Poland’s largest opposition group, the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), has announced that Roman Giertych – a controversial figure who was once a far-right leader and ally of the current ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party – will stand as one of its candidates in October’s elections.
The decision has raised a number of questions, including from one KO MP, who queried whether Giertych’s opposition to liberalising the abortion law is compatible with leader Donald Tusk’s declared position.
Only those who support introducing abortion on demand can stand as election candidates for his party, says opposition leader @donaldtusk.
Decisions on terminating pregnancy up to the 12th week „will be solely up to the woman” under his party’s rule https://t.co/W06cpzD3O4
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) September 1, 2022
The announcement of Giertych’s candidacy by Tusk yesterday was prompted by the confirmation on Saturday that, for the first time in 32 years, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński would not stand as an election candidate in Warsaw.
Opposition figures claim that Kaczyński fears the potential embarrassment of winning fewer votes than Tusk, who is heading KO’s election list in Warsaw. At a rally yesterday, Tusk accused Kaczyński of “fleeing Warsaw” like a “coward”.
While it has not yet been confirmed where Kaczyński will stand, widespread reports indicate that it will be in the constituency of Kielce in southern Poland.
“So that you won’t feel lonely – and I’m doing this just for you, Jarosław Kaczyński – I will put your deputy prime minister, Roman Giertych, on our [electoral] list [in Kielce],” announced Tusk.
— 𝕸𝖔𝖗𝖌𝖊𝖓𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖗𝖓 (@Morgenstern616) August 27, 2023
From 2006 to 2007, Giertych was deputy prime minister and education minister in a government led by Kaczyński. Giertych was at the time leader of the hard-right League of Polish Families (LPR), then a coalition partner of PiS.
Before that, he had until 1994 been leader of All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska), a far-right nationalist organisation formed in 1989 as a successor to an interwar group of the same name.
All-Polish Youth remains today one of the largest far-right groups in Poland and an organiser of the annual nationalist Independence March in Warsaw. Giertych is no longer associated with it.
Female activists from All-Polish Youth burn the flag of Women’s Strike “on behalf of all women who reject feminist nonsense”.
Women’s Strike is the main organiser of mass protests against Poland’s near-total abortion ban https://t.co/4kjGE6WxqG
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 11, 2022
Since the collapse of the PiS-led government in 2007, Giertych has moved towards PO, not only politically but also professionally: as a lawyer, he has represented Radosław Sikorski – a leader PO figure, and also a former PiS politician – as well as Michał Tusk, the son of Donald.
He has also become a prominent critic of PiS – and in particular its judicial policies – since the party returned to power in 2015.
After Tusk senior’s announcement yesterday, Giertych confirmed that he would indeed be standing as a KO candidate for the Sejm, the lower house of parliament. “See you during the campaign, Jarek,” he tweeted, using the diminutive former of the name Jarosław. “We have a lot to talk about…”
Grzegorz Schetyna – a senior figure in the Civic Platform (PO) party that is led by Tusk and which is the largest member of KO – told TVN24 that Giertych would “expose Kaczyński’s weakness in this campaign”.
Poland’s government has highlighted anti-US, anti-EU and pro-Russian statements made in the past by a farmers’ protest leader who last week became part of the main opposition coalition.
He must be „an idiot or an agent”, says the prime minister https://t.co/NzxWCZ7BVQ
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 21, 2023
However, the decision was not welcomed by a KO MP, Franek Sterczewski. “A question for Roman Giertych,” he tweeted. “Since you are running from the KO list, if you become an MP, as I understand it, you will vote for a law legalising abortion up to 12 weeks, right?”
Last year, Tusk declared his support for allowing abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy and said that anyone who does not support it could not stand for PO in the elections. However, Giertych has declared his opposition to PO’s position, calling it a “terrible mistake” in 2021.
Since Giertych’s candidacy was announced yesterday, neither he nor Tusk has addressed if and how his position on abortion is compatible with being a KO candidate.
But one of PO’s deputy leaders, Tomasz Siemoniak, told TOK FM today that there was no contradiction because Tusk’s demand that candidates support abortion on demand only applied to members of PO, whereas Giertych would stand as part of the broader KO.
Pytanie do @GiertychRoman :
skoro startuje Pan z listy KO, to jeśli zostanie Pan posłem, to jak rozumiem zagłosuje Pan za ustawą legalizującą aborcję do 12. tygodnia, prawda?
Dla koleżanki pytam.
— Franek Sterczewski (@f_sterczewski) August 27, 2023
However, a senior PiS figure, deputy culture minister Jarosław Sellin, told Polskie Radio that Giertych’s candidacy “is further proof that [KO] completely lacks any programme” and is “creating a collection of haters on its [electoral] lists whose only programme is to fight PiS”.
Should Giertych be elected to parliament, it could also cause problems in forming the opposition coalition that would be needed if Tusk hoped to remove PiS from power.
Previously, when there had been rumours of Giertych standing as a KO candidate for the upper-house Senate, The Left (Lewica), Poland’s second-largest opposition group, made clear if that happened they would not agree to form a pact among opposition parties not to stand Senate candidates against one another.
Many on the left are unwilling to overlook Giertych’s far-right past, including his role in stoking anti-LGBT sentiment. They also argue that he remains a right-wing figure, given his views on issues such as abortion. Eventually, Giertych confirmed last week that he would not stand for the Senate.
Poland’s main opposition parties from centre-right to left have finalised an agreement not to stand candidates against one another in October’s Senate election.
A similar pact in 2019 helped the opposition win control of the chamber from the ruling party https://t.co/h6FOydtKKx
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 17, 2023
Main image credit: Jakub Porzycki / Agencja Gazeta
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, EUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.