Turning the loose screw
From The Economist print edition
The Polish government flails, creaks and sheds ministers
POLAND'S fractious, pig-headed government has survived for nearly 18 months, against the expectations of most commentators. Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the identical twins who are respectively president and prime minister, may be disastrous in foreign affairs, but at home life rumbles on fine. Poland took in a record $14.7 billion in foreign investment last year, and the economy is growing at almost 6% a year.
Money is flowing in from Brussels, thanks to Grazyna Gesicka, the diligent regional-affairs minister. The justice system, under a zealot named Zbigniew Ziobro, at least sounds serious about catching the biggest crooks. Communist-era secret-police files—long a source of suspicion and scandal in Poland—are to be opened. The old military intelligence service, the WSI, has been closed down, and a dossier will be published soon showing the reach of its sinister tentacles in business, media and officialdom. The upper reaches of the Kaczynskis' Law and Justice party exude a puritanical rectitude. Its two small coalition partners, once known for their outlandish populism, have been tamed by power.
In the past two weeks, however, the government has shown signs of self-destruction. First to go was Radek Sikorski, the defence minister. He resigned because his military counter-intelligence service was snooping on him, at the behest of its chief, Antoni Macierewicz, a Kaczynski ally. Mr Macierewicz was in charge of liquidating the WSI, but has created a private spy service for the Kaczynskis in its place. The loss of Mr Sikorski, the only minister able to talk sense in English, will merely highlight his ex-colleagues' failings.
Next came the departure of Ludwik Dorn, a deputy prime minister and head of the interior ministry. Known as the “third twin” for his closeness to the Kaczynskis, the brainy and hard-working Mr Dorn wrote a furious open letter to the prime minister, demanding indefinite leave (which was granted). The ostensible reason was a clash with Mr Ziobro.
Two senior foreign-policy advisers have also left. The chaos suggests that the Kaczynskis' grip may be failing. Anybody wanting to survive in the government must be passive, mediocre and loyal, say Poles. One Polish weekly has even compared Jaroslaw Kaczynski to Vladimir Putin, an insult that is both shocking and a shade absurd. Yet Mr Kaczynski's statist, top-down approach and his disregard for the separation of powers do ring some faintly alarming bells.
Even as their enemies become more hysterical, however, the Kaczynskis' supporters are untroubled. Law and Justice is polling a steady 28%, more than it scored in the election of September 2005. It would be rash to write the government off; Jaroslaw Kaczynski has often proved a masterly tactician. Some loyalists even suspect that Mr Dorn's half-resignation is part of a master-plan. Others think the government's troubles are a last-ditch diversion put up by the WSI in its death-throes.
The bigger problem is that, aside from the justice ministry, reform has stalled in Poland. Its public administration remains unwieldy, incompetent and backward. Having booted the old government's cronies out of top jobs in public institutions and state-owned companies, the Kaczynskis have installed their own chums, rather than liberalising and depoliticising. Privatisation has almost stopped. Public purchasing is still deeply corrupt. The Kaczynskis' obsession with the wrongs of the past seems to blind them to what is happening under their noses.
In foreign policy, farce is mixed with tragedy. The Kaczynskis have missed no opportunity to insult Germany—which under Angela Merkel has been trying to be friends. Their conduct of diplomacy is comically incompetent. Any advisers who know anything about abroad attract mistrust, and often dismissal. Hardly any officials are left who understand the European Union, for example, a grave matter with tricky negotiations over the EU constitution about to start again.
Economics attracts similar disdain. The sole goal of economic policy was to remove Leszek Balcerowicz, author of Polish free-market reforms in the 1990s, from the central bank. Poland's most urgent task is to use the boom to cut the budget deficit. Taxes on labour are too high, squeezing wages and increasing the incentive to emigrate. A million-plus Poles have done just that since Poland joined the EU, creating widespread labour shortages.
Vengeful, paranoid, addicted to crises, divided and mostly incompetent, the government survives mainly because the economy is strong and the opposition is feeble. Neither will last for ever.