Conservative Catholic Szymon Hołownia aims to unseat the ruling Law and Justice party.
WARSAW — Against a backdrop of five heavy bookcases filled with various Bible editions and critical histories of the Catholic Church, Szymon Hołownia spells out his bid to become Poland’s next prime minister.
“The current books are on the other side,” he points to an overflowing collection of political and economic volumes. These will serve as the compass for the devout Catholic and former TV host who has built Poland’s most popular opposition force and is now hoping for an early election.
In recent years, Poland has seen a number of political saviors rise in polls, only to wane with the next electoral season. Hołownia, however, argues that this time is different thanks to the “degeneration” of the ruling nationalist camp “consumed with putting holds on each other” as well as a “crisis of trust” in the rest of the opposition.
The governing coalition led by the Law and Justice party (PiS) with two smaller allied groupings is being torn apart by centrifugal forces and has taken a beating in opinion polls over a near-total ban on abortions as well as its handling of the resurging pandemic — both of which the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the largest opposition party in parliament, has struggled to seize on.
That political chaos has emboldened Hołownia.
He ran in last year’s presidential election, coming in third with 14 percent of the vote in the first round. His nascent Poland 2050 party hasn’t yet taken part in any election, but he’s already poached five opposition MPs and one senator.
Poland 2050, which is currently being registered, is now the most popular opposition grouping. If parliamentary elections were held today, it would take 22 percent of votes, making it the main challenger to PiS, leading with 35 percent.
Shaking things up
Poland 2050’s key selling point is to break the PiS-PO duopoly in which Polish politics has curdled for the better part of two decades. PiS governed from 2005 to 2007, followed by Civic Platform running the country until 2015, after which Law and Justice took control again.
That has Hołownia comparing the moment to Barack Obama and the wave of national and global euphoria that saw him take the U.S. presidency in 2008.
“I feel like we are nearing a moment similar to the end of the Bush presidency, where everyone is waiting for hope, and the party that is able to inspire that will win,” said Hołownia.
Unlike Obama, Hołownia is using his celebrity status to build a political movement — akin to Donald Trump and TV comedian-turned-Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He started out as a reporter and a political columnist before spending a decade on Poland’s version of Got Talent — making him a household name. He’s also hosted ethical and religious TV shows — fitting with his center-right Christian Democratic views.
That gives him a potential space in Polish politics, to the left of the right-wing nationalists running the government and to the right of most of the other opposition parties — something that may be a decent fit with what’s still quite a conservative and religious society.
He argues his grouping is different from Law and Justice thanks to a “respect for the law and the constitution, which is completely lacking in PiS” — an issue that has set Warsaw at loggerheads with Brussels. His views are much closer to the existing opposition, with talk of future strategic alliances.
In terms of policies, Poland 2050 has focused on politically agreeable future-looking topics, such as climate change, greening Poland’s coal-dependent economy and revamping public services such as education.
He says the idea is to “think in terms of generations” not short-term governing cycles, “hence the name Poland 2050.” Hołownia also promises to purge the ranks of bloated public administration and state-owned companies, traditionally filled with loyalists of whatever party is running the country.
“Every ruling party politician has 50 other people in tow … Political nepotism is one of the worst things to happen to Polish politics in the last 30 years,” he said. “We will be able to come in and tell them with a clear conscience: ‘Sorry, this is over.’”
Yet, the party’s views on more divisive topics such as economic policy — as Poland hits a pandemic slowdown while facing one of the EU’s highest inflation rates — have yet to be detailed.
“We have adopted a rule whereby we will gradually unpack our detailed manifesto according to a certain timeline,” Hołownia said, with his tasting menu approach meant to invite debate on each dish.
Yet with simmering disputes within the PiS-led ruling coalition — and two of three coalition party leaders floating the idea of bringing elections forward from 2023 — Hołownia may have to speed up servings.
“Doing politics in recent weeks, I feel as if I am playing chess and five times a day someone switches my board,” admits Hołownia, who believes that an earlier vote is all but certain. However, skeptics feel that PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński will be cautious about calling an early election; when he did that in 2007, he was swept from power.
