Poland’s alarming centenary march

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THERE ARE different ways to celebrate a century of statehood. Finland, which turned one hundred last year, is building a new library. Poland, which regained independence in 1918 after 123 years of being partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary, marked the occasion with a government march organised alongside far-right groups. Last-minute and politicised, the centenary celebrations on November 11th highlighted the rift between supporters and critics of the ruling populist Law and Justice (PiS) party. With parliamentary elections next year, both sides invoked the legacy of Jozef Pilsudski, the architect of Poland’s independence, who halted the Red Army’s westward advance in 1920. 

In recent years, Poland’s Independence Day has come to be dominated by a march organised by far-right groups. But this year, Warsaw’s centrist mayor banned the march, saying the city had suffered enough from “aggressive nationalism” (the ban was later overturned in court). In a last-minute deal with the far-right groups, the government agreed to a joint “red-and-white” march.

Up to 250,000 people marched in Warsaw on Sunday, most of them ordinary families. Yet in the sea of Polish flags far-right symbols could be seen, including the falanga emblem on the green flags of the National Radical Camp, one of the march’s organisers, which has its roots in a pre-war anti-Semitic movement. They were joined by members of Forza Nuova, an Italian neo-fascist party. Red flares were lit, while firecrackers exploded loudly. Government officials, including the president and prime minister, walked ahead, separated from the rest by security forces.

PiS used the occasion to amplify its own role in history. On November 10th, it unveiled a statue of former president Lech Kaczynski (the twin of Jaroslaw, its chairman), who died in a plane crash in Russia in 2010. It stands on Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, near a statue of the independence hero. At the ceremony, Andrzej Duda, the PiS-allied president, called the late Mr Kaczynski Poland’s greatest leader since Pilsudski.

Meanwhile, eyes were on Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2014, before moving to Brussels to become president of the European Council. Mr Tusk skipped events in Paris on November 11th marking the end of World War One to be in Poland. In a speech in Lodz last week, he urged Poles to “defeat today’s Bolsheviks”. This has stoked speculation that Mr Tusk will return to Polish politics after his term in Brussels ends, perhaps running for president against Mr Duda in 2020.

Local elections last month showed the limits of PiS’s appeal. It came first in the regional assemblies, ahead of the centrist Civic Platform, Mr Tusk’s former party. Yet its mayoral candidates failed to win in the cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the government remains at loggerheads with the European Commission over a law forcing Supreme Court judges aged 65 and over to retire. Last month, the European Court of Justice ordered Poland to suspend the provisions, warning that they threaten judicial independence (it will issue a final judgment later). As it enters its second century, Poland needs to remember that, like independent statehood, the rule of law and independent courts are not imperishable. They must be defended. 

Correction (November 14th 2018): This article previously stated that the European Court of Justice suspended Poland’s law on the retirement age for judges. In fact, the court has no such powers. It ordered Poland to suspend the provisions. This has been amended.   

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