Stressing laissez-faire economics at the expense of ultra-nationalism, the two young leaders of Confederation have made the far-right alliance popular enough to be the probable ‘kingmaker’ in October’s parliamentary election.
Dressed in a perfectly pressed white shirt that almost glows under the neon lights, 36-year-old Slawomir Mentzen, the most popular of the two young leaders of the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) alliance, is pacing up and down at the side of the stage rehearsing his upcoming speech.
Taking place on August 18 in an exhibition hall in Kielce, a town of 180,000 in southern Poland, this is the first event in an election campaign (dubbed “concert tour”) that the two leaders of Confederation, Mentzen and 41-year-old Krzysztof Bosak, are planning to keep up until the general election set for October 15.
As multiple speakers take their turn on stage, the audience keeps an eye on the pacing Mentzen – he is without doubt the star of the night. Mentzen has built his popularity largely on social media: in January, his posts on TikTok garnered a staggering 40 million views, compared with just 5 million for the politician in second place, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, an older politician also from Mentzen’s party.
When Mentzen’s turn comes, he doesn’t disappoint. His speech can be better described as stand-up comedy, with self-deprecating images or memes about his political rivals projected on a large screen behind him as he cracks joke after joke. The audience, made up primarily of young and middle-aged men (though there are some women in the hall), is visibly excited, laughing out loud with each snarky remark.
Mentzen, a tax adviser and craft beer producer, advocates for radical cuts in tax and social security contributions, and an associated reduction in the size of the welfare system. At one point during the evening, he pulls out a thick stack of 10,000 pages on which he says is printed the text of all Polish laws setting out taxes on companies, and then tosses them into the air in a grand gesture.
“If you work hard, then you will be free,” Mentzen tells his audience, describing his vision of the future. “Rather than depend on bureaucrats, you will be free and dignified. This is a beautiful idea.”
Support for Confederation entered double digits at the turn of 2023, and by the beginning of summer the alliance, which is made up of three different extremist parties, was polling around 14 per cent. Because of Poland’s particular form of proportional representation (the d’Hondt method) and the overall balance of power between the governing Law and Justice (PiS) and the liberal opposition, Confederation could find itself in the position of ‘kingmaker’ after the election. Both PiS and Civic Platform are reported to be considering adding MPs from Confederation if that is what it would take to form a governing majority.
Given how close the alliance is now to power, some observers say it’s important to emphasise that Confederation is still very much a radical far-right political force, despite the ‘civilised’ face adopted by its young leaders. And one of the areas where Confederation in government could have its biggest impact is Poland’s unwavering support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.
‘Gays’ over taxes
Mentzen and Bosak used their respective speeches in Kielce to talk mostly about economics and system change; they presented Confederation as a third party challenging the political status quo that is dominated by PiS and Civic Platform. Yet, from time to time, they let slip phrases that, like a nod and a wink to the audience, betrayed their ultra-Catholic and ultra-nationalistic values.
“I prefer even gays to taxes,” Menzen said after explaining some tax reform he would introduce that would collaterally benefit unmarried people too.
“I am not racist or xenophobic,” Bosak said in turn, “but it cannot be that after one week of living in Poland one gets the same rights and privileges as Polish people who have lived here for generations.”
Bosak began his political career over 20 years ago in All-Polish Youth, an ultranationalist group, and now leads the National Movement, an alliance of nationalist and ultra-Catholic groups which co-organises the annual Independence Day march on November 11, at which anti-Semitic and racist slogans are the norm.
His wife works for the ultra-Catholic organisation Ordo Iuris, which spearheads attempts to restrict reproductive and LGBT rights in Poland.
Mentzen is newer to politics. He sparked controversy in 2019 during the campaign for the European Parliament when he described the five objectives of his group: “We don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortions, taxes and the European Union.”
Mentzen defended himself by claiming his words had been taken out of context, as he was merely explaining what would theoretically work to garner support. However, numerous statements made by Confederation members, widely available online, show that these are indeed key topics for Menzen’s political movement.
Rafal Pankowski, head of the Never Again anti-racism group in Poland, told BIRN it would be a mistake to judge Confederation by the tamer type of discourse that Mentzen and Bosak have indulged in lately. Pankowski said the Confederation electoral list is full of “known hardcore extremists”, pointing out the key role in the far-right alliance of two notorious politicians, Grzegorz Braun and Janusz Korwin-Mikke.
Braun heads the Confederation of the Polish Crown, one of the three parties in the far-right Confederation alliance in addition to Mentzen’s New Hope and Bosak’s National Movement. As BIRN has previously reported, Braun is known for opposing the opening of Poland’s border to Ukrainian refugees at the start of the war and expressing support for vigilantes who attacked non-white refugees from Ukraine on the streets of the border town Przemysl in early March 2022. He has also been central to the Polish anti-vax movement.
Korwin-Mikke, who was formally replaced as leader of New Hope by Mentzen but is still active in campaigning for the party, is described by Pankowski as “the politician with the longest record of making outrageous statements about every minority and in praise of Vladimir Putin”.
Despite a majority of Poles maintaining support for Ukraine and its refugees, anti-Ukrainian feelings could still prove to be a trump card for Confederation in the upcoming election.
Among those attending the Kielce event interviewed by BIRN, most said they were there because they shared the economic or worldview goals of the two leaders. Yet some expressed interest in a separate issue.
“Confederation is the only party in Poland to have a different position on the war in Ukraine,” 21-year-old Tomasz told BIRN. “I count on an open discussion today to be able to ask questions about this. I think we should be watching out for our own interests and stay neutral in relation to the war in Ukraine.”
Some studies and commentators have noted a sense of gradually rising fatigue in Polish society with helping Ukrainian refugees and supporting the war effort. And provocations from Russia and Belarus, such as the two Belarusian military helicopters crossing into Polish air space in August, are aimed at accentuating that trend. Confederation is well positioned to take advantage if that happens.
“Confederation made a decision early on to hold an anti-Ukrainian refugee position, which at the start cost them a lot, as their support was at below 5 per cent,” Pankowski explained. “But it may have been a clever decision to play a long-term game and they are now reaping the benefits.”
“Confederation plays a role in accentuating anti-Ukrainian feeling and is benefiting from that,” he added.
Katarzyna Zimolag, who is running for parliament on the Confederation list, denied that her party was anti-Ukrainian. However, the politician told BIRN that the support Poland has provided to Ukraine should be reassessed, as the economic situation in Poland means Poles are struggling too and their needs need to be put first.
When asked what could be the policy implications of having Confederation in government, Pankowski replied it was hard to say, as Poland is already ruled by a party with very right-wing views, even if there’s always room for more.
“Confederation in government could really have a negative impact on how comfortable Ukrainian refugees feel in this country and could also undermine Poland’s overall support for Ukraine,” he said.