Donald Tusk’s return to power in Poland’s autumn election was interpreted by many as the victory of centrism over populism. The rogue right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) had been cast out and decency prevailed once more: this was, at least, the narrative presented to the world’s media. In Warsaw, things looked very different. On the campaign trail Tusk repeatedly promised to ‘depoliticise’ the state-owned media and restore the rule of law. Once he was sworn in as Prime Minister last month, it didn’t take him long to resort to authoritarian methods that would have led to an international outcry if a supposed moderate had not been behind them.
On the morning of 20 December, riot officers armed with pistols and batons surrounded the headquarters of TVP, Poland’s state broadcaster. Metal barricades were erected, staff vehicles were searched and multiple TV channels were taken off the air. Journalists were locked out of their offices while private security forces in plain clothes attempted to coerce managers into signing letters of resignation.
Leading the purge was Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz (great-grandson of Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz), now the culture minister. Despite his literary pedigree, Sienkiewicz is not an obvious choice for the role. He’s a former intelligence colonel who co-ordinated the secret services during Tusk’s first premiership. The evening before the raid, the Sejm – the lower house of Poland’s parliament – passed a non-binding resolution asking the government to clean up the public media and restore ‘constitutional order’. Sienkiewicz sent in the troops, without the clear legal authority to do so.
The election did not dislodge Andrzej Duda, Poland’s President, an independent closely aligned with PiS, whose term ends next year. A former lawyer, it’s his job to protect the constitution and wield the veto in certain circumstances.