Monday, July 10, 2006

Poland ditches a good prime minister for a bad reason

THERE are governments that are strong, and governments that are good, but never governments that are both things at once. That is Polish politics in a nutshell; and the fall of another prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, suggests that the rule of thumb still holds good.
Mr Marcinkiewicz’s government was the good-but-weak variant. Indeed, he has a claim to be seen as one of Poland's best prime ministers since the fall of communism. A plain speaking ex-teacher representing a conservative party called Law and Justice, he was remarkably popular with the public and an efficient manager of government business. After half a year of minority rule his party managed to secure a workable majority in parliament, albeit at the price of bringing into government two populist parties with seamy political connections. He had some good ministers—for example, in justice and in defence.

But he never had a free hand to run things quite the way he wanted. Behind him lurked the dumpy figure of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Law and Justice, winner of last year’s election.
If Mr Kaczynski looks familiar (see photo), that may be because his twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, was elected Poland's president last year. Jaroslaw Kaczynski decided then not to claim the post of prime minister, partly for fear that it would look weird to have the country run by identical twins.
The reservation was well founded. It does look weird, now that it has happened, and the more so given Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s eccentric bachelor lifestyle.
The Kaczynskis have many virtues. They are personally honest, with a loathing for the sleaze and influence-peddling that pervaded Polish politics under the previous, ex-communist, government. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski has a well-deserved reputation as a chronic intriguer. When Mr Marcinkiewicz proved popular and competent, Mr Kaczynski began questioning his authority and judgement in a series of disparaging briefings.
One outward sign of the growing gulf between government and party came when the government’s finance minister since January, Zyta Gilowska, was forced out of office by a mysterious scandal over possible secret police collaboration in the communist era—a charge she denied, but chose not to contest in court. When Mr Marcinkiewicz appointed one of his own senior advisors, Pawel Wojciechowski, to replace Ms Gilowska, Mr Kaczynski publicly disapproved of the choice, saying that he had never heard of Mr Wojciechowski.
Some wondered Mr Marcinkiewicz might burn his bridges with Law and Justice and join forces with the liberal centre-right opposition party, Civic Platform, which finished second in last year’s election. That speculation grew last week when Mr Marcinkiewicz met the Civic Platform leader, Donald Tusk.
Instead, it was Law and Justice that dumped Mr Marcinkiewicz as prime minister, and it is Mr Kaczynski who has taken his place. As a consolation prize, Mr Marcinkiewicz is to be the Law and Justice candidate for the mayoral election in Warsaw this autumn.
Mr Kaczynski argues that this will make the government more stable. Given that the leaders of the other two coalition parties are in the government, doesn't it make more sense to have the leader of Law and Justice there too, matching them for political weight?
Perhaps it does. It may be that Mr Kaczynski will prove an able successor to Mr Marcinkiewicz. But the odds are against it. Whereas Mr Marcinkiewicz was, by the provincial standards of Law and Justice, rather competent in foreign policy, Mr Kaczynski is notably weak in this area. This matters all the more, because his brother, the president, is proving a near-catastrophic representative, and one whose erratic habits and views risk making Poland a laughing-stock.
That is bad, and wrong. Poland is a good country going through a bad patch of party politicking. But that bad patch may get worse before it gets better.


Polcham said...

This article incorrectly states thast Zyta Gilowska chose not to defend the charges against her. When she was dismissed as Minister of Finance she was no longer a public person and the court could only go forward if it found some special reason to do so. It did not so she was unable to defend herself.

She has since applied in her own right to be vetted and the court has agreed to hear the case.

There is a lot about this and Polish events at The Polish Outlook

Edward Lucas said...

I am not sure that Polcham is right. Ms Gilowska did have the chance as a private person to ask for special lustration, and didn't turn up to the court hearing, claiming she was too cross with Mr Marcinkiewicz.

the court could have then made an exception and given her exceptional clearance.