Photo Gallery: Protests in Poland


From Paragon To Pariah How Kaczynski Is Driving Poland Away from Europe

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland, is the architect of judicial reforms that have drawn massive criticism across Europe. As the Polish government chips away at checks and balances, is it possible the politician could drive the country out of the EU?

The nucleus of Poland's political power lies not in the parliament in Warsaw, not in the presidential palace, but in a windowless, slightly strange looking building that most resembles a multistory car park. It's not quite part of Warsaw's city center, although downtown's many new glass and steel skyscrapers are still just in sight.

Every day, an official car picks up Jaroslaw Kaczynski from his apartment in the Zoliborz neighborhood and brings him to this office block at 84-86 Nowogrodzka. The building houses a sushi restaurant, a copy shop and an insurance company -- and the headquarters of Kaczynski's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Its chairman uses a separate entrance. In the mornings, a team of young staff members supplies him with books, newspapers and printouts. All in Polish, because Kaczynski only reads Polish sources. At midday, a procession of black limos starts arriving, delivering ministers -- and occasionally the president of the Polish National Bank -- to the Nowogrodzka office to pick up directives and seek advice.

Despite holding no formal government office, Kaczynski is Warsaw's undisputed leader. Together with his late twin brother, Lech, he founded the PiS party in 2001 and twice led it to victory. In 2015, he hand-picked its presidential candidate Andrzej Duda, at the time an unknown member of the European Parliament, who went on to win the vote. He also personally selected current Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. Both politicians are widely seen as Kaczynski's willing stooges.

From a backroom in the Nowogrodzka office, he has turned Poland into a problem case for the EU. Poland, of all places. Under the liberal leadership of former prime minister Donald Tusk, it had long been viewed as the paragon among the Eastern European accession countries. But Kaczynski, who thinks in nationalist categories, clearly sees the union as a source of ready cash rather than a community of solidarity, to which his own country must also contribute. Under his leadership, this once deeply pro-European country might now be moving toward an exit.

The ruling PiS party is already doggedly distancing Poland from Europe's central values. It has restricted the power of the country's highest constitutional court and filled top positions in public radio and television as well as major state-owned companies and the intelligence services with loyalists. In the past week, it turned its attention to reforming the independent Polish judiciary with the aim of giving parliament, in which the Law and Justice has a majority, and the president, chosen by the Law and Justice party, the power to appoint judges -- even in the Supreme Court -- who were previously nominated by the independent National Judiciary Council.

Thursday saw the lower house of parliament vote through the reform, which now has to be approved by the upper house, the Senate, in a vote that is expected imminently, and signed by the president. To the surprise of many, Duda actually proposed a compromise reform, even though so far Duda has always acquiesced to his patron's will -- hence his disparaging nickname, "the notary."

A Threat to the Rule of Law

As Poland, the biggest and most important of the EU's Eastern European members, sets about dismantling the separation of powers, Brussels and Berlin are protesting loudly. The European Commission has referred to "a systemic threat to the rule of law" and indicated Poland could be stripped of its voting rights. But its leverage is limited. The Commission's probe into the "threats to the rule of law," launched last year, has stalled. Revoking Poland's voting rights would require a unanimous decision among all other EU member countries, and Hungary, whose prime minister Viktor Orbán is also no friend of liberal democracy, has declared he would never agree to such a move. The EU has no other sanctions to impose.

But political resistance is also growing inside Poland. In recent days, tens of thousands of people have taken the streets to protest against what the opposition has called "an assault on democracy." But the PiS party doesn't need to worry too much about the demonstrations, which are restricted to the major cities. The party still enjoys a clear lead in national polls. The Polish economy is growing steadily -- by over 4 percent in the first quarter of 2017 alone. And tax revenues have also risen since the party came to power.

Judicial reform is only one aspect of Kaczynski's plans to overhaul Poland. He has long entertained ideas of a "Fourth Republic," a strict but caring state replacing the "Third Republic," as post-communist Poland is often called. Parliamentarians with the liberal opposition fear that the government will continue eroding Polish democracy and that a compliant judiciary could start to challenge unwelcome election results. There are indications that the PiS party is planning to revamp electoral regulations so that it is guaranteed victory for years to come. Urban constituencies, where the party tends to perform poorly, could be redrawn to include more rural areas, thereby redistributing its majorities.

The government's next target could be Poland's private media companies. A favorite buzzword of the Law and Justice party is "renationalization," which in this case would exclude by law international publishing companies from the Polish market.

A Conspiracy Theorist

Kaczynski is a stocky man with a round head. He often looks disgruntled and rarely has any kind of emotional outburst. This week, however, he became unusually angry. During a parliamentary debate on the judicial reforms, a liberal member of parliament raised the specter of Jaroslaw Kaczynski's late brother Lech, who served as president from 2005 to 2010, and was killed in a plane crash close to the Russian city of Smolensk seven years ago.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski stormed over to the podium. "Don't wipe your treacherous mugs with the name of my late brother," he bellowed. "You destroyed him, you murdered him!" The incident illustrates the party chairman's obsession with conspiracy theories. Like many in the party, he is convinced that his brother was deliberately killed in an assassination masterminded by Russia and approved by the liberal Polish government in power at the time.

