By Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Justyna Pawlak
LODZ, Poland (Reuters) – A Polish tax adviser, social media star and firebrand politician who once said his supporters stood against “Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxation and the European Union” looks set to hold the balance of power in this year’s elections, opinion polls show.
Slawomir Mentzen, the 36-year-old co-leader of the Confederation party, has since insisted his comments in Krakow in 2019 were meant as a joke and said he would have become a stand-up comedian if he hadn’t got into politics.
But Poland’s establishment is taking him increasingly seriously, particularly since surveys suggested his party was on track to surge from relative obscurity to become the third-largest in elections due by end of the year.
If those figures are accurate, that would make it impossible for Poland’s currently ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, or its main rival, the liberal Civic Platform (PO), to govern alone.
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Mentzen has in the past promised never to enter an alliance with either of the two big parties, raising the prospect of political instability at a time when war is raging across the border in Ukraine.
Analysts say the Confederation – regularly labelled far-right by the media and critics – has tapped into growing anger, particularly among the young about what they see as high taxes and the dire state of the economy.
“Far-right is unfair. We would like to position ourselves as a national conservative force,” the party’s other co-leader, Krzysztof Bosak, told Reuters.
In the past, Mentzen has called the EU a totalitarian state, campaigned for Poland to leave and proposed legislation introducing “unbreakable marriage”. In 2018, he signed a declaration devoting his public and private life to Jesus.
He also runs the Mentzen brewery that sells beers branded in English “White IPA matters”. In his campaign events, he has said he “does not trust ginger people with non-Polish surnames” – a reference to two of his red-headed rivals. His TikTok posts can get more than a million views.
But recent months have showed a shift away from the brasher campaigning. Mentzen – whose advisory company website bears the slogan “We love the smell of unpaid taxes in the morning” – says his focus is what he sees as burdensome taxes and profligate spending on welfare.
“The state cannot be giving out money to people who do not want to work,” Mentzen told Reuters in an interview in late May.
“Our goal is a double-digit result and bringing 40 MPs (into parliament), which we hope will lead to a situation in which nobody will be able to build a stable majority without our support.”
POLLS, RIFTS AND QUESTIONS
Surveys give the Confederation 14% of votes, up from less than 7% in elections four years ago – against 31.7% for PiS and 28.2% for PO. About 40% of young men want to vote for Mentzen’s party, making it the clear winner in that category, according to an Ipsos poll from late June.
Perhaps looking ahead to future coalition talks, the two main parties have been guarded in their comments. “As a politician Mentzen is unknown, because he’s never had any (government positions) so it’s difficult to say anything about him,” said Jan Grabiec from PO.
He is not currently one of the party’s lawmakers but supporters credit him with boosting its popularity after he became co-leader in October.
Surveys suggest there are a substantial number of voters prepared to take a bet on him.
“What we see is an irresponsible redistribution of money by the government, which causes inflation,” said Magdalena Tomkiewicz, a 25-year-old cashier who turned out to a “Beer with Mentzen” event in the central city of Lodz.
She said her support for the Confederation had caused rifts in her family, but Mentzen’s fiscal ideas had won her over.
“I work my guts off but I can’t afford anything. I pay my bills and barely survive.”
The party’s move towards a greater focus on the economy has helped it break through, though it is still unclear how it will wield any power that comes its way after the vote, said Kastor Kuzelewski, an analyst from Polityka Insight think tank.
“The Confederation has hidden its most controversial members and toned down its narrative when it comes to religion or abortion. It is difficult to say what page it is on,” he added.
“The real question is whether it would show its old face once in power. Would it be more like [Italian PM] Giorgia Meloni, whose politics is rational despite the radical slogans that brought her to politics or more like (former U.S. president Donald) Trump?”
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)
Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.