Democracy Digest: Polish Presidential Elections Make Waves Across Region

Results of the first round of the Polish presidential race and preparations for the second are drawing attention all across Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the EU’s most powerful party.

Polish opposition leader builds up support

Rafal Trzaskowski, the opposition candidate facing the incumbent president Andrzej Duda in the second and final round of the Polish elections on July 12, took part in an online debate with independent candidate Szymon Holownia, the runner-up in last Sunday’s first round.

During the debate, Trzaskowski pledged to implement some of Holownia’s campaign objectives in an apparent public trade-off for the votes of Holownia’s supporters. Trzaskowki in the first round trailed Duda’s 43.6 per cent of the votes by 13.3 per cent.

So he now needs the support of Holownia’s almost 14 per cent of the voters to secure victory. While Holownia has indicated he will personally vote for Trzaskowski in the second round, the online debate broadcasted live on Wednesday was meant to help his voters make up their own minds about whether also to vote for Trzaskowki.

During the debate, among other issues, Trzaskowki pledged to veto any laws passed unconstitutionally by parliament, or those that are contrary to a 2050 climate neutrality goal for Poland. While securing Holownia’s support may have seemed a formality, the debate still was a win-win for both participants.

Holownia, who earlier this week announced the creation of his own party, was seen to be imposing the key points of his agenda on a potential future president. Trzaskowki, on the other hand, was able to project an image of cooperation across the political divide. The left-wing candidate, Robert Biedron, won just over 2 per cent of the votes, also said he would support Trzaskowski.

In a battle to attract voters of the far-right candidate, Krzystof Bosak, who won 6.7 per cent of the votes, Trzaskowki promised this week to veto any tax increase; many of Bosak’s supporters are seen as libertarian.

Duda refuses debate outside home turf

Duda, meanwhile, refused to take part in a debate with Trzaskowski staged by three main private media organisations, the television channel TVN and the popular online portals Onet and Wirtualna Polska – which over ten other independent media outlets were also supposed to broadcast.

Duda suggested he would only take part in a debate organised by several television stations, including state-owned TVP, which is controlled by the governing party, Law and Justice, PiS. “All big televisions should organise the debate together,” Duda said during a campaign rally on Wednesday.

Before the first round, TVP organised a debate with all the presidential candidates, including Duda and Trzaskowski. But many said the questions were tailor-made for Duda and sidelined the most salient current issues in Poland. On coming to power, PiS appointed a new leadership at TVP and, as independent journalists left the institution, turned it into what many see as a propaganda machine – an important tool, as it is the only TV channel broadcasted all over the country.

Many major private media in Poland, such as TVN, continue to be foreign-owned, allowing them to take a more critical stance towards the government.

Presidential race ruffles feathers in Hungary and EPP

The Hungarian government has followed with some concern the elections in Poland. Its ruling party PiS and its presidential candidate and incumbent, Duda, are considered allies of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, and his governing Fidesz party. Fidesz’s vice-president, Katalin Novak, congratulated Duda on winning the first round in a twitter post, underlining the importance of “strong families” for “a strong Poland”.

But some members of the EU’s centre-right European People’s Party, EPP, objected to what they said was Fidesz – a suspended member of EPP – campaigning against Trzaskowski, as he was the candidate of the Civic Platform, PO, also a member of the EPP.

Fidesz MEP Tamas Deutsch told the government-loyal Magyar Nemzet that “Fidesz recognises the performance of all democratic political forces outside the EPP, which share the same social and family politics as Fidesz.” But he also criticized the PO, as the most liberal party in the EPP. “We haven’t changed! They are the ones who betrayed the core values of the People’s Party,” he asserted.

On the other hand, Budapest’s opposition mayor, Gergely Karacsony, celebrated the good results achieved by Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski. In a Facebook post, he said that the result brought hope of change to Central Europe. “This is good news for every European democrat and I will keep on cheering for him in the next two weeks,” he wrote. Should Duda lose to Trzaskowki, it would also be a blow for Orban, not so much in terms of his cooperation with Polish government, but as a message that democratic change is still possible in the region.

Fate of news portal causes concern in Hungary

Hungary’s public discourse was dominated this week by continued speculation about the future of the most widely read news site, Index.

For five years, the government, mainly using finance, has been trying to impose greater control over this media outlet. Interestingly, days before the corona crisis hit Hungary, a Fidesz-close media manager, Miklos Vaszily bought 50 per cent of the shares of the house selling advertisements in Index.

Although he pretended to be a silent investor, it was clearly a declaration of war by the government. In this battle, Index has now lost two of its CEOs – the last was in office for only two days – but has so far resisted attempts to slice off the editorial team.

As the government-critical news site 444.hu writes, it is still not clear whether Fidesz will move on with softer methods or attack Index with full force. Some senior Fidesz members think the party suffered defeats in several key cities in the 2019 municipal elections because, just days before the elections, the critical media broke a sex and drugs scandal concerning the Gyor mayor and former Olympic champion Zsolt Borkai. The government media seemed to focus more on the political impact of this scandal than on the scandal itself.

Slovakia coalition in conflict over plagiarism scandal

More than a week after Slovak media uncovered the plagiarised thesis of Boris Kollar, speaker of parliament and a leader of the conservative Smerodina (We are Family) party, Kollar refused to address calls to apologise or resign.

