Politics and Farce
March 1, 2013
The first weeks of 2013 will go down in the history of European politics as a time of extremely difficult negotiations on the shape of the EU’s future budget, the unexpected abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, and the opening of a new front in the fight against Islamist fundamentalists in North Africa.
At the same time, unemployment in Poland exceeded 14 percent, the highest in recent years, public optimism slumped, and the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party for the first time in many months started to slip back in the polls to no more than several percentage points ahead of the opposition.
But top of the TV and newspaper headlines was a raging debate about whether a transgender person can become a deputy speaker of the lower house of the Polish parliament.
Anna Grodzka, a deputy from the Palikot Movement—a party set up by Janusz Palikot, a controversial businessman with a taste for high-profile scandal—was on the covers of the biggest Polish dailies and weeklies in late January and early February. In her previous life—as Grodzka put it herself—she was Krzysztof Bęgowski, an activist in the youth wings of Poland’s communist party, which ruled the country from 1945 to 1989, and then of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the communist party’s successor after the 1989 collapse of the communist regime. She was also successful in business, largely thanks to her party connections established in late 1980s. In 2011, several years after changing her sex and name, she made it into parliament on a Palikot Movement ticket.
In recent months, the Palikot Movement—a party regarded by some analysts as a here-today-gone-tomorrow political experiment expected to disappear from public life after the next elections—has been hemorrhaging support in the polls. The party needed a fresh scandal. Under the pretext that Wanda Nowicka, the party’s deputy speaker in the lower house, had accepted a bonus of slightly over 10,000 euros for her work in 2012, Janusz Palikot launched into a display of righteous indignation. Palikot, who is accused by many, including his former wife, of shady financial machinations involving tens of millions of zlotys, demanded that Nowicka should be removed from her post and replaced by Grodzka.
The scandal that broke out was unprecedented. Palikot’s political maneuver triggered an avalanche of comments. Right-wingers fumed with outrage, launching a string of vulgar verbal attacks on transgender people and, by extension, on other sexual minorities. Left-wing politicians and commentators argued that the decision reached by parliament about whether or not to appoint Grodzka as deputy speaker would be a litmus test for Poland, revealing whether it qualified as a modern, tolerant European country.
Luckily, the deputies did not succumb to this lunacy and refused to recall Nowicka from her post. Nowicka herself did not yield to pressure from her party and refused to tender her resignation. The Grodzka scandal is over—at least for the time being, at least until Palikot comes up with a new idea. And, knowing him, one can be sure that he will.
As a consolation, Poland is not no.1 in terms of European countries that are witnessing a tabloidization of their politics and public life. In Serbia, for instance, the main topic in the media at the beginning of the year was a stunt targeting Prime Minister Ivica Dacic. Invited for an interview by a private TV station, he sat opposite a “journalist” who was, in fact, a model working for the Croatian version of Playboy. After a few questions, the model, dressed in a mini-skirt, recreated in front of the dumbstruck politician a famous leg-uncrossing scene made famous by Sharon Stone in Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 film Basic Instinct.
“This was Serbia being mocked, not the prime minister. This will not go unpunished,” said Ivica Toncev, Dacic’s security adviser. It is hard to escape the impression that politics in several European countries is dangerously close to descending into farce.