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Poland's governing party and its leader seem little affected by mounting scandals, but it’s a big chance to take that the situation will continue.by Martin Ehl 15 February 2019
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's conservative Law and Justice (PiS) governing party, is no ordinary politician. An ordinary politician would not have survived the avalanche of various scandals that has crashed over him and his party over the past couple of months. However, this is no ordinary year for Poland, either, but a “super-electoral” one – with European and national elections planned for spring and autumn, respectively.
Kaczynski’s run of trouble kicked off in late autumn 2018, when the local media revealed that the head of the Polish National Bank – nominated by Kaczynski – had paid vast sums of money in the form of exceptionally generous salaries to a couple of blonde ladies, who were officially his secretaries.
Separately, a young press advisor working for Antoni Macierewicz – the controversial former defense minister and deputy head of Kaczynski’s party – was arrested at the start of 2019 by Poland's special anti-corruption unit, and charged with misusing public funds. The advisor had been protected by Macierewicz in a series of earlier scandals, and his arrest was seen as a signal and a demonstration that PiS people were not untouchable.
Also at the start of the year, another young conservative, the former head of a far-right nationalist youth grouping, was named deputy minister of digitalization, in an attempt by PiS to woo right-wing voters in an important electoral year.
Another shock came with the murder of the popular and liberal mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, who was stabbed at a charity gala in January, by a man recently released from prison. The highly politicized nature of public debate, and the prevalence of hate speech in an increasingly divided society, were most likely what prompted the killing, though the murderer’s motivations remain unclear (he might also have psychological problems).
But it was the political aftermath that damaged Kaczynski. Some governing party politicians, such as the minister of the interior, showed decorum, while Kaczynski himself, and a couple of other PiS leaders, did not attend the minute of silence held in parliament as a tribute to Adamowicz.
Then came the most stunning blow from the opposition-oriented media. The daily paper Gazeta Wyborcza published recordings from PiS headquarters, in which Kaczynski was heard negotiating a secret real estate deal involving a foundation, and a company it owns, with close, personal links to PiS. The partly state-owned bank Pekao was to be used to provide the cash. The plan was to build twin skyscrapers – the K-Towers – honoring Kaczynski and his twin brother Lech, who was Poland's president at the time of his death in an airplane crash in 2010.
The Gazeta Wyborcza recordings showed Kaczynski – who until then had been seen as a politician uninterested in money – acting like a hard, pushy businessman. The tapes also show that Kaczynski had refused to make a payment for preparatory work on the project to an Austrian businessman, who then went to court and most probably also leaked the affair to the media.
This scandal generates news and revelations almost daily. For example, the daily tabloid Fakt has uncovered that Kaczynski’s driver has a lot of property – three houses – and considerable sums of money in his accounts. The driver is a local deputy in one of the districts of Warsaw, and so is obliged to officially declare his wealth.
The latest revelations from Gazeta Wyborcza, show that two of Kaczynski's most trusted political partners – who were also involved in the secret real estate deal – were registered as informants of the communist secret police in the 1980s. This has been a powerful ideological blow to the reputation of PiS, which has always based its rhetoric and politics on a stated desire to purge Poland of former communists and their agents.
All of this adds up to enormous pressure on the governing party at a time when it would prefer to show leadership and set the agenda before European Parliamentary elections this spring, which are expected to be a bellwether for the national elections scheduled in the autumn.
It is worth noting that all of these scandals were revealed by the country's independent media, indicating that media freedom in Poland is in a healthy condition, especially in contrast with Hungary, where media are only considered “partly free”, according to the latest report by Freedom House.
Despite this, and although the opposition is making strong attempts to call the government to account, there are – as yet – no signs of any dramatic decline in the popularity of PiS, even though the longer-term trends do show a weakening in the dominant party's position. Conservative voters are unlikely to be influenced greatly by the real estate affair, which is too complex for the opposition to package and “sell” in an easy way.
More effective opposition could come from the police and courts. According to some analysts, even Kaczynski himself could be charged over the plan to misuse a partly state-owned bank for the benefit of a private project. It is worth remembering, though, that PiS has made major efforts since its electoral victory in 2015 to change the justice system and subject it to political control.
As noted, Kaczynski is no ordinary politician. It is too early to write off either him or the party on which he still has a firm grip, despite his recent health issues. Moreover, this is a high-stakes game. Although Kaczynski is not prime minister himself, preferring to drive from the backseat and make deals from his backbench position in the parliament – as his style is portrayed in the Polish media – if PiS lose the autumn elections, a new government would do anything to see Kaczynski and his fellow politicians in jail.
The road Kaczynski is on is a winding one – representing the risks of an electoral year – and he is driving at high speed in a vehicle heavily laden with scandals. Will this political baggage prove too destabilizing?
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