Thursday, May 11, 2006

Poland survey chapter 2: Politics

The accidental government

May 11th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Poland's present rulers are very different from all their predecessors

IF YOU listen to the chatter of the Warsaw media elite, you might think that Poland's centre-right government, in office as a minority administration since last November and as a majority coalition since last week, was the worst the country had ever seen. That is a demanding standard: since the collapse of communism, Poland has had strong governments and honest governments, but never both.


The Lech and Jaroslaw show

Polish political parties lack the deep roots and mass memberships of their western European counterparts. They are fluid coalitions with blurred profiles. Confusingly, the ex-communists are now the most ardent capitalists and the ex-dissidents often sound authoritarian. A new generation of bright, honest, ideas-driven politicians is coming along, but as yet few of them are in power.

Although the communists were almost obliterated in the 1989 elections, their successor party has held power for all but 30-odd months since then, either as part of a coalition or in the form of Alexander Kwasniewski, the communist-era sports chief who served as president from 1995 until last year. But by last autumn the ex-communists' lingering grip on power had been destroyed by scandals. In the September elections to the 460-member lower house of parliament, the Sejm, the Democratic Left Alliance lost 161 seats; its share of the vote fell to just 11.3%.

However, the new government led by the centre-right Law and Justice party, now in unwieldy alliance with two populist parties, Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families, has also provoked plenty of criticism. Law and Justice is full of ex-dissidents, tetchy, righteous and unpredictable. The normally level-headed Wojciech Olejniczak, who leads the ex-communist party, compares Law and Justice to the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka in neighbouring Belarus. Donald Tusk, the leader of the main opposition Civic Platform, says the government is trying to “seize absolute power”.

That does not seem to bother Poland's new bosses. Law and Justice, and particularly its populist allies, delight in picking fights with gays, feminists, secularists, liberals, the media, ex-communists, uppity foreigners (especially in Brussels) and anyone else who crosses their path. The new leadership is avowedly Catholic: most senior figures have crucifixes in their office and appear frequently on Radio Maryja, an ultra-Catholic station much disliked by more mainstream members of the church hierarchy, not least for its anti-Semitism.

The man everybody likes to hate most is the leader of the Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. If his twin brother, Lech, had not won the presidential election, the party's victory in the parliamentary election would have made Jaroslaw the prime minister. But he reckoned that it might look odd for Poland's two top jobs to be held by identical twins.

So now Lech occupies the presidential palace and his brother Jaroslaw sits in the Sejm, keeping a beady eye on the government. When he disapproves of a draft law, he produces his own. The government usually gets the message. There is not much discussion at cabinet meetings. “Instructions come out of a black box,” says one participant. The Kaczynski brothers are in the box. Most ministers are outside it. Top appointments seem to be Jaroslaw Kaczynski's responsibility too. When the treasury minister (responsible for privatisation) resigned, the prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, wanted a liberal-minded cross-party replacement. Instead he got a hardline economic nationalist.

The party chief makes frequent, vehement interventions in both parliament and the media. He has denounced the head of the central bank, Leszek Balcerowicz, demanding an investigation into his record, and is setting up a powerful new body to oversee the banking system. That has shocked those who see Mr Balcerowicz as a heroic figure in the country's recent economic history. As finance minister in the early 1990s, he pioneered the monetary stringency and free prices that, his fans say, kick-started Polish capitalism. The central bank is a bastion of economic orthodoxy and has run a tight monetary policy to make up for what it sees as the spendthrift habits of the politicians.

The media have also incurred Jaroslaw Kaczynski's displeasure. “There are no free media in Poland,” he controversially declared earlier this year. He wanted a special commission to examine links between journalists and the security services. His main target is what he calls the “lying elite” or the “establishment”—a mixture of shady businesspeople, semi-retired spies and their hangers-on in the media.

His commitment to Poland's membership of the European Union has sometimes been questioned, and the new government's handling of foreign affairs has looked inept. Law and Justice, and particularly the Kaczynski brothers, hold ardently pro-American views, matched by loathing of both Russia and Germany. This goes back quite a while. In the early 1990s, after a lengthy lecture by Jaroslaw Kaczynski on German wickedness, an exasperated Helmut Kohl, then Germany's chancellor, ordered him out of his office in Bonn and told an aide: “Don't let that man within gunshot of this building again.” Mr Kaczynski says he was surprised at his treatment: he had just been “speaking plainly”.

Things do not seem to have changed much, judging by a recent interview given by Lech Kaczynski to one of France's best-known television journalists, Vincent Hervouët, at the Polish embassy in Paris. To start with, Mr Kaczynski kept his interviewer waiting for four hours. When he did surface, he took offence at Mr Hervouët's failure to rise from his seat, and answered the questions while staring at his shoes. Next, Mr Hervouët snapped at an aide who tried to hurry the interview along—at which point Mr Kaczynski ejected his guests from what he said was Polish territory. The interview, mercifully, was not broadcast.

