Will Poland's eccentric twins keep Poles apart after the upcoming election?

PAUL WELLS October 1 2007


Will Poland's eccentric twins keep Poles apart after the upcoming election?

PAUL WELLS October 1 2007



Will Poland's eccentric twins keep Poles apart after the upcoming election?


Shortly before lunch one day last week, a car pulled a billboard on wheels into the bustling park next to Warsaw’s central train station. Two young members of Poland’s parliament, one short and bespectacled, the other tall and broad-shouldered, met the car and stood until the waiting TV camera crews and newspaper photographers were ready. Then the taller parliamentarian, Jakub Szulc, made a brief announcement through a bullhorn to the assembled journalists and a few bemused passersby.

On one side, the billboard carried a Polish inscription: “PiS Rules: Contempt.” On the other, “PiS Rules: Aspersions.” A line at the bottom on both sides read, “PiS is in Power and Poles are Ashamed.” PiS are the Polish initials that stand for Law and Justice, the lead party in the governing coalition that collapsed with a confidence vote on Sept. 7, after two of the strangest years Polish politics has seen since the end of the Cold War. The leaders of PiS are identical twins and former child actors: Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, and prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Jakub Szulc is a 34-year-old former bank employee. His brooding good looks and willingness to go wherever campaign officials think he might be useful have made him one of the campaign stalwarts of Civic Platform, Poland’s main opposition party. Poland’s parliament is built on proportional representation, so it is hard for any of its parties to hold power except by forming a coalition. Before the 2005 election that brought the Kaczynskis to power, it was generally assumed PiS and Civic Platform would govern together, and foreign journalists almost always describe the two as “rival conservative factions” or “the two mainstream centre-right parties.”

But PiS and Civic Platform had a falling out almost as soon as the 2005 election was over. Civic Platform representatives never belonged to the increasingly eccentric governments the Kaczynskis led. The Kaczynskis are populists—rustic, impolitic, judgmental, superbly skilled at holding the allegiance of the very large populations that have been left behind by Poland’s nearly two decades of freedom. Civic Platform’s members, led by Donald Tusk, 50, a blandly handsome career

politican and former student anti-Communist, are more urbane, educated, internationalist. They believe the Kaczynskis have brought shame to Poland, and blown its chance to play a respected role in the concert of nations after centuries of foreign occupation.

“Jaroslaw Kaczynski divides people,” Szulc told Maclean’s after the event outside the train station. “He doesn’t see Poland, he sees a ‘Poland A’ and a ‘Poland B,’ and he only wants ‘Poland B.’ Only the people who are less educated, with no money.” As for foreign policy, “Our position in Europe has declined significantly in the last two years. The Kaczynskis can’t negotiate. They can only fight.”

But Civic Platform blew a polling lead in 2005. And despite persuading Radek Sikorski, a popular former defence minister, to switch from PiS to Civic Platform, they have already fallen behind the Kaczynskis in early polls in advance of the Oct. 21 vote. Tusk and his followers are simply not very good at politics. They are easy to portray as arrivistes who do not understand rural Poland because they are too busy worrying what global elites think. Their odds of winning are fair at best.

Adam Michnik is a legendary former dissident and journalist who founded Gazeta Wyborcza, perhaps the best Polish daily newspaper. His political sympathies are with the centre-left. But his decision to go public instead of participating in an elaborate scheme of bribes for legislative changes that would have brought huge advantage to Michnik’s company destroyed the former social-democrat government and paved the way for the Kaczynskis’ rise two years ago. Last May, Michnik wrote: “Today, two Polands confront each other. A Poland of suspicion, fear, and revenge is fighting a Poland of hope, courage, and dialogue. This second Poland—of openness and tolerance, of John Paul II and Czeslaw Milosz, of my friends from the underground and from prison—must prevail.”

But as of last weekend, the Poland of suspicion and revenge was five points ahead in public opinion polls.

If there is a nation whose people could be forgiven a tendency toward suspicion of neighbours and internal plotters, it is Poland. In 1795, its king and parliamentarians drafted a constitution whose limits on royal power were so sweeping that Poland’s imperial neighbours invaded Poland and tore it apart. Poland ceased to exist until after the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles gave Poles their country back, which is why today there is a big


statue of the U.S. president of the time, Woodrow Wilson, near the Polish parliament. Poland returned with a bang: in 1920, under Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the Polish army beat back an advance by the Soviet Red Army. But even a proudly resurgent nation was no match for the brutality and treachery of 1939Hitler invaded on Sept. 1. Under the terms of a secret pact between him and Stalin, the Soviets invaded from the east 16 days later.

Hitler eventually turned against Stalin, but Poles knew what they were getting when the Soviets “liberated” Poland in 1945For a halfcentury they were trapped in a totalitarian state that put suspicion and betrayal at the centre of everyday life. The Solidarity labourunion movement helped end the Cold War.


But the transition to a modern market economy created tensions that splintered Solidarity into parties across the democratic spectrum. And it created winners and losers, fabulously rich oligarchs and entire regions of deep, long-term unemployment.

Which is where the Kaczynskis came in. In a speech to the Polish parliament in early 2006, Jaroslaw Kaczynski described the end of Communism in strikingly sombre terms. In 1989, he said, “the Polish People’s Republic ceased to be, bequeathing to us massive problems and a gigantic social and economic crisis.” Among the fallout: “Families in crisis” thanks to “social pathologies that lead to depopulation”; emigration that could “drain our country of its educated classes”; and mas-

sive, entrenched corruption that delivered most of the fruits of prosperity to henchmen of the old Communist regime.

