The allegations could hardly be more serious for a hardline anti-immigration party that has staked its reputation on keeping developing world migrants out of Poland. It is suggested that corrupt officials have allowed perhaps hundreds of thousands of people to enter the country (and therefore the European Union) in return for bribes.
With an election due on October 15, the scandal might seem like electoral hemlock. That is the hope of the opposition and particularly the leader of the opposition Civic Coalition (KO), Donald Tusk, who has hailed the scandal as perhaps the “greatest in the 21st century.”
And the affair does play into the key campaign issues of immigration and corruption. However, given past experience with scandals and the government’s stonewalling tactics, it may not translate into serious electoral consequences.
Rumors began to swirl on August 31, when Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, dismissed the deputy head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Piotr Wawrzyk. The official explanation was that he had shown a “lack of satisfactory cooperation” with what the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported as an ongoing investigation by the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This investigation was later confirmed by Stanisław Żaryn, Government Plenipotentiary for Information Security. This move was followed by a ministry statement on September 15 that Jakub Osajda, the director of the Legal and Compliance Management Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was similarly terminated along with all outsourcing companies dealing with visa processing.
The details and scope of the scandal are almost wholly obscured by the potentially explosive political implications. Opposition members have asserted that irregularities occurred in the issuance of several hundred thousand visas in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The accusation is that people within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took bribes to either fast-track or approve applications.
At the same time, the government and its ministries maintain that there were merely several hundred “irregular” cases from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, India, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Qatar. Until some consensus on the facts is reached it will be difficult to determine the possible impact.
Szymon Hołownia, leader of the Third Way opposition party, called for the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau, as well as Prime Minister Morawiecki. Meanwhile, members of the government have decried a campaign of “false information and manipulation” by members of the opposition and the media.
What is clear is that this Visa Affair adds to the already acrimonious relations between the Ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and the opposition. The issues of anti-corruption and immigration look to become battlegrounds as both factions aim to shore up their credentials.
Immigration has been a central element of PiS’s political platform. The issue is a defining theme in the party’s longstanding clash with EU leadership over so-called “migrant quotas”, whereby developing world migrants reaching the bloc are shared between member states. Likewise, “anti-corruption” has been a fundamental pillar. 1 of the PiS as far back as the early 2000s, and was demonstrated with the creation of the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau during the 2005-2007 PiS government. This provides all the more reason for PiS to downplay the Visa Affair, and instead accuse the opposition of fabrication.
At the same time, the scandal meshes well with recent attacks made by Tusk, who in July condemned the government’s lax immigration policy stating that: “Poles must regain control of their country and its borders.”
This is an uncharacteristic political tack for the liberal centrist opposition but clearly aims to sway more conservative voters. The challenge for the opposition will however, be to demonstrate the broad scope of the “affair” and to convince conservative voters that the PiS government is fully culpable (since even if the affair is as serious as suggested, that does not prove that PiS ministers knew what was happening.)
At first glance, the revelations may look like a punishing blow to the government’s campaign, and it surely will add complications.
But this is not the first time that serious allegations have been made before an election. In 2020, a scandal saw the Minister of Health Łukasz Szumowski accused of corrupt procurement of health supplies at the height of the COVID pandemic. This occurred directly before the 2020 presidential vote in June, and yet the PiS-aligned candidate Andrzej Duda managed to pull ahead and win a second term. Szumowski, and deputy minister Janusz Cieszyński, both resigned following the election in August 2020.
This underlines one of the truths of modern Polish politics — that the current degree of political polarization and voter entrenchment is so profound that it is a tall order to detach voters even with a scandal of magnitude.
One unique aspect of this affair has been broad foreign coverage; it seems that Poland’s rising role and importance in the region comes with greater scrutiny and media coverage abroad. Government representatives, such as Foreign Minister Rau, have criticized the media’s “fake news,” and Stanisław Żaryn has even called it “election interference.”
Regardless of how this scandal factors into next month’s election results, a likely effect will be another hit to popular faith in their government. According to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) polls, only 34% of Poles trust their government. While that’s better than the US (by 3 points), it remains one of the lowest rates in the bloc of 38 countries.
It’s likely to be some time before a government can inspire confidence and unity across Poland’s deep political divide.
Nathan Alan-Lee is a doctoral researcher at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and is a commentator on Polish and regional affairs.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
- Stanley, B., Cześnik, M. (2019). Populism in Poland. In: Stockemer, D. (eds) Populism Around the World. Pg. 73.