Poland’s unsteady government
Crash, bang, fizzle
From The Economist print edition
The ruling coalition wobbles, but survives for now
OUTSIDERS often mock Poland’s prickly, obstinate prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. But a collapse of his government, followed by months of instability, might be worse. An anti-corruption watchdog this week named a deputy prime minister, the temperamental farmers’ leader Andrzej Lepper, in a bribery scandal. Mr Kaczynski promptly sacked him (for the second time).
Mr Lepper, who denies any wrongdoing, threatened to take his party, Self-Defence, out of the coalition. That would have meant minority rule and perhaps an early election, bogging down Poland’s haphazard reforms completely. The European Union’s most unpredictable member would be even harder to handle. But Self-Defence does not want an election campaign in which its already pungent reputation for cronyism might take centre stage. Fearing a revolt, Mr Lepper apparently backed down, suggesting his party may stay in the coalition “conditionally”.
Mr Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party may also want to defuse a row with its hardline Catholic supporters before facing voters. Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who runs a highly politicised media empire, recently called Mr Kaczynski’s sister-in-law a “witch” who deserved “euthanasia” because of her support for abortion. That prompted a rebuke from her husband, Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw’s twin brother and Poland’s president.
Law and Justice’s embrace has proved near-fatal to the other coalition party, the nationalist League of Polish Families. It may now do the same for Self-Defence. Mr Kaczynski can thus safely go for an early election whenever he chooses. But his canny politicking is not matched by ability to govern. Attempts at health reform, for example, have brought doctors at more than 200 hospitals out on strike. Nurses demanding higher wages are camping in tents outside Mr Kaczynski’s office. They say he has broken election pledges to help losers from the post-1989 transition, such as ill-paid public-sector workers.
The government has also failed to reform public finances, essential if Poland is to follow Cyprus and Malta into the euro (see article). Its main boasts are reforms in the intelligence services, stronger anti-corruption efforts and weeding out communist-era secret-police collaborators. These may have been worthwhile, but the government’s approach has been highly partisan, even vengeful. Public administration is lamentably backward.
As the political system fails to reflect Poles’ exasperation with their poor quality of life, many are voting with their feet. Some 2m have gone abroad since Poland joined the EU, and a recent survey found another 3m planning to do the same. This is aggravating labour shortages that may undermine the country’s competitiveness.
Poland’s foreign policy is also being mismanaged. At the recent EU summit, Mr Kaczynski won a delay on new voting rules that will reduce Poland’s weight. But the victory was marred by his graceless approach, using Poland’s wartime suffering at German hands as a bargaining chip. It was Germany that pushed hardest for Poland’s EU entry. Now German diplomats in Warsaw say relations cannot improve so long as the Kaczynskis are in power.
On the foreign front, things may get worse still. Law and Justice has just suspended its most sensible foreign-affairs expert, Pawel Zalewski. A deputy leader of the party, he dared to quiz the lightweight foreign minister, Anna Fotyga, at a parliamentary hearing. The disconnection between Poland and its EU partners was underlined when a Polish candidate to run the IMF was brushed aside. Both Poland and the EU would like to see a strong, dependable government in Warsaw. It may be some time before they get one.