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Polish Government Ups Anti-Migrant Rhetoric Ahead of Elections

Xenophobic Referendum Threatens Common Values

Polish border guards watch asylum seekers stuck at the Polish-Belarus border in Bialowieza, May 28, 2023. © 2023 Sipa via AP Images

In a bid to legitimize its anti-migrant agenda, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is holding a national referendum on the same day as national elections on October 15. The government pushed a law through the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, in August to make this referendum possible.

Two of the four referendum questions relate to the government’s anti-migrant policy, asking the public loaded questions about whether they want to admit “illegal immigrants” from the Middle East and North Africa as “imposed” by the EU migration pact, and if they want to dismantle the barrier on the border with Belarus. The remaining two questions relate to sale of state assets to foreign entities and raising the retirement age.

The explanatory annex that accompanies the referendum contains misleading information designed to influence citizens to vote in support of the government’s anti-migrant agenda. It deliberately omits the fact that the EU migration pact doesn’t force any country to accept relocated migrants, and that countries may opt out of making a “solidarity” payment for each migrant they refuse to relocate. Most importantly, the pact offers an exception for countries under migratory pressure, such as Poland, due to the millions of Ukrainian refugees in the country.

Xenophobic rhetoric, including around migrants crossing the border from Belarus, has been at the core of the ruling Law and Justice party’s political messaging, so it is of little surprise that the party organized the referendum for the day of national elections.

This referendum is reminiscent of the Hungarian government’s anti-LGBT referendum, held the day of their national elections in April 2022. That referendum was declared invalid, in part due to a successful civil society campaign encouraging people to invalidate their ballots. In Poland, civil society is engaged in a similar campaign calling on citizens to boycott the referendum.  

The Polish government’s loaded, anti-migrant referendum, presented on the back of blatantly false information, underscores why concerted EU action – including under article 7 of the EU treaty – is vital to address the threat to EU values represented by Poland’s weakening rule of law, whatever the outcome of the election.

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