There was a time when Lech and Jaroslav were Europe's political curiosity nonpareil. They were outsiders, frequently mocked, not least for their appearance. But they had a talent for demagoguery, which propelled them both to power. From 2005 to 2007 they both held office, as president and prime minister respectively. Jaroslav continued to pursue their political agenda after the death of his brother in the Smolensk plane crash. But what is driving him?

Two weeks ago, Kaczynski was the keynote speaker at a Law and Justice party congress in Przysucha, some 40 kilometers from Warsaw. "Poland is united," he said from behind the lectern in a drab auditorium. "We are here to ensure that everyone in Poland has the same opportunities, regardless of whether they live in the cities or in the country."

Kaczynski is not a fiery speaker. He's not a champion of the people. He tends to enumerate ministerial achievements, which sounds dull, but only to the uninitiated. PiS party politicians listen closely, because this is when they get to find out who has earned brownie points. The list of acknowledgments tells them who is currently in favor with the "prezes," Polish for president.

'Positive Change'

Issues and appointments are not debated within the party. Its agenda is drawn up by Kaczynski, as is the electoral list.

Ideologically, he stands for what is essentially a left-wing vision of a generous state, dished up with what liberal politician Leszek Balcerowicz once called "nationalist-Catholic gravy." Kaczynski makes himself out to be the defender of the interests of the common people, defending them from the supposedly "pathological" consequences of the economic liberalism rampant since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

From the very beginning of his political career, he has maintained that it was former communists and dissidents and not the general public who benefited from this economic upswing. According Kaczynski's narrative, they cherrypicked jobs and businesses from Poland's bankrupt estate and ushered in an era of dog-eats-dog capitalism. Average Poles were hung out to dry. Kaczynski wants to see the "networks" that emerged at this time tackled, and the most egregious examples of the cold new economic order crushed. The current PiS party slogan sounds less combative than previous ones: "dobra zmiana" means "positive change." The underlying message is that the party intends to make Poland more humane.

In contrast, the liberal opposition, which had been in power until 2015, has little to offer these days. The bedrock of its political platform has always been the EU. Its vision is basically that so long as Poland is a reliable European partner, aid from Brussels will ensure prosperity for all. The trouble is that few people believe in this vision in the remote east of the country, in villages and small towns.

The Law and Justice party appeals to people who are frustrated by the slow pace of economic progress. Its core voters are not the poor, but the middle classes. Families fed up with dilapidated schools and kindergartens, as well as small businesspeople and shop owners who feel threatened by international retail chains. These are the sorts of voters who want the PiS to guarantee a welfare benefit of 500 zlotys for a second child and reduce the retirement age from 67 to 65 for men and to 60 for women.

Most of them attach little importance to constitutionally spurious moves such as the judicial reform. The judiciary they know from the post-'89 years was inefficient and corrupt anyway. It all goes to show that one reason why Kaczynski is such a successful politician is because he understands how to harness a mood and bring it to a head. He's seen as a modest man willing to sacrifice his own interests for the greater good of the country -- in direct contrast to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has a soft spot for oligarchy glamor.

Eroding Democracy

But where exactly does Kaczynski stand on democracy? "(He) loves Poland and believes in God and the state," says Michal Kaminski, who used to represent the Law and Justice party in the European Parliament and is now a conservative lawmaker in Poland's lower house. He says that Kaczynski is deeply convinced that he knows what is best for Poland and the Polish people. On principle, he is not opposed to democracy, but nor does he want his agenda to be impeded by pesky checks and balances such as a constitutional court. "Internally, the PiS party is looking increasingly more like a sect than a political party," says Kaminski.

The case of Elzbieta Jakubiak lends weight to this theory. She used to work for Lech Kaczynski. After his death, she was ejected by the party by Jaroslav but has long since reconciled with him again. "He had to choice, he had to let us go in order to keep the party together," she said. Many in the party, it seems, are willing to see its chairman's every move as a brilliant maneuver, even when it entails their own exclusion.

Operating out of his backroom office on Nowogrodzka, Poland's unofficial leader appears to be in an unassailable position. Whenever anything goes wrong, he can simply pass the buck.

The death of his brother in a plane crash consolidated his standing. As the surviving twin, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has become part of the national mythology which is such as pillar of the Polish right-wing's identity: The Poles are heroic but forever victimized by Russia and Germany.

Growing EU Skepticism

It's an identity that also defines Kaczynski's foreign policy. "He doesn't understand the principle of the EU," says one former member of the Law and Justice party. As far as he is concerned, the EU is simply an ongoing competition between the member states. That's why he doesn't see the European Union as a project securing peace and prosperity. In his eyes, it is first and foremost an instrument of German power.

Polls show that a large majority of Poles still support EU membership. But many diplomats fear that this support is crumbling. "When you talk to Law and Justice party politicians, it's obvious they think that the EU's best days are behind it and you shouldn't expect much from it anymore," says Marek Prawda, the Polish head of the European Commission representation in Warsaw. Resentment of Brussels is growing, he believes.

PiS politicians such as Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski are constantly maintaining that Western European nations take the lion's share of Brussels' funds. He points to the German companies constructing roads and train stations in Poland, overlooking the fact they help create jobs, improve infrastructure and pay taxes in the country.

Pressure from Brussels is unlikely to make the Law and Justice party cave in. If the EU ends up punishing Poland, relations will become even more strained. The government might one day question why Poland is in the EU in the first place. As one diplomat put it: "As Britain has shown, you can stumble your way into an EU exit."

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