Home featured Battle Over Animal Rights Almost Brings Down the Polish Government

Battle Over Animal Rights Almost Brings Down the Polish Government

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KASZEWSKA WOLA, Poland — When the European Union condemned Poland’s government for demonizing gays and lesbians, the country’s governing coalition defiantly stood together. When state media was accused of spreading hate speech that fueled violence, the governing parties brushed off concerns. And when protests erupted against efforts to control the judicial system, they pressed ahead regardless.

Then came the minks.

Proposed legislation that would ban the farming of minks, semiaquatic mammals prized for their fur, and put in place a range of protections for other animals, opened deep divisions in the coalition that almost brought down the government.

It took the intervention of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the dominant Law and Justice Party, to quell the uprising for now by taking on a formal role that allowed him to act as a buffer between opposing factions.

The bill, which gained momentum after a documentary aired on Polish television showing minks living in deplorable conditions on one farm, has widespread public support and the leaders of the country’s foremost opposition party support the legislation.

But the conservative governing coalition is divided over the issue, waging increasingly furious internal battles at a time when the nation is consumed with the coronavirus. All that has raised questions about the long-term viability of the government.

In the face of those concerns, Mr. Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland and the architect of the government’s agenda, stepped in Tuesday to be sworn in as deputy prime minister after five years of ruling from behind the scenes.

Apart from separating feuding coalition partners, one of his main tasks will be trying to grow public support for the Law and Justice Party, whose candidate for president, Andrzej Duda, only managed a narrow election victory in July.

It will be a difficult challenge since Mr. Kaczynski has been the driving force behind efforts by his party to marginalize the L.G.B.T. community, a campaign that has turned off many young voters. And his government has spent years at war with the European Union, despite broad support in Poland for membership in the bloc, especially among the generation born after the end of communist rule in 1989.

The government also has a dismal record on environmental issues — from logging in the country’s ancient forests to failing to curb a reliance on coal.

But in championing animal rights, Mr. Kaczynski sees an opportunity.

“This is a pivotal moment for the party,” said Wojciech Przybylski, the editor in chief of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe. Mr. Kaczynski, he said, knows he needs to expand his political base to include younger, more moderate voters by sending “a message of concern about nature and animals.”

ImageThe leader of the Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, center, has long been known for his affection for animals.
Credit…Agencja Gazeta, via Reuters

The issue also seems personal for Mr. Kaczynski, who has long been known for his affection for animals. When his beloved cat, Alik, died, it was national news. The 71-year-old, who shuns nearly all requests for interviews outside of supportive media outlets, even went on TikTok to post a video promoting the #StopFurChallenge.

Since coming to power in 2015, Mr. Kaczynski has rarely been challenged. But observers say the division within the coalition over the law reflects a much more profound split between factions that want to take control over the country’s conservative movement.

While Mr. Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party has long been the dominant force in the United Right coalition, it depends on the support of two junior conservative partners to stay in power: the Agreement and United Poland parties.

United Poland is led by the country’s powerful justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, who has made no secret of his desire to become the leader of the country’s conservative movement. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sees himself as the heir apparent. Mr. Kaczynski’s emergence as deputy prime minister was partly aimed at keeping the two men apart.

Mr. Morawiecki quickly aligned himself with Mr. Kaczynski on the animal issue, posting his own video on TikTok supporting a ban on fur. Mr. Ziobro opposes the legislation and, until Mr. Kaczynski’s intervention, his party was threatening to withdraw from the coalition over it, a move that would have erased the government’s parliamentary majority.

Mr. Ziobro’s opposition to the ban on mink farming reflects the industry’s deep roots in Poland. The country is home to the largest mink farms left in Europe and the third largest in the world. The bill, which is still being debated, calls for the fur farms to be closed in a year.

The law would also end the use of wild animals in circuses, restrict the tethering of dogs on chains — a common practice in the countryside — and restrict the ritual slaughter of animals for meat.

Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

The bill has been loudly condemned by politicians from the far right, which has made greater inroads into politics during the five years of rule by the Law and Justice Party.

Mr. Kaczynski has often used more extreme factions to push certain messages, and build his party’s power base. The far right was critical in directing public outrage at migrants, helping the Law and Justice Party rise to power in 2015. More recently, as the party cast “LGBT ideology” as a threat to the nation, ultraconservatives have been driving the messaging.

Now Mr. Kaczynski risks losing some of that support.

Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk, a conservative cleric who has strong connections to Law and Order and controls a vast media empire, used his Radio Maryja station to attack the legislation.

“They feel pity now over these little furs,” Father Rydzyk said recently, adding that the government should be focused on things like further limiting abortion rights. “Let’s not animalize man and humanize animals.”

The bill is also opposed by the meat industry, which says its export business to markets with halal and kosher requirements would be badly hit.

Jacek Zarzycki, president of the Polish Association of Beef Cattle Breeders and Producers, said that if the bill were passed, his members could lose 30 percent of their income.

“We cannot afford that; we will lose the best export markets for Polish beef, which is the export star of Polish agriculture,” he told TVN24.

But it is the minks that have drawn the most attention. And it has turned Szczepan Wojcik, who along with his four brothers controls the vast majority of the mink farms in the country, into a national figure.

Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

“I’m the most attacked person in Poland,” he said in an interview at one of his farms some 60 miles outside of Warsaw.

He sees the attacks as part of a broader cultural war in Poland.

“The people who started the debate in Poland about animal rights, banning the use of animals by man, for example, for furs, are exactly the same people who promote LGBT, same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia and so on,” he said.

While he has supported Law and Justice in the past, he said his thinking was now more in line with the more conservative groups led by Mr. Ziobro and Father Rydzyk.

Recent polls indicate overwhelming support for the ban, however.

Much of that is a result of the documentary co-produced by the animal rights organization Open Cages, showing gruesome footage of minks attacking each other, gnawing off limbs of other caged animals and even feasting on their remains.

“Poles don’t want fur farms,” said Bogna Witkowska, one of the group’s leaders.

Mr. Wojcik said the footage in the documentary was manipulated, adding that it was in his interest to keep animals well cared for since the condition of their fur determined their value.

In an average year, 6.5 million minks are slaughtered in Poland, putting it just behind China and Denmark in terms of fur production.

Walking past rows of cages filled with minks scheduled to be slaughtered in a few weeks, he said he saw nothing wrong with his trade.

“People should take care of animals, but in the end it’s the animals who should serve people, not the other way round,” he said.

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting for this article.

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