Oddly, such behaviour goes down well with some Poles, who like to see their leaders putting snooty foreigners in their place. But outsiders are less charmed. Diplomats and foreign business representatives in Warsaw trade stories of spectacular scheduling mishaps and outbreaks of pomposity over protocol. A dinner for foreign ambassadors is cancelled at short notice, rescheduled, cancelled again at even shorter notice and suddenly switched to a different venue. Senior figures promise to appear but never show up; requests for meetings go unanswered. “There's a limit to the number of times I can remind them that they are meant to be visiting us soon,” says a sympathetic but exasperated ambassador to Warsaw of another post-communist country. Another foreigner, with many years' experience of dealing with Poland, is blunter: “They are amazingly arrogant and amazingly ignorant.”

Some of this does no real harm: a diplomatic dinner here or there or nowhere is not the end of the world. But sometimes lack of co-operation costs real money. Poland's agriculture minister, Krzysztof Jurgiel, simply refused to take part in a recent round of European negotiations over sugar beet. When he learnt what his European colleagues had decided in his absence, he tried to invoke his country's veto, only to discover that the decision was subject to majority voting. Many of the civil servants who would have known better have been booted out.

All this confusion reflects a big difference between the current and the previous political elite. Poland's present rulers are remarkably insular. Only two senior ministers speak fluent English. A top government adviser admits: “These people are mostly not very interested in foreign affairs. They don't speak languages, they don't travel abroad. They just don't care.”

In fact, they do care about some things. For instance, the government had an ambitious plan for European energy security: an “energy NATO” in which each member country would guarantee the energy supplies of the others in an emergency. But the idea was poorly launched and got nowhere: a pity, because Poland's dependence on Russian energy, particularly gas, is a big long-term problem.

According to the critics, the government is either sinister or pathetic. It understands nothing of foreign policy or economics, is obsessed with the grudges of the past and pursues only its own bizarre, confrontational agenda. But have the critics got it right?

In trying to understand what is going on, it is worth recalling that nobody, least of all its own members, expected this government to gain power last autumn. In the run-up to the elections, the polls suggested that the Kaczynskis' Law and Justice party would be the minority partner in a coalition government led by the more liberal-minded conservatives of Civic Platform. This is a party that oozes familiarity with both foreign affairs and economics and appeals to the winners of the post-communist era: the Europhile, pro-business middle classes who think that the country is on the right course and just needs tweaking. By contrast, Law and Justice's populism attracts the poor but patriotic who feel that the past 15 years have been grubby, harsh and disappointing.

That promised the best possible outcome: Poland's first strong, sensible government in its post-communist history. But post-election talks between the two parties ultimately failed. Law and Justice governed first on its own, and now with populist parties of right and left.

One reason for the controversy over Law and Justice may be that the party has got some bad people rattled. Polish politics is dirty, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his government are, for the first time in the country's democratic history, making a real effort to clean it up. For all the criticism levelled against the government, there is no evidence of any personal greed or corruption on the part of Law and Justice. “These people are living in the same grotty flats with the same grotty wives and drive the same grotty cars as they were 15 years ago,” says one acute observer of Polish politics. “Compare that with the mansions, Mercedes and mistresses that their political opponents manage to afford on their official salaries.”

Raw honesty is a refreshing change in Polish politics; and it is arguable that neither Jaroslaw Kaczynski nor his government deserve the ridicule heaped on them. For a start, Poland is a strongly Roman Catholic country, where polls show clear support for socially conservative values. Regarding homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia as sinful may strike liberal-minded city-dwellers (and many foreigners) as wrong-headed. But it is not scandalous in itself that conservative Catholic politicians should represent their voters' values. Despite its dire image abroad, the government is well liked at home.

In particular, Mr Marcinkiewicz is one of the most popular politicians the country has had for years. One of his government's big achievements, he thinks, is its progress on breaking with the sleaze and cronyism of the past. “We have been very tough on bad behaviour,” he says. The government's first treasury minister was fired soon after his appointment for a financial peccadillo that in former times would have attracted little notice.

The best illustration, though, was the government's response to a newspaper stunt. The daily tabloid Fakt telephoned the agriculture minister, Mr Jurgiel, with a message supposedly from a close friend, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, the head of Radio Maryja, claiming that his car had broken down. Could the minister send his official car? Eager to oblige his influential media ally, Mr Jurgiel ordered his driver to pick up the stranded cleric. Waiting photographers gleefully took pictures of the official limousine on its abortive mission. Mr Marcinkiewicz (though himself close to Radio Maryja) publicly rebuked Mr Jurgiel and ordered him to pay compensation for misusing state property.

