda not to sign the new law.

Blinken also said he was “deeply troubled” by the media law, warning that it “threatens media freedom and could undermine Poland’s strong investment climate.”

Staying in power ‘ultimate aim’

“With PiS, foreign policy is always a victim of domestic policy and PiS’s ultimate aim is to stay in power,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska from the University of Warsaw.

PiS has been in uninterrupted power since 2015 and in order to stay on “is prepared to sacrifice the security of the country and good relations with the United States,” said Zaborowski, a director at the Globsec think tank in Slovakia.

“Parliamentary elections will take place at the latest in 2023 and PiS is convinced that without TVN, which is watched mainly in large cities where it traditionally does not score well, it will not manage to hold onto power,” he said.

A protester holds a sign that reads: “PisExit,” with PiS being the acronym in Polish for the ruling right-wing party, Law and Justice, in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday Dec. 13, 2020. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

PiS already controls TVP public television, which has become a government mouthpiece, and much of the regional press.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski thinks his party “should have a 50-60 percent share of the vote but they are only at 30 percent,” former president Alexander Kwasniewski told the broadsheet Rzeczpospolita daily.

“He blames the opposition, foreign powers, and media for this situation — anyone who is independent,” he said.

“Viktor Orban is already doing it in Hungary,” he said, referring to the nationalist, anti-immigrant Hungarian leader accused by critics of trying to reshape his country into a socially conservative bastion.

Zaborowski said that PiS foreign policy was only about ensuring good relations with some ideological allies — other governments that question the rules of liberal democracies.

“I think it’s only a question of time before PiS begins to have good relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin,” he said.

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