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Opinion As the former mayor of Gdansk, I weep for my city’s slain leader – and Poland’s democracy

Tomasz Posadzki is the honorary consul of Estonia in Gdansk, where he has lived since he was born and where he served as mayor from 1994 to 1998. This piece was translated by Piotr Luba.

Ever since 1980, when 17,000 ship builders went on strike in what was then called the Lenin Shipyard – a movement, led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, that would birth the first non-Communist trade union in the former Soviet Bloc – the port city of Gdansk has been a cradle for Polish liberalism. The country’s fourth-largest metropolitan area, Gdansk has largely held fast to the idea that civic good was a common good, with its citizens and leaders focused on civil rights and engaging in debate in the spirit of tolerance. In 1989, that spirit, which infused the Solidarity party – founded by Mr. Walesa, who went on to become Poland’s president – led to the non-violent toppling of communism in the country.

It was under these auspices that I first met Pawel Adamowicz, when I was an activist in the independent students' movement in the 1980s. Mr. Adamowicz, who helped organize a student strike at the University of Gdansk in 1988, was a champion of the ideas of Solidarity, and he and I worked together on the democratic transformations that followed and the re-establishment of local government in 1990. After becoming mayor of Gdansk in 1998, he started building the European Solidarity Centre, not so much as a museum but as a centre for debate on matters important to Poland and Europe. He succeeded: The ECS is now one of Gdansk’s calling cards. And Mr. Adamowicz quickly became a respected voice for liberal institutions and a staunch defender of the rights of minorities.

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On Jan. 13, while on stage as part of Poland’s largest annual charity event, which raises money for children’s hospitals, Mr. Adamowicz was brutally murdered, stabbed in the heart in front of a shocked public. The perpetrator then seized the microphone, blaming the late mayor’s former Civic Platform (PO) Party – which has managed the city for 20 years and governed Poland from 2007 to 2015 – for imprisoning him for a series of violent attacks.

Polish people should have seen it coming. Mr. Adamowicz had been public in his defence of Poland’s constitutional order, and he disagreed with the politics of Law and Justice (PiS), the country’s ruling party since 2015, especially on its policy on immigration. This made him the target of savage attacks by radically nationalist right-wing circles, which have been tolerated by the current government; several months ago, the All-Polish Youth, a radical organization of young nationalists, posted fake death certificates for the 11 mayors, including Mr. Adamowicz, who had signed a declaration welcoming refugees on Facebook. Prosecutors decided not to pursue the case.

When members of the All-Polish Youth sought to interrupt a lecture by Adam Michnik – the editor-in-chief of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, whose journalists had been reporting on marches where fascist symbols and slogans including “death to the enemies of the fatherland” are wielded – Mr. Adamowicz stood in the way. For his efforts, one of the intruders accused Mr. Adamowicz of battery. “The All-Polish Youth gladly assumes the mantle of protectors of the Catholic faith and Latin civilization," the former mayor said in his defence. "Interrupting the meeting with Adam Michnik was neither Christian nor Catholic, nor does it have any place in Latin culture. It was a simple case of loutish behaviour. I would never had thought to interrupt a meeting of PiS or the All-Poland Youth. Whereas these young people, educated in the Third Polish Republic, think that this is within the norm. Watch out, or we will soon find that this is the norm. People with open democratic and European ideas will not be able to meet because they can be attacked by organized hit squads.” His assassination more than a year later makes his ominous warning terrifyingly real.

Sympathetic homages and emotional tributes have poured in from across the country for the late mayor. It suggested some hope that the atmosphere of mutual enmity, which has dominated the political scene for several years and sparked hate speech that led a political dispute to mutate into a tribal war, might begin to mellow. But it is tragically unlikely that his death will change the situation in Poland. We already squandered a moment of extraordinary unity in the wake of a tragedy, after 96 people, including Polish president Lech Kaczynski, died in an airplane crash near Smolensk, Russia, in 2010 – an especially difficult time for our country, and also for our family, as my wife’s sister was among the victims. Hardly a week went by without people blaming then-prime minister and PO Party leader Donald Tusk, now the President of the European Council, for the crash. Government politicians began accusing their rivals from PiS of politicizing the tragedy to unite the Polish right ahead of the coming elections, and in 2015, PiS, led by Jarosław Kaczynski, brother of the late Polish president, won the parliamentary elections and took power. Since then, as the current leader of PiS, Mr. Kaczynski has pursued a policy against the European Union, even though Poland voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the EU in a referendum in 2004.

In its domestic policy, PiS refers to national and Christian identity, criticizing the liberal values that allegedly threaten them. Its public support is based on social transfers to the less affluent, pledges to bring law and order to the state and anti-establishment slogans. In order to consolidate power, Mr. Kaczynski stripped the Constitutional Tribunal of its independence without amending the constitution, and attempted to replace the members of the Supreme Court. In order to muster support for these actions, false accusations were hurled against the representatives of these institutions.

So can we count on any change to happen? There is a glimmer of hope in Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s appointment of the late mayor’s deputy as interim commissioner in Gdansk, and in Mr. Kaczynski’s statement that PiS will not nominate a candidate in Gdansk’s now-necessary mayoral by-election. But Polish media have already reported more threats against some liberal mayors since the killing. So if past is prologue, we’ll just have to wait and see if the uniting spirit of the late mayor endures through this year’s elections to the European Parliament, and Poland’s Sejm and Senate.

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