On 15 June 2023 Jarosław Kaczyński – the leader of the ruling PiS party – announced that a referendum on the relocation of migrants would take place together with the upcoming general elections. It was only one day after the tragic Pylos shipwreck near the Italian coast in which over 500 persons had died. And it was his first time speaking in parliament in over 9 months. Referenda in Poland are rare and, according to Article 125 of the Polish Constitution can only be hold on matters of ‘particular importance to the State’. So, it could be expected that the migration referendum will be a driving factor of the election campaign. However, the referendum turned out not to be predominantly about migration and opposition parties have chosen to ignore the referendum questions. Their silence on the matter does however not stem from their alignment with PiS migration policies. Instead, it is their attempt to obstruct the ruling majority’s attempt to use the referendum as a tool in their electoral campaign.
A Migration Referendum With Few Migration Questions
It took the PiS government two months to announce the questions for the ‘migration’ referendum. The announcements started on 11 August 2023, in a very theatrical way: over the course of four days, each day one of the questions was announced by a prominent PiS politician in a short video. Despite the referendum’s ostensible focus on issues pertaining to migration, only two out of the four questions actually related to migration. The four questions were subsequently submitted to Parliament on the 14 August 2023 (already somewhat changed compared to what had been announced) and were adopted within three days.
The first question was announced by Jarosław Kaczyński himself: “Do you support the sale of state-owned enterprises?”. It was slightly changed in the request to the Parliament several days later to “Do you support the sale of state assets to foreign entities, leading to the loss of control by Polish women and men over strategic sectors of the economy?”. The second question, announced by former prime minister Beata Szydło, also did not concern migration: “Do you support raising the retirement age, including restoring the retirement age to 67 for women and men?”. The retirement age in Poland is currently 60 for women and 65 for men. The former government headed by Donal Tusk, who is now the leader of the biggest opposition party, decided in 2012 to raise retirement age to 67. However, he has since stated that he resigns from those plans and is in favor of leaving current retirement age.
The third question announced by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on the third day was – finally – a migration question. While mentioning that PiS was always against relocation and that agreeing to relocation means bringing danger to Poland, the Prime Minister announced the question: “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?”. The extremely biased question indicates numbers (“thousands”), where those persons are from (“Middle East and Africa”) and who will force Polish authorities to do relocate them (“European bureaucracy”). It fits well into PiS’s rhetoric, as the party has always spoken out against relocating migrants from other EU countries.
The final, fourth question, was announced by the minister of defense, Mariusz Błaszczak: “Do you support the elimination of the barrier on the border between the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Belarus?”. This relates to the wall built on the Polish-Belarusian border in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Since August 2021 Belarusian authorities facilitate the arrival of migrants, including refugee seekers, at the Polish-Belarusian border, not allowing them to leave the area once they arrived. Polish authorities responded to the humanitarian crisis with force, including by building a ca 180 km long wall between January and June 2022. When introducing the referendum question on the wall, the minister did not mention migrants, but instead referred to the danger Putin poses to Poland’s eastern borders several times mentions – as if the “barrier” aims at being a defense from Russian invasion.
PiS has asked all Poles to vote “No” to those four questions, which clearly play on fears of the Polish public. Only two out of four questions concern migration and one of them was not even presented as being a question related to migration. This shows that while PiS might have envisioned the referendum to be a ‘migration’ referendum when announcing it, they did not treat migration as the primary focus.
The Opposition’s Tactical Silence
It is clear that the questions are not designed to allow Poles to weigh in on governmental policy. Instead, the referendum questions were posed to present PiS’s political program, attack the opposition and frame the electoral debate. Yet, it has had little success. Since their reveal, the referendum questions have neither been hotly debated nor explicitly opposed by the opposition bloc, with a few individual exceptions. For the most part, the opposition’s position has been to ignore the referendum questions and encourage Poles not to take part in the referendum. Donald Tusk has stated that the referendum is invalid and declared it void.
Only few politicians have actively opposed the two migration questions. For example, Janina Ochojska, a Polish humanitarian and member of the European Parliament, stated that the wall will eventually be abolished. Another example is the Polish-Belarusian activist Jana Shostak, a candidate in the current election, who openly stated that she is in favor of abolishing the wall.
From a human rights (and – with regard to the “wall” question – environmental) perspective, the silence of the opposition on those question is disappointing. While it is understandable that the parties do not want to get caught up in the referendum game organized by PiS, one could expect a more substantive engagement with questions that are of major importance for both Poland and the EU.
Turning the Table
By proposing the ‘migration’ referendum and in asking the two migration questions PiS was clearly aiming at attacking opposition parties – in particular Donald Tusk – by showing that they are stricter towards migration. However, Donald Tusk himself turned the table in July 2023 by attacking PiS for letting migrants from Arab and Muslim countries in. He did so while referring to the riots in France and warning that Poles must protect their own country. This was criticized by many, but Donald Tusk never backed out of this statement.
At the beginning of September 2023 news broke of the so-called visa scandal. An investigation by the daily Gazeta Wyborcza revealed that an 2020 amendment to the Act on Foreigners and certain other acts lead to huge increase of Schengen visas granted in Polish consulates and corruption. The bribery allegations were discussed on 2 October 2023 in the European Parliament. Several officials, including a vice-minister, have lost their jobs as a result. According to Gazeta Wyborcza, there is both a domestic and international investigation into the procedure; so far, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only confirmed the domestic one. It is unclear if and how this scandal will influence the elections. Yet, it did provide the opposition parties with an opening to attack PiS for not being ‘strict’ enough in migration matters. Quite tellingly, the biggest opposition party promises in its plan for the first 100 days of ruling to “present an indictment against the persons in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responsible for the uncontrolled arrival of migrants in Poland”, which is the only time migration is mention in the plan.
Polish Migration Politics On the Ballot
The lack of objections to the referendum questions and attacking the PiS government because of insufficiently strict migration policies could point to an overall increasingly nationalistic and racist approach to migration. Yet, in reality, most parties are not supporting the perspectives on migration PiS is bringing forward. This is evident also in the parties programs prepared for the elections: while PiS and Konfederacja (a far-right party which likely will make it into parliament) incorporated the protection from illegal migration prominent in their election programs, the so-called democratic opposition parties (the three main opposition blocks) remain silent on migration (see here, here and here). Moreover, in the light of previous statements and positions by the democratic opposition, it becomes clear that they are not pursue the same migration policies as PiS. Indeed, Donald Tusk and his party did previously support relocation, while prominent opposition politicians were also involved in helping migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border. Thus, the silence is not a sign of alignment of migration policies, but a conscious choice taken in the most important Polish elections since 1989. While this might not be visible in the election debate, the results of the October 2023 election will have a significant influence on migration politics in Poland, as the opposition block and PiS do not have the same approaches to migration.