Hołownia has in part filled a void left by Civic Platform, which is rudderless since the departure of former Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk, losing six consecutive elections to PiS. Its leader, Borys Budka, lacks Tusk’s charisma and has been unable to present himself as a convincing leader of all the anti-PiS forces.
As Poland 2050 continues to seduce MPs from PO and the Left, a left-wing party — Hołownia is being accused of diluting chances of beating PiS.
“Szymon Hołownia wanted to change Polish politics, but only changed the [party] colors of the opposition MPs,” wrote LINK Cezary Tomczyk, who heads PO’s parliamentary caucus.
Although Hołownia is soaring in opinion polls, the track record of Poland’s political newcomers is a warning.
Cautionary tales of recent years include Ryszard Petru, an economist whose liberal Modern party took 7.6 percent of the vote in 2015 and surged in polls. He saw himself as the leader of the opposition and future prime minister before being brought low by a personal scandal.
Janusz Palikot, whose liberal and anti-clerical party won 10 percent of the vote in 2011, failed to push through promised reforms and has since returned to leading his booze business.
The openly gay Robert Biedroń, who last year rose to be the Left’s presidential candidate but received a disappointing 2 percent of the vote, has since dissolved into the Brussels bubble as a member of the European Parliament, leaving his Spring party to be swallowed by the Left coalition.
“As a rule of thumb, parties named after their founders tend not to end up well,” said Wojciech Szacki, head of the political department at Polityka Insight, a think tank in Warsaw. “Such parties are too vulnerable to missteps by their leaders.”
Hołownia admits that “making the leader not irreplaceable” will be “one of the key challenges for the movement”.
But he adds: “I am not the second Palikot, nor the third Petru or the fifth Robert Biedroń. I am the first Szymon Hołownia and I will try to not repeat their mistakes.”
Marcin Makowski, a journalist, said Hołownia, who had twice tried to become a priest, should be treated as something new.
“We haven’t seen a secular preacher type in Polish politics yet,” he said.
Makowski added that Hołownia has injected showbiz pizzazz into his politics with daily social media broadcasts and direct engagement with supporters. He’s catering to a center-right audience, may of them non-voters, who are dismayed with PiS for violating the constitution, trying to take control of the media and the courts and unleashing years of conflict with Brussels, but uncomfortable with the liberal and left-wing views of the main opposition parties.
It’s his personal appeal that is so far driving his party’s polling gains.
“His authenticity is a strength for now, but it could be a weakness in decades ahead,” Makowski said.
The long game
Polish politics is mesmerized by the prospect of PiS failing to win a third term in office — either in 2023 or earlier.
“If PiS fails to win a majority, we could be looking at Szymon Hołownia as a candidate for the post of prime minister,” said Szacki.
That seems to also be the view from Hołownia’s fifth-floor office overlooking the Vistula River. However, while he has managed to leap-frog ahead of the main opposition parties in surveys, Poland 2050 is not yet a direct threat to the governing camp.
Poland 2050 lacks regional structures able to stand up to PiS’s network of some 40,000 activists. Hołownia’s movement currently has 1,500 formally registered members and 25,000 volunteers in its database. It also relies on crowd-funding and sponsors.
For now, Hołownia has received light treatment from PiS, and he’s been spared from attacks by the public broadcaster TVP, which goes on a warpath against politicians threatening the ruling party. “It’s been great so long as he is taking voters from the opposition … but as he grows, he will attract more enemies,” said Szacki.
Hołownia admits that the game is likely to get tougher. “I am not counting on this treatment to be continued, because this is politics and they are ruthless, and have many times shown that they are able to use the entire apparatus of the state to destroy someone who threatens their interests.”
“Our organization needs to now go through all the childhood illnesses so that it can gain resilience … When we get to 2050, we’ll change the name to 2070,” he said.
Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/poland-got-talent-tv-host-prime-minister-szymon-holownia/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication