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Poland’s ruling party seeks referendum on privatization as it steps up attacks on opposition leader

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s ruling party leader said Friday that Polish voters will be asked to decide whether they support the sell-off of state-owned enterprises in a referendum, saying it would be about “whether the wealth of generations will remain in Polish hands.”

The move came as the conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, stepped up its attacks on the main opposition leader, Donald Tusk, ahead of parliamentary elections in the fall, which the president scheduled this week for Oct. 15.

Law and Justice has for some time expressed a wish to hold a referendum on the topic of migration alongside the election.

Critics view the plans to hold referendums on such emotional issues as an effort by the ruling party to mobilize its conservative base as its seeks an unprecedented third straight term. The party is leading in the polls but cannot be assured of an outright majority.

Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said Friday that the party now plans more than one referendum question.

Kaczynski, who is also the deputy prime minister, made the announcement in a video posted to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. He said the first referendum question would say: “Do you support the sell-off of state-owned enterprises?” The graphic showed the question as it would look on a ballot, with a red X appearing in the ”No” box.

He then linked privatization efforts to Tusk, his main competitor, a former prime minister who leads the pro-business Civic Platform party. Civic Platform, a center-right party, governed from 2007 to 2015. The party is now running at the head of a four-party electoral coalition called Civic Coalition that includes the Greens and socially liberal parties, and has shifted somewhat to the left.

Law and Justice has long tried to portray Tusk, a former president of the European Council, as a politician who serves the interests of Germany, the Western neighbor who inflicted atrocities on occupied Poland during World War II but which is now an ally in NATO and the European Union.

During a meeting with voters last month Kaczynski said: “Donald Tusk is a true enemy of the Polish nation! This man should not rule Poland. Let him take his politics to his Germany, and let him do harm there, not here.”

Opponents of the ruling party denounce the way it uses state resources, including public TV, to demonize its opponents, particularly Tusk, who was an anti-communist activist before the fall of communism in Poland and who portrays himself as a Polish patriot.

In his new video, Kaczynski said the referendum was aimed at putting decisions in the hands of Poles.

“For us, the voice of normal Poles is decisive. The voice of foreign politicians, including Germans, is of no importance, that is why in key issues we want to appeal to you directly, in a referendum,” Kaczynski said.

“You decide whether the wealth of generations will remain in Polish hands,” he said.

Critics denounced the referendum as hypocrisy. Some noted that the ruling party, known by its Polish initials PiS, has itself sold off state assets, including part of the state oil company Lotos, on terms viewed as unfavorable to Poland.

“This referendum is one big PiS scam,” said Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the deputy parliament speaker. “They sold Lotos to the Saudis for a song, and now they will brazenly ask Poles what they think about it? Liars and manipulators.”

The daily paper Rzeczpospolita argued that the ruling party was damaging its own campaign by drawing attention to the Lotos sale. It also pointed out that past privatizations of communist-era companies brought investment and raised the technical level of Polish enterprises.

“It is thanks to privatization that we are a rich country today,” economic journalist Krzysztof Adam Kowalczyk wrote.

Edit Zgut-Przybylska, a political scientist and sociologist who is a visiting fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute, said the Polish referendum echoes referendums held by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has used them to mobilize support for anti-migrant and anti-LGBTQ+ policies amid a larger erosion of democracy.

“It has the same populist purpose: to consolidate power by polarizing society with panic-mongering disinformation,” she said.

“While Orban is depicting Brussels and Soros as the corrupt enemy, the Polish government claims the opposition is collaborating with Germany to undermine the ‘will of the people,’” she argued, referring to the billionaire investor George Soros. “The overarching goal of the Polish referendum is to exploit anti-German sentiments and identity-based anxieties centered around migration.”

Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

According to a report from state radio, Law and Justice intends to publish more videos containing referendum questions in the coming days.

Polish authorities had previously announced plans to put the issue of an EU migrant relocation scheme to a referendum to coincide with the parliamentary election.

The lower house of parliament is due to take up the issue of the referendum at a sitting next week, according to the state news agency PAP.

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