May 27, 2020

Your pain is better than mine!’.  So runs the refrain of the number one song in Poland at the moment. It’s a song that has caused a ferocious political backlash. Sounding more like a folksy beer hall tune than protest anthem, it has proved an astonishing and immediate success, reaching number one in the influential Polish Radio Three charts last week and accumulating 10 million views on YouTube (no mean feat in a country of 40 million). But while the people are humming the tune, the ruling politicians certainly aren’t dancing to it.

The controversy stems from the song’s perceived criticism of Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s former Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party. Although formally only a backbencher, Kaczyński is said to wield the true political power in his Party; to the point where many consider him to be the country’s unofficial head of state.

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You alone can soothe your pain, everyone else is in trouble. Two limousines, or one, the entire cemetery just for you,” sings Kazik Staszewski to a jaunty accordion accompaniment. And by doing so he points to the epicentre of the public discontent.

When Poland began to take measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, it closed down a swathe of public places, including cemeteries. For the Polish, cemeteries are a national preoccupation. Family graves are tended on a weekly basis, even those several generations old. All Saints’ Day, or Zaduszki, is a particularly important national festival, when ancestors are honoured and graveyards lit up with countless rows of candles and miniature flags. The honouring of the dead is a keenly cherished cultural practice in a country which is 85% Catholic.

The closure of the cemeteries, therefore, has been one of the most significant — and stark — moments in the pandemic. It is largely unprecedented in this country, even though it has such a tragic history of disaster and disruption.

No wonder, when it emerged in April that Kaczyński had continued to visit cemeteries that were closed to the public, there was an outburst of anger from opposition politicians and on social media. One rule for him, another for everyone else.

Among those graves he broke the rules to visit were his mother’s, in Warsaw, and his twin brother’s, in Krakow. This brother, Lech Kaczyński had served as President until 2010, when he was killed in a plane crash in Smolensk in Russia en route to a commemoration of the Katyn Massacre. Jarosław’s graveside visit, on the anniversary of the air crash, is another instalment in one of the defining sagas of Polish nationhood, a permanent scar in an already bloody and tragic national history.

The grave itself is also problematic, since Lech was laid to rest in Wawel Castle — the historic resting place of Poland’s ancient kings and warriors. The honour, awarded to no other leader in recent memory, provoked questions about the nature of Poland’s democracy and protests from those who saw it as the inappropriate veneration of a controversial President. For many Poles, equating the former leader with their most revered historical figures proved too much in a society that is often deeply distrusting of politicians.

“Cemeteries closed as a result of the events of recent weeks, recent events. I look at the chains, I wipe away my tear, just like you, just like you. The gate opens, I can’t believe my eyes. Perhaps things are different after all. I run over, your heavies shout stop, because your pain is better than mine.”

The jaunty tones touch on some of the most complex and traumatic parts of Poland’s history. And the song’s rise to the top of the chart seems to indicate that it voices the public’s sense of unfairness and anger.

Poland isn’t the only country in which political leaders have been accused of failing to adhere to the coronavirus restrictions that they have put in place. However, it is a particularly sore subject here, given the polarised political landscape and the deep sense of distrust in elites that stems from years of foreign occupation and subsequent Communist rule.

While corruption has steadily dropped since Poland’s transitioned to a liberal market democracy, with Transparency International ranking it as the 41st least corrupt country in the world, Poles often perceive the issue to be one of the most important challenges facing their country. Corruption remains a key concern for the public and, since 2015, surveys show that Polish people believe it to be getting worse.

Poland’s political sphere is as polarised as it has ever been, with close to 20 parties represented in the Sejm, ranging from centre-left social democratic parties and those with links to the far Right, to the Confederation of the Polish Crown party that advocates the return of monarchy. These fractures, and the lack of clear consensus even among people who occupy the same space on the political compass, have taken its toll on Polish civil discourse. In many well-documented  cases, these political divisions spill over into every aspect of people’s lives and come between friends, colleagues and family members.

If Kazik Staszewski’s song crystallised a sense of unfairness and anti-government hostility when it was released, that was then amplified tenfold by the reaction to it. Shortly after ‘Your pain is better than mine’ was unveiled as the number one track, the station’s website was scrubbed of references to it and links and news were taken down. An acrimonious and public dispute broke out between the head of Radio Three, who insisted that the charts had been manipulated to elevate the song to the top spot, and the journalists and radio DJs who work on the show. The latter allege censorship, and three of the channel’s best-known DJs have now resigned over the issue, with silent protests held outside the building.

While the facts of the song’s removal will be the focus of debate and speculation in Poland, it has highlighted the way in which coronavirus has been a catalyst for social unease in the country. The fears of corruption and a political power-grab were doubtless amplified by the news that the Sejm has legislated for a Presidential Election to take place despite the pandemic.

The decision to go to the polls has drawn criticism from across the opposition parties. For many, it represents a cynical attempt by the governing Law and Justice Party to consolidate their vote at a time when Poles are looking for stability and reassurance. Certainly, when the decision to hold the poll was taken, the governing Law and Justice were polling at near-record highs, virtually guaranteeing a second term for their candidate, Andrzej Duda.

Duda’s lead has, however, slimmed since Rafał Trzaskowski, the popular Mayor of Warsaw was announced as the candidate for the liberal conversative Civic Platform party. Trzaskowski is seen both as the pro-European candidate and as a social liberal, having gone further than many of his rivals in his support for issues such as LGBT+ rights, which are still a source of controversy in Poland. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any the cemetery backlash has on his support.

In any case, it is a febrile time to ask the electorate what they think. Opposition parties, who hold a majority in the upper house, have succeeded in delaying the ballot until June at the earliest. Meanwhile, the election has also drawn criticism from the EU, who have threatened Poland with a suspension of its voting rights. Processes and transparency — it is a postal vote in its entirety — will obviously be scrutinised. But observers will also be keen to note whether there’s a candidate who could bring Polish people together at a time of adversity, and enable the country to emerge from the coronavirus crisis more united than before.

For a country with a rapidly growing economy, increasing prominence in the EU and NATO, and aspirations of once again becoming a European regional power, the stakes have never been higher. For Poland’s politicans, they will have to work harder than ever before to prove that they don’t regard their pain as better than anyone else’s.