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Polish Election Brief 2: Navigating the Migration Debate and Other Contentious Issues

As Poland approached its crucial 15 October election, there were intriguing developments in the dynamics of the race. On one side, polls indicated a tightening margin between the major opposition party Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), headed by former prime minister Donald Tusk, and the governing Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS). In addition, a notable rise in support for the far-right political alliance Confederation (Konfederacja), which was attracting significant interest from younger voters, further complicated the political landscape.  

Amid these shifts, migration emerged as a focal issue. This was not just due to its strategic positioning by the incumbent party, highlighted by a referendum coinciding with the election, but also because the opposition heavily criticised PiS for its role in the "bribes for visas" scandal. Given the heightened visibility of debates about migration, this report endeavours to offer an examination of related discussions on two social media platforms. Our goal extends beyond assessing the tone and frequency of particular narratives; we also aim to explore how this topic intertwined with related issues, such as Poland’s ties with Germany and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. 

Key findings: 

  • The high number of migration-related posts identified highlights the issue’s key position in the electoral debate. 
  • While the governing party, PiS, tried to push the issue of immigration to the front of its election agenda, it was ultimately Confederation that dominated in terms of the quantity of posts about migration. 
  • The fact that Confederation increasingly tried to mobilise opinion against support for Ukraine, as well as against displaced Ukrainians in Poland, is partly reflected in the data, given that both migration and Ukraine were issues that Confederation was the most vocal about.  
  • Further, it was not only the worsening relationship with Ukraine that was linked to the migration debate, but anti-German sentiments are also reflected in the data. 

Methodology 

For the analysis presented in this election brief, DRI used a dataset of a total of 5,678 posts. These posts were sourced from two major social media platforms – Facebook and X. The timeframe for data collection spanned from 16 August to 6 October 2023. The sample included diverse categories of accounts, comprising messages by leading national politicians, including key party leaders, prime ministerial candidates, and other influential political voices. Additionally, to provide a local perspective on the elections, we incorporated posts from the mayors of the capital cities of 16 voivodships (the highest-level administrative division in Poland). Lastly, recognising the essential role that the media plays in shaping public opinion, posts from some of the country’s top political journalists were also included. For finding migration-related posts, as well as posts related to the issue of Russia’s war against Ukraine, self-trained classifiers (support vector machines) were used.  

How migration shaped the election campaign  

Migration's prominent role in this election is evident in the data. Of the entire sample analysed, at least 10 per cent of the posts were directly or indirectly associated with the topic of migration. While 10 per cent may seem like a nominal figure at first glance, one must remember that, as an election approaches, many candidates shift their posting strategies. Rather than addressing political issues head-on, they often amplify their presence through posts about campaign activities and related affairs. The fact that approximately 600 posts still delved into migration matters is, therefore, a testament to the topic’s consistent significance in the electoral discourse, even amidst the surge of visibility-driven content. 

For deeper insights, we ran topic modelling on a sub-dataset including posts related only to migration. Topic modelling uses an algorithm that clusters posts by their content, finding coherent issues so that we can better understand how the migration debate was shaped by specific narratives (graph 2).  

As we already explored in our first election brief, the importance of migration was in part related to the unfolding visa scandal, in which Polish officials allegedly accepted bribes to issue Schengen visa to migrants from Africa and Asia. Yet it was not only the scandal itself, and the pressure from the EU Commission to address the allegations. A heated debate over migration was also fueled by the release of “Green Border”, a movie depicting the fates of refugees at the Polish-Belarusian border, which triggered an outcry among nationalist politicians, who branded the movie as “propaganda”.    

The topic modelling indicates that the migration debate was influenced by various other issues. The government's referendum appeared to be an attempt to amplify immigration concerns. Additionally, topics like Russia’s war against Ukraine and Poland’s relations with Kyiv and Brussels also intertwined with migration-centred narratives. The recurring appearance of both PiS and Confederation, as a separate topic in graph 2, provides insight into the key players who shaped the migration discourse. 

Voices in the migration debate 

While PiS tried early to put immigration on the agenda by including it in the referendum on election day, PO saw its chance in turning the tables when the visa scandal broke. Yet it seems that neither PiS nor PO were the key driver when it came to migration-related social media posts.    

Graph 3 underlines this, as it shows which politicians or journalists were most vocal when it came to migration. Although the current prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki (PiS), was a prominent voice, his migration-related posts were significantly outnumbered by those of the leaders of the far-right Confederation, Krzysztof Bosak and Sławomir Mentzen. Yet, the graph also shows that other opposition figures (see Michał Kołodziejczak, of the left-wing AGROunion [AGROunia] movement, and Adam Szłapka, leader of the liberal Modern [Nowoczesna] party) were among the top five voices on immigration. The dominance of Confederation in the migration debate might explain why Ukraine appeared as a prominent topic in migration-related discourse (see graph 2). 

From immigration to Ukraine 

In a risk assessment conducted in April 2023 by DRI, in collaboration with the Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych, IPA), a Polish think tank, we determined that the relationship between Polish people and the large number of Ukrainian refugees the country accepted held the potential to be negatively exploited by political actors. Confederation, which looked as if it might be in a position to be kingmaker following the elections, started to adopt openly hostile positions against Ukrainian immigrants 

This is also vaguely reflected in the data. To analyse posts about the Ukraine, we used another sub-dataset, containing only Ukraine-related posts. On the one hand, graph 4 reveals that, as with migration, Confederation posted most frequently on Ukraine.  

The increasingly negative tone related to Ukraine can be seen when conducting a sentiment analysis, and is portrayed in graph 5. It shows a significant number of negative posts when it came to Ukraine. This might, of course, be only partly explained by the dominance of posts by Confederation, which used anti-Ukrainian discourse to mobilise support, but might also have been exacerbated by the fact that the governments of Poland and Ukraine recently had an open dispute over grain imports from the latter

Narratives against Berlin and Brussels  

The focus of attention was not only on Ukraine, but also on the relationship with Poland’s neighbor to the West, Germany. Anti-German narratives recurringly featured throughout the election campaigning by members of the government, who, for example, tried to make associations with Naziism, which can also be seen in the sub-dataset with Ukraine-related posts. Repeatedly, we find terms linked to Naziism. 

It is essential to note, however, that this trend was, in part, influenced by a specific incident that occurred within the observation period. 

The speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, Anthony Rota, invited Yaroslav Hunka, who served in a Waffen-SS unit in Ukraine during World War II, to a 22 September visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Canada’s Parliament. The invitation was later widely criticized within and outside the country. Looking at individual posts, the incident exemplifies how the leadership of Confederation used the case to question Polish support for Ukraine.  

 


 

When anti-German narratives were used throughout the Polish election campaign, they were often mixed with anti-EU stances, as PiS portrays the EU as being heavily dominated by Germany. This is also seen when applying named entity recognition, a method that allows for identifying places, people, or organisations in a dataset. We can show, for example, that Europe was referenced most often, right after Poland and Ukraine (graph 7).  

 

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This work is supported by

Stiftung Mercator