Warsaw See-Saw Poland's Never-Ending Political Crisis

They had promised their countrymen a new, clean republic, one without corruption and scandal. But now the Kaczynski twins have tripped up over their own moral standards. Nevertheless, the duo's Law and Justice Party stands a good chance of winning the next election.

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Poland's Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski is facing an election campaign.
REUTERS

Poland's Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski is facing an election campaign.

The member of parliament from the liberal Citizens Platform party who has just taken a seat in the restaurant at the Sejm, Poland's parliament, wears a tailored suit and is all of 30 years old. He may not have his father's hearty moustache, but he does have his grayish-green eyes. He also has the same deep voice and uses similar lively gestures when he speaks.

Jaroslav Walesa is the fourth child of Lech Walesa, who, together with the independent Solidarnosc (Solidarity) labor union he headed from 1980, ushered in the end of communism and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

The young man has ordered tea. He seems uncomfortable. "I am a part of Polish politics, but I am ashamed of the chaos that prevails here," he says. The young Walesa also resembles his father in this respect. Lech Walesa recently summarized the situation in Poland when he said that the men currently in power essentially aim to restore the martial law that prevailed under the communists.

He was referring to the Kaczynski twins: Lech, the president, and Jaroslav, the prime minister. Their political adversaries claim that the two men have plunged the country into a permanent state of emergency. They also claim that the twins tapped the phones of journalists and members of the government, claiming national security concerns, and had their own interior minister taken away in handcuffs.

"The country is filled with paranoia," says the young Walesa. "Everyone feels spied on. I have even heard that government agencies have been watching me. Despite the fact that I have nothing to hide, there is always a shadow."

The Kaczynski twins have managed to take Poland to a new turning point. Late last Friday, the Sejm dissolved itself after a heated debate, paving the way for new elections tentatively set for Oct. 21. The Kaczynski twins' Law and Justice party (PiS) also voted for new elections. Unable to settle its differences with its coalition partners, the PiS-led minority government was forced to step down.

It has been two years since the twin brothers came to power in Warsaw with a mixture of anti-German rhetoric, social promises and a pledge to clean up Poland's chronic corruption problem. They told their fellow Poles that they would bring "moral renewal" to the country and establish a republic in which the contradictions and injustices of the post-communist transitional era would become history. But now the government is ending in a flurry of intelligence scandals and chaos in the parliament.

Will Sept. 7 mark the political demise of the twins, or at least that of Jaroslav, the prime minister? Can Western Europeans who see the Kaczynskis as a threat to EU reforms finally breathe a sigh of relief? It's too soon to tell. The early elections could end up being a non-event: the PiS, in fact, stands a good chance of remaining in power after October.

The brothers are certainly good for a few surprises. Their double victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections two years ago already came as a shock to many. At the time, Lech and Jaroslav promised to root out the remnants of the former communist regime and establish a country based on "solidarity." Their mantra was work, family and the fatherland, not Western European liberalism.

But there was one very important thing wrong with the newly developing "Fourth Republic" -- a weak government. To achieve a majority in parliament, the Kaczynskis were forced to form an alliance with farmers' leader Andrzej Lepper and his populist Self-Defense Party, as well as with the Catholic nationalist League of Polish Families.

A Government Unravels

This shaky coalition, which finally fell apart in August, marred Poland's reputation during the debate over the European constitution. It conjured up old fears of the Germans, and its homophobia and chauvinistic comments helped tarnish Poland's reputation even further. Inside Poland, the hunt for real and imagined informers to the former communist-era secret police has created a climate of fear. The administration's final blunder was an affair involving former Interior Minister Janusz Kaczmarek. Once a Kaczynski favorite, Kaczmarek was sacked and took his revenge by leveling serious accusations at the government. In a speech before the parliament, Kaczmarek claimed that the police, acting on behalf of the Kaczynski government, had carried out wiretapping on politicians across the country -- an accusation that landed him in jail.