Those are the cornerstones of the Kaczynski regime: a battle against homosexuality, abortion and other “social pathologies”; pervasive suspicion of the countries that once invaded Poland (Germany, Russia) and welcome its university students today (the rest of Europe); and a fight against corruption that often veers into state-backed persecution of real or imagined internal enemies.

Things started getting weird right after the 2005 election. With Civic Platform refusing to play coalition ball, PiS had to get its parliamentary majority from two parties so extreme they had once seemed beyond the democratic pale. Samoobrona (Self-Defence) is an agrarian populist movement whose leader, Andrzej Lepper, has received awards from anti-Semitic groups and has been convicted of assault committed at rowdy farmers’ protests. The League of Polish Families is an arch-Catholic social conservative movement. Its young leader, Roman Giertych, had a heck of a run as Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s deputy prime minister and education minister. He complained about the teaching of evolution in public schools; announced he would no longer talk to BBC reporters because the BBC aired reports about pedophilia among Catholic priests; and produced an impressive list of literary works he wanted stricken from the school curriculum because their authors were either effete foreigners (Dostoevsky, Goethe, Kafka) or Poles who had left and, therefore, betrayed the homeland (Joseph Conrad). Bookstores in Warsaw promptly produced display tables featuring the so-called “Giertych Index” books.

Meanwhile, the Kaczynskis were making

friends at home and abroad. Jaroslaw Kaczynski introduced a massive expansion of the so-called “lustration” law, which forces the country’s elites to state whether they ever collaborated with the Communists. The old law affected 30,000 of Poland’s 38 million citizens. The new one would have forced confessions or oaths of innocence from 700,000-

schoolteachers, politicians, judges, journalists. One target, Euro-deputy and former Solidarity-era political prisoner Bronislaw Geremek, refused to sign, calling it a witch hunt. He was removed from an advisory board of the ceremonial Order of the White Eagle and accused by Jaroslaw Kaczynski of “damaging his fatherland.” As Michnik wrote acidly, “The same phrases were used by the leaders of Communist Poland years earlier when Geremek criticized their misrule.”

Then there was Germany. Of course there has been tension, and sometimes far worse, between Poles and Germans for centuries. But Chancellor Angela Merkel was raised in Cold War Germany’s Communist East. She is the most pro-eastern chancellor in her country’s modern history. Or rather, she tries to be. The Kaczynskis have tag-teamed hard to drive her batty. Perhaps the most astonishing moment came at a regular meeting of European heads of government in Brussels in June. The EU gives countries of different populations different voting weights in common decisions. Under a system hastily improvised in 2000 as Poland and nine smaller countries prepared to join, Poland got almost as many votes as Germany, which has twice the population. Proposals for a new voting formula would reduce Poland’s clout.

As the leaders batted all this around in Brussels, Jaroslaw Kaczynski was on the phone from Warsaw, making sure his gentler brother, president Lech, didn’t give away the shop. Poland deserved Germany’s weight, Jaroslaw argued, because if the Nazis hadn’t killed millions of Poles, Poland’s population would today rival Germany’s. Appalled, Merkel briefly proposed a special meeting with 26 of 27 member nations—all but Poland—so calmer voices could prevail.

The Kaczynski regime of suspicion reached what might be called its logical conclusion over the past several months. The twins turned on their coalition partners and accused them of massive corruption. First Lepper, then Giertych, were accused of corruption and booted from government. But the affair took a spectacular turn when Janusz Kaczmarek, a former interior minister, accused the Kaczynskis of using the secret services, the Justice Ministry and the Anti-Corruption Bureau to tail and entrap coalition partners. On Aug. 30, eight days before parliament fell and the

election campaign began, police arrested Kaczmarek and former police chief Konrad Kornatowski (they were released on bail).

In short, life under the Kaczynskis has often been close to a circus. But even their critics are not sure they are headed for defeat.

Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski is a sociologist and president of the Collegium Civitas, an ambitious private college of the social sciences and humanities. “We are trying to educate Poland’s elites,” said Wnuk-Lipinski, an elegantly dressed man who resembles the Swedish actor Max Von Sydow. He became very upset when a reporter told him most foreign accounts lump PiS and Civic Platform together as “two centre-right parties.” “No, no, no—there is a fundamental controversy!” he said. “PiS wants to build up the state. Civic Platform wants to build up civil society. How can you say they are similar?”

But Wnuk-Lipinski had to admit the Kaczynskis have been canny in building their coalition. “That’s why they succeeded in uniting dispersed elements of society: those who are excluded, those who believe in anachronistic 19th-century sovereignty, those who are nationalists, populists, fundamentalists. This is a very peculiar mixture. But it is united by one thing: a definition of the situation and of the enemy.”

And Civic Platform? Pawel Walewski fancies himself a student of the pro-market party, even though he has built his career within PiS. He is a far cry from the rubes who are normally thought to make up the ruling party. Multilingual, a former head of an executive search firm, he wore a houndstooth jacket and an ascot as he greeted a reporter and explained why—though he wishes PiS and Civic Platform would form a coalition—the election may disappoint everyone.

Walewski himself was fired as president of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee after he dared to question the Kaczynskis’ foreign affairs minister too pointedly. He admits that “sometimes the main characteristic of our foreign policy is a lack of finesse.” But he still finds the Civic Platform campaign inept. Those billboards alleging “contempt” and “aspersions” that Szulc unveiled? “They have wasted a lot of money,” Zalewski said, “because these were completely not understandable to the electorate.”

This businessman-politician in his ascot and hunting coat had a hard time hiding his discomfort with the Kaczynskis’ oafishness. But he is sure many Poles, who have been left behind by nearly two decades of turmoil, are deaf to such criticisms. “Maybe the style is not elegant. But who cares? Of course some intellectuals could be offended by the rhetoric. Of course. But they are not the voters. They are not a majority of the voters.” M