Sep 27th 2007 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
The ruling party is faring well in the election campaign. That is worrying
Get article background
A CIRCUS, a farce, a tragedy, or a thriller with an increasingly sinister plot: depending where you stand, Polish politics can look like any or all of these. After a year of fractious coalition government with two unsavoury small parties, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) faces a fresh election on October 21st. And, despite its patchy record, it looks likely to win.
It is easy to depict PiS as a bunch of provincial incompetents, obsessed by historical grievances and ignorant of the modern world. Strong economic growth has disguised Poland's soggy public finances, lousy bureaucracy, bad roads and inadequate schools. PiS has so far done little to remedy these. The PiS leader and prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and his twin brother Lech, who is president, have also masterminded a resentful and unpredictable foreign policy that reduces even friendly European countries to despair.
The biggest worry is the blurring of lines between politics and public institutions. It is odd that a partisan political appointee, Antoni Macierewicz, runs the military counter-intelligence service; odder still that he is standing for parliament. “Macierewicz can spend the morning in the office reading transcripts of our conversations, and the afternoon at PiS campaign headquarters telling them what we are up to,” says an opposition leader, as he scribbles down a point, safe from the bugs he says are in his home.
Nerves are also jangling at the zealous behaviour of the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro. His fondness for announcing investigations and arrests at press conferences, and his enthusiasm for setting his prosecutors on to political opponents, suggest that he has little regard for the separation of powers or for due process.
PiS supporters strongly contest all this. The climate of fear is created by a hysterical media, not the government, says Adam Bielan, a party strategist. PiS won the 2005 election by promising to uproot the uklad, a network of ex-spies, corrupt businessmen and political insiders who have dominated Poland since 1989. Mr Ziobro's public toughness is changing the climate; the howls of protest are self-interested, and a sign that the anti-corruption offensive is working. A stronger electoral mandate will let PiS finish the job.
He has a point. Sleaze had become pervasive in Poland. The intelligence services had often escaped political oversight in previous years, and their veterans have an alarming knack of finding profitable business niches. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski has yet to prove that the uklad is as sinister as he claims. An investigation by Mr Macierewicz into the now disbanded military-intelligence service, the WSI, produced only an inconclusive preliminary report. An update is now promised.
Moreover, the cure prescribed by PiS could be worse than the disease. Poland needs strong, politically neutral institutions and a more open and deregulated economy. Purging suspect officials only to replace them with party placemen is not going to deliver these. Nor will political misuse of the intelligence services make them any cleaner. Witch-hunts can create paralysis in government, leaving nobody willing to take a decision, for fear of being accused of corruption if it goes wrong.
Claims that Polish democracy is in danger are overdone. But PiS has not calmed such fears with a partisan approach to public broadcasting. The government seems also to have used bureaucratic harassment to get a privately owned television channel to sack its star presenter, Tomasz Lis, who was a trenchant critic. Mr Lis is moving his show to the internet.
Optimists hope that, if PiS wins, it will calm down and concentrate on the mundane business of government. But its mix of revisionist history, contempt for the constitution and equation of opposition with treason carries a nasty whiff of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. Jaroslaw Kaczynski finds comparisons with the Russian president absurd and insulting. But he could do more to avoid them being drawn.
Friday, September 28, 2007