At first glance, the murder of the Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz on January 13 seems to come straight out a cheap movie. Its setting is a cute Central European town. On a stage in the medieval city center a good man, the tall mayor, participates in a charity event. And then a villain, an ex-convict, knives the hero on the stage to death and turns to the audience to state his name and motive for the murder.
Unfortunately, the interpretation of events in Poland is more complicated than that of a simple movie. No single storyline could possibly encompass the complexity of Polish reality. In this text, I will present a few alternative narratives that shine a light on relevant parts of Polish reality.
The neutral narrative
According to this first narrative, Polish bureaucracy is a recipe for disaster. In this case, the government and city policy to seek out the cheapest service available for public institutions had a catastrophic effect. The policy was responsible for the fact that the security contract to protect the safety of those present at the charity event was handed to the company that offered the lowest price tag. In order to be profitable still under these conditions, the winning company could not afford to employ its most experienced staff. It rather decided to deploy trainees. And these trainees proved unable to react to the threat presented by the ex-convict. The ex-convict could run across the stage, stab the mayor, grab a microphone, and shout to a stunned audience before people on stage, not the security staff, reacted.
In addition, as it turns out, the charity event was not registered as an official mass event that would have required stricter security rules. Because some Christmas market stalls were allowed to remain in the city center, the charity event could be seen as a Christmas happening. And, therefore, money could be saved on security.
The demonization narrative
The charity event the mayor participated in was not a small, local happening. It was part of the largest charity phenomenon of Poland, the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (WOŚP). Having its roots in the alternative music underground scene the WOŚP is the largest fundraiser in Poland. Its aim is to improve medical care in Poland. During its 25 years of existence, the WOŚP has become the symbol of civil society taking care of its own business, independently of politicians. After having come under attack by representatives of the ruling party (PiS) and being boycotted by state media, the reputation of the WOŚP has become more oppositional. The amount of money raised by the event has become an indicator of the size of public resilience against the governing elite. It was thus no coincidence that the mayor of Gdańsk, being part of the political opposition in Poland, was present at the WOŚP. He presented himself as a champion of civil resilience.
For quite a few people sympathizing with the opposition, the murder of the mayor, therefore, should be interpreted as an attack on the opposition and on civil society as a whole. They readily point out the fact that the Gdańsk mayor was often verbally assaulted by representatives of the ruling party together with Polish nationalists while the mayor publicly sided with those who defended constitutional rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights. And even when the insults of the mayor took the form of death threats like by the All-Polish Youth, leading institutions still pretended it was business as usual. People adhering to this narrative hold the current rulers and their nationalist allies responsible for the murder because of the climate of demonization that they created.
The bad elite narrative
The major was not seen by all as a representative of good. As the Gdańsk mayor in power for over twenty years and a member of the former ruling party, he has been often accused of corruption and misuse of power. While never formally convicted, court cases against Adamowicz have been piling up. It’s a favorite theme of the current ruling party: the former rulers that now form the opposition are only concerned about their loss of privileges and access to easy money. And Adamowicz, as a mayor still in office, was a favorite target.
The theme of a corrupt and immoral elite deeply resonates with a large part of the Polish population. It is a theme that was effectively used in the last elections by the now ruling party PiS. Representatives of PiS cleverly pointed at tapes that made headlines at the time containing illegal recordings of private conversations between then leading politicians, business people, and civil servants. These recordings dripped of arrogance and disdain for normal people. The tapes were the highlight of a long line of scandals. In the meantime, ironically, similar scandals are in the news about the current rulers, such as the director of the Polish National Bank paying his secretaries incredible salaries. The accusers have now turned into the accused, as so often in Polish history.
The narrative of the bad elite was the one used by the ex-convict on stage. He stated as his motive for the murder that he was wrongly imprisoned by the former rulers who tortured him. This should be seen as an attempt to frame the stabbing as an act of resistance of the average person against the almighty establishment – currently a frame used by nationalists. Although coming from a man who was known for bragging about his crimes, the narrative is a strong one.
The events are still very fresh. But it is not too soon to predict that this event will impact politics and civil society in Poland for a long time to come.
The murder already has a political significance. Although Adamowicz was recently reelected as mayor his murder automatically prompts new elections. And in these elections, the ruling party and the opposition will face each other in political battle.
According to me, there are two possible outcomes of the current situation. The first one is terrifying. The stabbing of the Gdańsk mayor might become for the opposition what the 2010 airplane crash in Smolensk, in which 96 people including the Polish president died, is for the current rulers: a rallying cry to bolster one’s narrative. When this will happen, the narratives on all sides will become even grimmer. The divisive lines within society will then become even deeper. And a state of hate and contempt between Poles will deepen even further.
The second possible outcome is unlikely but preferred. In the first few days after the current event, the Polish nation will come together, just as it did after the 2010 airplane crash. A sign of this mood of reconciliation is the decision by the central government not to appoint an outsider as interim-mayor of Gdańsk but to accept one of Adamowicz’s vice-mayors for the position. But in 2010 a similar state of national unification was swiftly destroyed. Let’s hope this time history does not repeat itself and everyone involved will be determined to stick to a unifying rather than a divisive narrative.