The biggest clouds over that squeaky-clean image come from the new coalition partners. Self-Defence has murky business and other connections; the League of Polish Families' youth wing is anti-Semitic and homophobic. The League's leader, Roman Giertych, is now a deputy prime minister with responsibility for education. Andrzej Lepper, the leader of Self-Defence, has also been made a deputy prime minister, with overall responsibility for agriculture and rural development. Though he now sounds more moderate, his past statements on economic policy and Europe have been outlandish.

Still, on some issues of substance, Law and Justice has had good reason to behave as it did. For example, Mr Balcerowicz, the embattled central-bank governor, appeared to be provoking a confrontation. Where the government has tripped up so far, it seems to have been mainly from inexperience rather than malevolence. The double act of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Mr Marcinkiewicz arguably works quite well: one stirs things up and plays politics, the other calms them down so that the business of government can go on.

The Kaczynskis' robust and sometimes ill-informed approach to European institutions is strikingly different from that of their ex-communist predecessors, who seemed intuitively to understand how things worked and how to make themselves look good in the eyes of powerful outsiders. Asked about EU competition policy, Jaroslaw Kaczynski makes a straightforward case for protectionism: “I would rather have the EU rules paying more attention to the situation of people who for 50 years didn't have a chance of normal development and should have some privileges now.”

But Mr Marcinkiewicz, in his only big international test so far, at the EU's summit in Brussels last December, proved a canny negotiator, winning Poland a deal worth about euro90 billion ($109 billion) over the next seven years. He is also making progress on reforming the remarkably incompetent way in which Poland spends that money. Polish foreign policy may be crudely cast, but it is not as mad as some make out.

Lastly, it is not surprising that Poland's new rulers are twitchy about the people who dominated the country's politics for so long. Jaroslaw Kaczynski uses the image of a bridge table, where the four players are businesspeople, spooks/bureaucrats, gangsters and politicians, all engaged in games against the public interest. That, at least in the mind of Mr Kaczynski and his advisers, is pretty much the way things are in Poland. He likes to talk of the uklad—a sinister, all-encompassing structure which has, in effect, stolen the country during the past 15 years. Where outsiders see the triumph of capitalism and democracy, Poland's current government sees a calamitous surrender to the former communists and their collaborators, and moral bankruptcy. What the communists lost in 1989, they have regained since. Every institution is contaminated: the judicial system, the civil service, the banks, the state-owned industries and particularly the intelligence services (see article). This government's job is to clean house.

Sometimes that mission justifies a bit of hyperbole. Mr Kaczynski's notorious remark about “no free media in Poland”, he says mildly, was an exaggeration to make a point. “If I had said that some media are not always fully free, nobody would have noticed. But the mass media are very one-sided.” He brushes off the suggestion that Poland should be proud of its press. “It is the product of a crippled economy and a crippled democracy.”

Critics say that Mr Kaczynski and his party colleagues may believe in democracy and tolerance in theory, but in practice they are deeply, perhaps even obsessively, convinced of their own rightness and the wickedness of others. That is a big disadvantage if you are trying to build strong, clean, independent institutions. There is certainly plenty of tidying up to do in Poland's public administration; the danger is that dysfunctional old institutions will give way to dysfunctional new ones as sleazy old communists are replaced by new zealots and coalition kooks.


Nate Espino said...

I think it's unfair to accuse Balcerowicz of "provoking a confrontation" with the government. It seems to me that he bit his tongue for several months while Law and Justice were railing against the BPH/Pekao merger, including some pretty idiotic statements about the primacy of EU law (as quoted in the Economist). Considering Balcerowicz's reputation, as compared with (as you put it) "Law and Justice's insatiable appetite for a scrap", I'd place the blame on the government. Of course, I would certainly appreciate hearing more arguments from you on this question.

Edward Lucas said...

Thanks for the comment--fair point

I think that throwing Cezary Mech out of the banking supervision commission because he was "biased" was a deliberate provocation. I think LB detests the PiS people and he certainly has reason to do so. But it would be better if he had bitten his tongue a bit longer.

beatroot said...

nate is right. It was not Balcerowicz that picked the fight. The cabinet is now made up of those who have been waiting to get the guy for years.

Edward Lucas said...

don't be too depressed! I agree that politics in Poland is farcical, but it has been like that for 15 year, more or less, and the country has developed despite everything. Sooner or later there will be a good govt with a majority. Just not yet!

Thanks for your kind remarks about the survey which contrast sharply with the vitriolic criticism expressed elsewhere on this site!