On Saturday, the Za ludi (For the People) coalition party asked Kollar to step down, followed by a second coalition partner, Freedom and Solidarity, SaS, on Wednesday. In response, Kollar said the had no reason to resign; moreover, if he was forced to quit, his party would leave the coalition. Prime Minister Igor Matovic offered vague support to Kollar, saying that the public and media should focus on everyone’s academic theses rather than the speaker’s. He tasked the ministers of education and justice with drafting a possibly retroactive law that would establish broad checks on academic theses for plagiarism and remove people’s university titles if they are found guilty of plagiarism.

Analysts in Slovakia said the scandal had turned into a new power play inside the government coalition. “It seems like a position game so that Kollar can negotiate more promises from his coalition partners,” Pavol Babos, a political scientist for SME, said this week, after Kollar threatened to leave the government. In the meantime, over 10,000 people have signed a petition urging Kollar to resign, while a group of activists organised a protest against plagiarism in politics on Friday.

Slovaks still distrustful of the police

Milan Lucansky, president of the police force in Slovakia, resigned on Tuesday, after months of talks about his replacement. Lucansky took office after the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018 amid widespread concern over the likely independence of a police investigation. Even though the police identified and charged suspects for the murder, and the courts have since convicted two of the accused, the police have not regained public trust in their work.

A new Eurobarometer poll released this week showed only 41 per cent of Slovaks trust the police, the lowest figure in the EU. The result is part of a wider distrust in public institutions in Slovakia. Most Slovaks also distrust the justice system, the government and the main political parties.

Lucansky said he was leaving because of disputes with the new Interior Minister, Roman Mikulec, and because the government was allegedly trying to “politicize” the police. “Although we agree with Lucansky on a lot of topics, there are some areas where our opinions varied,” Mikulec clarified on Tuesday. “I am glad that the police president has made this decision,” he added.

Slovak consulate linked to Berlin murder

Three years after Vietnamese secret services used a Slovak government plane to kidnap a Vietnamese businessman in Germany, another international scandal uncovered in Germany has been linked to Slovakia.

An investigation by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel and Russian Insider has shown that a Russian involved in the assassination in Berlin in 2019 of a Chechen man from Georgia, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, got his year-long tourist visa to the EU from the Slovak embassy in St Petersburg.

In July 2019, the investigation shows, a Russian agent used a fake identity to get a visa to Bratislava, signing the application as Roman Davydov. The Slovak consulate in Russia issued him a permit to enter the EU passport-free Schengen zone, and three weeks later the agent was involved in the murder in the centre of Berlin.

German prosecutors have accused Russian FSB intelligence over the incident, charging two men with the killing. The investigation said Davydov had meantime successfully returned to Russia. “I have ordered an immediate and thorough investigation into the actions of our general consulate in St Petersburg,” the Slovak Foreign Minister, Ivan Korcok, told the media on Wednesday.

However, the Defence Minister, Jaroslav Nad, said he did not think the consulate in St Petersburg was at fault. “We haven’t identified a problem there; the man brought such sophisticated fake documents that it is impossible to uncover such activities at the initial screening,” he said on Wednesday.

Czech President: ‘Black Lives Matter’ Slogan is Racist

Czech President Milos Zeman has labelled the “Black Lives Matter” slogan – under which protests against police brutality and historic racism have spread globally from the United States– racist. The former communist with strong pro-Russian and pro-China views, who earlier condemned what he called a Muslim invasion of Europe, also denounced those who he said impose their opinions about this and other issues on other people.

Zeman compared leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to an Orwellian “Big Brother”, keeping close control of citizens’ behaviour and opinions. “I say that the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a racist slogan because all lives matter,” Zeman said in a speech at the US embassy in Prague ahead of the July 4 reception. “We need free thinking, we need common sense. I do not need any new Big Brother,” the 75-year second-term president said.

Zeman also denounced “riots on the streets, the burning of the cars, and the destroying of statues in both countries”. He was referencing protesters in Prague who painted the slogans “He was a racist” and “Black Lives Matter” on a statue of British World War II leader Winston Churchill. The European Parliament on June 19 adopted a resolution supporting “Black Lives Matter” and denouncing racism and white supremacy in all its forms.

Czech car production plunges, putting jobs at risk

Car production, the export-oriented manufacturing backbone of the Czech economy, could suffer a 20-per-cent drop this year due to closures and weak demand because of the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s automotive group said. The impact could force the Czech Republic’s biggest carmakers, VW-owned Skoda Auto, joint venture Toyota Peugeot Citroën Automobile Czech and Hyundai, to cut jobs, the Automotive Industry Association said.

In 2019, the big three manufacturers produced 1.46 million vehicles, which, with output from some 140 others made up about 10 per cent of the Czech Republic’s Gross Domestic Product, GDP. The car industry employs around 180,000 people directly in the country, and about half a million when all the suppliers are included. It is facing a drop at best of 215 billion crowns (9 billion euro), or 19 per cent, in revenue this year. We recognise “the companies’ efforts to keep people on board. However, this situation is very fragile and it is in the state’s utmost interest to help, especially in terms of employment”, the Alliance’s president, Bohdan Wojnar, said. In April, car production dived by 88.5 per cent to 1994 levels.

Wanted: 6,000 teachers for Czech schools

Czech schools are short of some 6,000 teachers, and this number may almost double to 11,000 in four years’ time. The government is preparing a bill to make it easier to hire university graduates and lower the average age of teachers from 47 currently, even if they had not undergone formal teacher training. Due to the situation with coronavirus, some older teachers may retire sooner than they originally planned, Czech television said.

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