A Polish national flag flies above the presidential palace beyond a statue of King Stanislaw Poniatowski in Warsaw, Poland. (Photographer: Piotr Malecki/Bloomberg)

Shock Murder of Polish Mayor Turns Into a Political Blame Game

(Bloomberg) -- The murder of a prominent mayor in office for two decades has exposed Poland’s increasingly febrile politics under the country’s nationalist government as shock and grief turned to acrimony over who was to blame.

Pawel Adamowicz, 53, was stabbed at a charity event in his city of Gdansk on Sunday evening and died the following day. The assailant told the crowd he was avenging his treatment by the former government led by Civic Platform, the party now in opposition that Adamowicz represented.

While the country’s president called for a period of “soul searching,” hours later the main state-controlled television channel said the killing was a result of opposition parties triggering a rise in hate speech. A lawmaker allied to Civic Platform called for a public apology while a former deputy prime minister started a petition to replace the head of the broadcaster.

Shock Murder of Polish Mayor Turns Into a Political Blame Game

The shock death comes amid widening divisions across Europe and rhetoric that’s unleashed violence in some parts.

British politician Jo Cox was attacked and killed in 2016 during the Brexit referendum campaign. Last week, German far-right lawmaker Frank Magnitz was beaten unconscious. In Poland, the first murder of high-ranking official since the end of communism brought tens of thousands out on the streets on Monday night.

The dilemma for the Law & Justice government in an election year is how to reconcile the killing with its narrative that after decades of gross mismanagement Poland is finally becoming a “normal” country, said Marek Migalski, a political scientist who used to work with the party.

“This tragedy confirms the view that Poland is a country where something disturbing is taking place,” said Migalski. “They’re facing a big problem if part of the electorate comes to conclusion that the hate speech and propaganda of their media outlets may have inspired this event.”

Broken Truce

The slaying initially triggered calls by the authorities to keep the tragedy from turning into a political blame game. But the main nightly news program on public television, run by a former Law & Justice lawmaker, broke the uneasy truce.

It attributed escalating violence solely to leading opposition figures, including former Civic Platform Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now the European Union president. Tusk had flown to Poland from Brussels after the murder and told a vigil in Gdansk on Monday that he and his supporters would defend the city, the country and Europe “against hatred and contempt.”

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz from an ally of Civic Platform said TVP should broadcast the phrase “we apologize” for the duration of Tuesday’s main news program. Wojciech Kosiniak-Kamysz, a member of a smaller opposition party and a former deputy premier, said the network had turned into a “machine to divide” the nation.

Adamowicz won a sixth term as Gdansk mayor in October as a supporter of gay and immigrant rights in a country whose government rejected taking in refugees, has championed the Catholic church and tried to tighten abortion bans.

During the country’s biggest annual charity drive, the assailant ran up to Adamowicz and stabbed him three times in the abdomen. He then introduced himself to the stunned crowd saying he was unfairly imprisoned and “tortured” by the former government. Police said the man was released from prison last month and has had psychiatric treatment.

Nativist Revolution

Indeed, Poland has become more bitterly divided since the Law & Justice party won power in 2015 on a pledge to replace the country’s “self-serving elites,” stand up to the EU and grab more control over the economy.

The political revolution, which transformed Poland from a poster-child of successful post-communist transition to one of the EU’s biggest challenges, also helped empower radical groups with racist and anti-Semitic slogans in the country of 38 million. Ruling party politicians have labeled some opponents as traitors and “murderers.”

In 2017, a far-right group hung photographs of six Polish opposition lawmakers from a makeshift gallows. During last year’s celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining sovereignty, President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki walked with 200,000 people through Warsaw, including far-right groups with neo-fascist symbols.

While Polish leaders publicly rejected such radicalism, critics have accused the government of failing to keep far-right groups accountable for hate crimes.

Law & Justice leaders openly grieved and called for reconciliation on Monday, with Duda calling the event an act of “unimaginable evil” and ordering a day of state mourning to coincide with the funeral, which will take place on Saturday.

“I would like to appeal to refrain from far-reaching comments at this point, especially about politics,” Duda said. “Everyone -- jointly and separately -- should do some soul searching about how we behave and what we write; not only politicians, but also citizens taking part in internet discussions.”

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