Poland’s ruling populists risk isolation to stay in power

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Weakened by a split in its coalition, the Polish government is fighting to maintain power, even if it is about international isolation and the accusation of silencing the independent media.

This week’s votes on a new media property law and curbing claims to property confiscated after World War II have angered the United States, traditionally a strong ally of Poland.

The dispute comes to a confrontation with the European Union over the judicial reforms sought by the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) and the volatile relations with both Germany and Israel.

“Today Poland is very isolated internationally,” said political expert Marcin Zaborowski. Relations with Washington would now be “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 increasingly bitter accusations.

The PiS lacked a stable majority, although it was able to scrape together enough votes to enforce the controversial laws.

Opponents say the new media law aims to silence news broadcaster TVN24 by forcing its US owner, the Discovery Group, to sell a majority stake.

The government says it is only filling a void that could allow hostile foreign powers like Russia to exert undue influence over Polish media.

The World War II-era property claims law has particularly offended Israel, which has accused Poland of obliterating the memory of its once thriving Jewish community.

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

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

Remaining in power “ultimate goal”

“At the PiS, foreign policy is always a victim of domestic policy and the primary goal of the PiS is to stay in power,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska from the University of Warsaw.

PiS has been in power continuously since 2015 and to stay “is ready to sacrifice the security of the country and good relations with the US,” said Zaborowski, director of the Globsec think tank in Slovakia.

“Parliamentary elections will take place by 2023 at the latest and the PiS is convinced that without TVN, which is seen above all in large cities where it traditionally does not do well, it will not be able to stay in power,” he said.

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

PiS boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski believes his party “should have 50 to 60 percent of the vote, but only 30 percent,” said former president Alexander Kwasniewski of the daily Rzeczpospolita.

“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 who has been accused by critics of transforming his country into a socially conservative bastion.

Zaborowski said the PiS’s foreign policy is only about maintaining good relations with some ideological allies – other governments that question the rules of liberal democracies.

“I think it is only a matter of time before the PiS has good relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin,” he said.