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When the Leader Falls Ill

Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s recent disappearance from the political scene shows the impending disaster caused by such centralized rule.

by Martin Ehl 15 June 2018

After more than a month in a military hospital, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), was released from care – but then promptly disappeared, again out of public view. The party (and the country) feels leaderless. While in the past, he has always been guarded, limiting access from the outside world, Kaczynski was still there, dominant behind the scenes. This time is clearly different, and we can see how the governing party has been somehow lost, though still leading in opinion polls.


An EU member state and the biggest democracy in Central Europe, Poland now has an opportunity to show us what it is like when a strong leader with authoritarian tendencies is no longer at the wheel. Officially, we only know that Kaczynski has been suffering from a knee complication, maybe connected with an infection. Unofficially – par for the course in many authoritarian regimes – there are many theories ascribing his absence to ailments ranging from a severe allergy to diabetes to a secret cancer treatment.


No, Poland is not an authoritarian regime yet, but PiS remains highly dependent on Kaczynski's role as “the Great Moderator” who keeps in check the many fractions and lobbying groups of the Polish right, which together form the governing camp. This is the main reason why Kaczynski did not want to have an official state position in addition to being a member of parliament and chairman of party. That would not have left him with enough time for his behind-the-scenes politicking.


But this is not only about fractional fights. The party (and the government) cannot make important strategic decisions, such as how to proceed in Poland’s dispute with the European Commission about the rule of law and court reform. Suddenly, the leader is not around to make public statements about the country’s next move. 


Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has taken Kaczynski’s illness as an opportunity to show some independence in decision-making. The official number two in PiS, Minister of Interior Joachim Brudzinski, has also shown signs of feeling more empowered, and there is talk about a possible political reincarnation of Antoni Macierewicz, a controversial former minister of defense. He is the leader of the most conservative wing of the party, who was forced to leave the government at the beginning of the year after a series of bad decisions that worsened the state of the Polish military (he is also too conservative for the centrist voters whom PiS would now like to attract).


Various Kaczynski lieutenants are thus keeping an eye on each other in a way that shows how the party might fall into trouble without the mighty chairman at any point in the future. And that’s even before serious discussions about who will be the candidate for the position of prime minister in the 2019 elections, and, in the long run, who would succeed Kaczynski as the party's head.


All of that leads to the conclusion that conflicts over the rule of law or the takeover of public media aren’t the main problem for Poland and potentially for other Central European countries with authoritarian tendencies. It’s actually fundamental democratic standards that are at stake when it comes to these illiberal democracies in the region. Many parties within the region depend on their chairman/founding father, including Fidesz in Hungary, the Smer-Social Democracy Party in Slovakia, and ANO in the Czech Republic.


The illness of the leader has paralyzed not only the party, but to some extent also the state – the last time we witnessed something similar in this region was in the early 1980s when Soviet leaders passed away, one after other.


This is not about wishing anything bad to happen to Kaczynski. But it is about the system that he created within the party and that he wants to replicate on a nationwide scale: centralized, power-grabbing politics resembling too much those of the old communist times. Viktor Orban’s Hungary is the obvious model.


Kaczynski's illness might be a much more important test for Poland than it seems now – for the state of domestic political institutions as well as for its position within the European Union. And for neighbors like the Czech Republic who might – on occasion – flirt with that kind of authoritarian model, this is a warning about how far, even nowadays, one political strongman can lead a country astray, planting instability in the midst of an already undermined and weakened liberal democracy. That might open the door to anything, even the brown, black, or red demons from the past.
Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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