Germany becomes scapegoat in Poland’s bitter election campaign

In a recent campaign video, Poland’s de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński is seen on the phone allegedly with a German official urging him to raise the retirement age. “There is no more Tusk and these things are over,” Kaczyński says. 

The ad was a spoof. But with elections due on October 15, the political intention was serious: portray opposition leader Donald Tusk, a pro-European centre-right politician, as a stooge of Germany working against the interests of the Polish people.

Russian aggression may pose the most serious threat to European and Polish security since 1945 and the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) claims that Tusk serves the interests of Moscow. But it is a supposedly hegemonic Germany and its alleged agent Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who became president of the European Council, that have become PiS’s central electioneering theme.

TVP television, a government mouthpiece, regularly includes in its news reports old footage of Tusk speaking German or mingling with German politicians.

“Germany is clearly a target of this campaign,” said Michał Baranowski, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw. “Link Tusk with Germany and then attack Germany. The campaign is to merge the two.”

PiS has long sought to present Tusk as un-Polish, for example playing up in the 2005 election that his grandfather served in the German army in the second world war (he was briefly conscripted and then deserted to fight the Nazis).

A former government minister said Kaczyński’s focus on his rival’s alleged alignment with Germany turned into an obsession after EU leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, confirmed Tusk as European Council president in 2017 despite Warsaw’s fierce objections.

Kaczyński and his allies claim Tusk failed to use his position to stop Germany from building closer energy ties with Russia before Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war against Ukraine.

“The main executor of the Merkel-Putin pact was Donald Tusk,” Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said last month. “We cannot forget that nobody in Poland did more for Russia and for Germany over the last 15 years than him.”

Polish opposition supporters held a massive rally in Warsaw on Sunday © Bloomberg

Claims of German and EU meddling in the campaign have added a fresh conspiratorial element to an already venomous contest between the nationalist, Eurosceptic PiS and Tusk’s centrist Civic Platform. They also risk further straining ties between Warsaw and Berlin, one of the most difficult bilateral relationships within the EU.

Arkadiusz Mularczyk, Poland’s state secretary for European policy and an MP, accused Berlin and Brussels of trying to “create turbulence for the government”.

“Now we have a very tense situation with the EU because they are thinking politically, co-operating with the opposition and creating problems for the government,” he told the Financial Times.

The EU was under the sway of Germany, he said. “They are the leading European country and have power in the European Commission,” he added, in reference to its president Ursula von der Leyen, who is German.

Mularczyk gave no evidence for the alleged German or EU co-operation with Tusk. German officials say the claims of interference are ludicrous.

But the Polish government was incensed when last month German chancellor Olaf Scholz waded into a cash-for-visa scandal in Poland that could cost PiS precious votes. Germany subsequently instigated checks at its normally control-free border with Poland.

Mularczyk also accused Berlin of inciting an extraordinary spat between Warsaw and Kyiv for political gain after Poland threatened to stop arms supplies to Ukraine following Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s criticism of Polish curbs on grain imports.

The close alliance forged by Poland and Ukraine soon after Russia’s February 2022 invasion was a “dangerous moment for German domination” in Europe, Mularczyk said. There may have been a “hidden agreement between Ukraine and Germany that if we change the Polish government there’ll be some fast-track accession [to the EU for Kyiv]”, he added.

Kyiv’s membership of the EU is likely to take several years at best given the scale of changes needed inside Ukraine and the bloc itself before it can admit any new members, EU officials say.

Despite booming trade between the two countries, political relations between Poland and Germany have been on a downward spiral for years. Last year, Warsaw lodged a claim for €1.3tn in reparations for German wartime crimes and damages, arguing that Berlin never reached a settlement after the second world war with a democratically elected Polish government.

Concerned that any strong defence of his international past could also be turned against him by government-friendly media, Tusk has made little mention of his EU experience on the campaign trail. He has, however, promised to secure billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds that were frozen by Brussels over concerns about the independence of Polish judges. 

Last year Tusk’s party joined PiS in voting for the German reparations claim, even if some opposition politicians acknowledged that it had little chance of succeeding. Former foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, who is now a member of the European parliament, said the claim was government propaganda and “a fairytale for the naive”.

While the anti-German message resonates particularly with older voters, some of the more blatant attacks have backfired. 

After a friendly football game in June between Poland and Germany, junior minister Jacek Ozdoba posted on social media: “Poland-Tusk 1:0”. The backlash was swift and strong, especially from footballers led by Poland’s former star player Zbigniew Boniek. “What a moron,” Boniek said.

Depicting Tusk as a German pawn served PiS’ strategy of polarising the electorate and mobilising its base, said Marcin Duma, chief executive of polling institute Ibris. But it also tapped into a wider sense of injustice about the second world war as Poles grew more assertive as they became richer, he added.

“Something has changed in Polish society and they [PiS] are trying to use that to their advantage.”

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