Did Kaczmarek simply invent his claims? Or is he himself involved in some dark machinations? These are the some of the questions that could help decide the coming election. Either the Kaczynskis manage to sell the Poles their own version of the scandal, or the liberal opposition prevails by convincing voters that the twins are nothing but dictators in disguise.

In February Prime Minister Kaczynski appointed Kaczmarek, until then a political unknown, to the post of interior minister. He barely made an impression once in office. The real star in the cabinet was Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who instituted a program in which masked special commandos arrested allegedly corrupt politicians and physicians on camera, and he also introduced fast-track trials. Ziobro's radical actions sat well with many Poles yearning for more security. But he also became Kaczmarek's archenemy.

In early August the prime minister suddenly fired Kaczmarek, claiming he had obstructed one of Ziobro's secret arrests and undermined the government's corruption case against Andrzej Lepper, who was minister of agriculture at the time.

Members of Polish government with Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski voting on the self-dissolution of the Polish parliament.
DPA

Members of Polish government with Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski voting on the self-dissolution of the Polish parliament.

Kaczmarek launched a counterattack by claiming that Jaroslav Kaczynski had instructed Ziobro to have the intelligence agencies place both their political opponents and allies under surveillance. According to Kaczmarek, police informants had compiled compromising material about illicit affairs, illegal business deals, alcoholism and other incriminating activities. The Kaczynskis' standing in the opinion polls plunged within days and dropped even further when Kaczmarek was briefly taken into custody two weeks ago.

But when the public prosecutor's office suddenly released videos suggesting that the former interior minister had apparently lied after all, the Kaczynskis and their party surged back to popularity.

"We are not a party of angels," says Tadeusz Cymanski, the former mayor of the northern Polish city of Malbork and now a member of the Sejm for the PiS. "Kaczmarek let himself be carried away. The 'Uklad' is everywhere -- but we in the PiS have the courage to provide order, even within our own ranks."

The Polish word "Uklad" simply means "agreement" or "system," but the Kaczynskis have turned it into a politically charged catchphrase. As they see it, Uklad stands for the dark powers that are responsible for Poland's problems, a sort of backroom alliance of politicians, members of the business world and the media.

Creating New Scapegoats

Two years ago it was used to describe groups of leftist insiders and post-communist cadres. "But now, in the wake of the recent scandal, the Kaczynskis have modified the term," says sociologist Andrzej Rychard. After the name of a shady Polish billionaire surfaced as a straw man in the Kaczmarek affair, the government's new targets are now businesspeople and the wealthy, who it claims have gained advantages fraudulently. The same law must apply to both "the weak" and the "well-situated," the president demanded.

"This sort of rhetoric casts makes affluence look suspicious. It's an effective recipe," says Rychard, adding that it offers the country's middle classes -- shop owners, bureaucrats in smaller cities (in other words, typical PiS supporters) -- a focus for their fears.

The strongest opposition party, the liberal Citizens Platform, led by Polish intellectual Donald Tusk, has little ammunition to use against Poland's self-appointed cleanup men. It claims that instead of fighting the Uklad, the brothers established their own insider groups, thereby upsetting the balance of power and harming the country's young democracy. This accusation is directed against the prime minister, who never managed to make the leap from aggressive opposition leader to the head of a government who is respected nationwide -- and who sees politics as tough confrontation rather than the art of compromise.

But the Citizens Platform has been relatively reserved in its rhetoric, probably because it is already preparing to form a coalition with the PiS. As flattering as the opinion polls are today, a stalemate appears to be the likely outcome. Although Tusk referred to a Kaczynski "capitulation" on Friday, an alliance between the PiS and the Citizens Platform does not appear to be out of the question. The only problem is that the recent chaos of the Kaczynski era will likely discourage many Poles from voting at all in the next election. According to opinion polls, only a little more than half of Polish voters plan to head to the polls in October.

Jaroslav Walesa, who represents his native Gdansk, will also be fighting to keep his seat in parliament. He is concerned about his father's legacy. "We must embark on new paths and create new incentives for the Poles."

What would those incentives be? The son of the former president isn’t quite sure. But he does known one thing: "This election campaign will be very dirty."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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