WARSAW — Much of the world seems fascinated by the fact that Poland is now governed by identical twins who first became famous as child movie actors: President Lech Kaczynski, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whom Lech appointed to the post of prime minister earlier this month. They are indeed intriguing, but the political forces they represent are worrying.
Since the fall of 2005, the Kaczynskis have led a conservative-populist coalition, with a dose of nationalism — represented by the small League of Polish Families (LPR) — thrown in.
The Polish right was last in power in 1997 after the postcommunist Party of the Democratic Left (SLD) was voted out. In 1998, though, a five-year streak of economic prosperity vanished. Unable to cope with the downturn, the right was replaced by another SLD-led government in 2001.
During this period, the right disintegrated into splinter groups, including the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) and the nationalist LPR. Yet the economy did not improve, unemployment remained high and the SLD, which attracted all kinds of riffraff, became mired in corruption scandals.
The scandals provided the right with an opportunity to deliver a coup de grace to the SLD in the form of parliamentary investigative commissions. The hearings, reminiscent of Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts in 1950s’ America, humiliated the SLD and, in large part, compromised the entire post-1989 period.
But the large swings in Polish politics are not merely the result of political shenanigans. They reflect the instincts of Polish voters. People vote for all kinds of parties — from the far right all the way to the left — so long as they are convinced that the parties will deal with their social concerns and grievances.
The fusion of an irresponsible rightwing campaign and economic stagnation made Poland’s “wandering” electorate shift toward the PiS, whose success was mostly due to its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, currently the right’s most prominent politician.
Kaczynski presented this fluid electorate with a credible vision of a state concerned with social solidarity (with no one’s refrigerator standing empty) and opposed to heartless liberalism (which brings empty refrigerators for the poor and full ones for the rich). This contrast, and a strong attack on the liberal Civic Platform, made it impossible to create a moderate rightwing coalition.
Having rejected Civic Platform as a partner, Kaczynski decided to ally his minority PiS with the populist Self-Defense Party and the nationalist LPR.
The stated goal of the new alliance was to establish what Kaczynski calls the “Fourth Republic” (implying a constitutional break with the supposedly compromised post-1989 Third Republic). The Kaczynskis want to destroy the “corrupt system composed of careerist politicians, postcommunists, former secret service functionaries and criminal organizations” who, according to the twins, have ruled Poland since 1989.
The Fourth Republic is supposed to be republican, rather than liberal, with greater state involvement in the economy. It is to be a democracy steered from above, with only a limited division of power and a streak of authoritarianism, guided by a mixture conservatism, populism and nationalism. It is to be assertive in its dealings with the European Union — perhaps not so much Euro-skeptical as “Euro-difficult” — aping former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the 1980s.
The notion of a Fourth Republic incites heated opposition. President Lech Kaczynski’s approval ratings, are dramatically lower than those of his predecessor, the SLD’s Aleksander Kwasniewski. His brother, Jaroslaw, has always evoked popular mistrust. Most Poles did not vote for the Kaczynskis and still do not want to follow them. But they did not see the risk in letting them gain so much power, and so did not mobilize to block them.
New elections are not due until 2009. To be sure, a political crisis can bring the coalition down, but this can happen only if Poland’s wandering electorate decides that the PiS has let it down.
That looks unlikely. The coalition took power at the start of what seems to be a new period of prosperity, underpinned by large EU subsidies. As a result, there will be room for myriad favors for special interests and for boosts in social benefits, which may buy time for the PiS and its vision of a Fourth Republic.
How far will the twins push their idea? Jaroslaw Kaczynski is an intelligent politician who understands the link between currency stability and political success. So he will not allow government largess to become excessive and thus risk a negative reaction in the financial markets.
Yet the strong link between the fate of the coalition (and that of the Fourth Republic) and a fickle electorate addicted to social benefits will block the serious reforms that are needed to put the economy on a sound footing in the long term.
This will likely result in a gradual loss of economic competitiveness, which will be temporarily obscured as the boost from EU funds help to maintain the government’s popular support.
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