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Faith, flag and football: how the Polish game developed a white supremacist fringe

Among the colours and badges of Polish football clubs is a banner declaring, “Death to the enemies of the fatherland”.

Poland’s Catholic churches rarely want for colour, but even the gaudiest frescoes and stained-glass windows struggled to compete with the sea of striped hats and scarves on show at the 14th-century Jasna Góra Monastery, as fans of football teams from across Poland gathered there in January. This is Poland’s holiest shrine, and the crowds were here to celebrate faith, family and football.

As in other European countries, pockets of nationalist and white-supremacist football fans have long been a presence on the margins of Polish society. In recent years, they have grown in number, as many Poles turn their backs on what they regard as the unfulfilled promises of a liberal European future.

Although much international attention has been given to Poland’s authoritarian turn since the election of the populist-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party in 2015, nationalist and xenophobic sentiment had been on the rise for some time. It was accelerated by a frustration with Poland’s uneven economic growth and fears relating to the refugee crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As nativist sentiment has risen, so have the fortunes of the parties to the right of PiS. This poses a dilemma for a party that styles itself as the natural home for Polish “patriots”, in contrast to its pro-European rival, Civic Platform.

In the run-up to the Uefa European Championship in Poland and Ukraine in 2012, Poland’s then Civic Platform-led government (which was headed by Donald Tusk before he became president of the European Council in 2014) clamped down on organised hooliganism. It was feared that violence or instances of racism could disrupt the tournament and damage the country’s reputation abroad.

That provided an opening for far-right and right-wing politicians to adopt the nationalist fans’ cause, portraying them as ordinary patriots enduring harassment from a liberal government hostile to “traditional” cultural values. Their cause has also been adopted by hardliners within the Polish Catholic Church, who share PiS’s view that the country’s values and identity are under sustained attack by decadent, Western cosmopolitanism and the racial diversity imposed from above by Brussels.

This alliance is cemented each year by the “Fans’ Patriotic Pilgrimage” to Jasna Góra. At the latest meeting in January, Holy Mass in the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was presided over by Father Jaroslaw Wasowicz, a cleric with connections to the fanatical supporters of the Ekstraklasa league team Lechia Gdansk.

After the Mass, the fans lined the streets of the monastery compound, waiting in temperatures of -15°C to be blessed by priests wearing football scarves over their cassocks. Among the colours and badges of Polish football clubs were a wide array of nationalist slogans, ranging from garden-variety patriotism to radical right-wing and white-supremacist symbols. They included banners demanding the restoration to Poland of lands now in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, and the ubiquitous slogan of “Death to the enemies of the fatherland”.

“This bizarre ceremony is encouraged by the Church and illustrates the increasingly xenophobic climate in Poland, especially among young people,” said Rafał Pankowski, a scholar and anti-racism campaigner based at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw.

In his sermon, Father Wasowicz told the fans that PiS had ensured that the “shining light of hope is never extinguished in our country”. “We want a Christian Europe, because only by appealing to fundamental values can we defend the continent against annihilation,” he declared.

A theme of the sermon was that the fans embodied the spirit of the so-called Cursed Soldiers, Polish fighters who died resisting the imposition of communism in the 1940s.

An increasingly mainstream belief on the Polish right is that Poland, its culture and traditions are threatened by the “leftist” notions of multiculturalism, in much the same way that they were once threatened by Soviet domination. That argument has given many young nationalists the impression that they represent a new generation of Cursed Soldiers. They are, they claim, the vanguard of a new movement to defend Poland from foreign invasions of a different kind, whether it be godless liberalism, the “Muslim terror” imposed by refugee quotas from Brussels, or even the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have sought economic opportunities in Poland.

“We are inspired by the values of those who defended our homeland,” one fan said, his arms crossed and his face hidden from the cold. “For eight years, under the previous government, us patriots were provoked by the authorities. But now things are more comfortable.”

The right-wing fans’ self-confidence is reflected in the rise in popularity of “patriotic street wear”: clothing brands with names such as “Red Is Bad” (the “Red” apparently stands for communism) or “Patoriots” (sic), which combines love for the homeland with an enthusiasm for the art of rioting. These brands specialise in tracksuits, caps and hoodies bearing patriotic slogans and gruesome depictions of foreign occupations.

As the sun went down, fans gathered in front of the monastery for a display of fireworks launched from the walls, which were covered from top to bottom with red and white banners. They joined in by firing red flares that lit up the winter night’s sky, as they broke into smaller groups, chanting nationalist slogans.

“White Uni(a)ted” declared a banner hung on the side of the monastery by the self-described “skinheads” of Unia Tarnów. While under the protection of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a revered Byzantine icon, this place is said to have withstood a 17th-century siege by Swedish invaders. Now, an invocation of white supremacy hangs outside the home of what can be seen, in essence, as Poland’s only symbol of black power.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.