Poland: The Cabinet Reloaded

Since its victory in 2015, the domestic and foreign policy of the government have generated a great deal of grass roots support. If Law and Justice stays the course, and the economy continues to perform as well as it has, it will, once again, carry the parliament, whether in snap or regular elections.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l February 15, 2018

President Trump and President Andrzej Duda hold a joint press conference in Warsaw, Poland on July 6, 2017

Poland’s ruling populist Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) has reshuffled the national government. Image, competence, efficiency, and future parliamentary elections are behind the move as well as political personalities which drive them.

To improve the image of the government, both domestically and internationally, several ministers were dismissed. Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz is the most controversial. A veteran anti-Communist dissident and prisoner of conscience, he was an intrepid de-Communizer, who successfully vetted and purged a small army of Communist-era holdovers trained by the Soviet and post-Soviet military intelligence (GRU) and other services.

A human demolition machine, Macierewicz fell afoul of Poland’s President Andrzej Duda. Although they both stem from the PiS, Duda took a merciful approach to the post-Communist military personnel in his employ which Macierewicz judged to be a national security threat. Duda is the Commander-in-Chief. Macierewicz defied him openly by stripping security clearances from his close military collaborators. Duda retaliated by refusing to confirm the promotions of officers selected by Macierewicz.

To save face and, ultimately, to keep Duda from defecting to the opposition, Macierewicz had to go. His departure is also supposed to assuage his numerous left-liberal critics in the Western media who have gone so far as to accuse the former defense minister of collusion with Moscow. Further, the same pundits, rather incongruously, have criticized him for insisting that the Smolensk plane crash, which killed Poland’s president and much of the elite, was in fact an assassination by the Kremlin.

The worst that can be said about Macierewicz is that he is rather innocent of the intricacies of the international arms trade. He admirably embarked on the most ambitious program of re-armament for Poland in a quarter of a century. However, he failed to carry it out. He should have hired business experts and not relied on political appointees in state arms companies under his jurisdiction. Macierewicz has been replaced by a younger version of himself, albeit a much more measured vein: Mariusz Błaszczak, former minister of the interior, in charge, inter alia, of the national police force and civilian intelligence. Błaszczak is expected to give us more of the same without, however, antagonizing Duda.

The departure of foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski is largely unlamented. He accomplished little, if anything. He basically left his bailiwick pretty much as he found it: largely untouched and unchanged. It remains to a large extent a preserve of the post-Communists and their collaborators, the system that Law and Justice promised to dismantle. His successor, Jacek Czaputowicz, a former pacifist dissident, is a veteran bureaucrat, lately a deputy minister of foreign affairs, albeit with little practical experience in international relations. One should not expect a counterrevolution at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on his watch. Czaputowicz is a status quo appointee, albeit one who intimately knows the cadres across the entire governmental spectrum as he had headed the civil service academy before joining the MFA.

Other notable dismissals involved environment minister Jan Szyszko, who fell afoul of European Union environmentalists for his traditional forest management practices; health minister Prince Konstanty Radziwiłł, who infuriated the sick, the pharmacists, and the health professionals with his inconsistent attempts at health reforms, leading to, lately, a national strike by the physicians; and, finally, the digitalization (computerization) minister Anna Streżyńska. Although competent enough, she is widely perceived as an ally of justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is a leading inside detractor of the newly appointed prime minister but is also deemed untouchable as a leading crony of the head of the Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński. Thus, Streżyńska had to go.

Ziobro stays, even though he consistently maneuvered to undermine the then deputy prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki in the cabinet led by premier Beata Szydło. As far as her image, Szydło was perfect: simple, decent, and innocent. She dressed like Germany’s Angela Merkel to boot. But at the intellectual level, Szydło was also clearly out of her element both domestically and, in particular, internationally. Ziobro did the heavy lifting for her. Morawiecki felt thwarted. Now the latter is the boss.

Newly Appointed Prime Minister

Morawiecki is the most sophisticated, educated, and qualified of all Law and Justice Party politicians. For populists, his image is not as pristine as that of Szydło. He stands alone as he did not come up through the PiS ranks. Some of his detractors call him a “bankster.” Having graduated in history, he entered the financial sector after 1989. Morawiecki supplemented his education in the West, including in the United States. For decades he worked for various banks, most notably Santander becoming its head in Poland.

Morawiecki is mission oriented serving the nation without remuneration. Once he entered the government in 2015, the current prime minister refused to draw a salary and liquidated any assets and financial connections that could be construed as conflict of interest. He is Mr. Clean Hands himself.

Very few know Morawiecki’s background, who comes from a long line of patriots. His grandfather fought in Piłsudski’s Legions during the First World War and in the Home Army during the Second World War. The Morawieckis also hid Jews from the Nazis. Later, they opposed the Communists. Because during martial law in the 1980s his father, Kornel Morawiecki, led the radical national anarcho-syndicalist “Fighting Solidarity” underground, Mateusz Morawiecki is no stranger to conspiracies. His teenage activities included disseminating underground newspapers and other clandestine work. At 15, he was kidnapped by Communist secret policemen, who put a gun to his head and threaten to rape his sister, if Mateusz did not reveal the whereabouts of his father, who was in hiding – the kid did not break.

After 1989, he remained true to the legacy of freedom and anti-Communism. As a banker, he generously and surreptitiously supported the struggle against the post-Communists and their cronies. A disclaimer: I know both him and his father. At any rate, the new prime minister is dedicated and efficient, even if he is an etatist. He needs to work on his image both at home and abroad; it will definitely help his electability.

Last Factor Behind the Government Reshuffle is the Coming Vote

The next parliamentary elections are scheduled in two years. So far, the polls indicate that the PiS will maintain its lead; some surveys suggest that the ruling party will even increase its absolute domination in the legislature, including both the upper (Senat) and the lower house (Sejm). The current cabinet reshuffle boosted the popularity of Law and Justice significantly. Do the party leaders consider a snap election? It would be tempting to hold one. (Emboldened, the UK’s PM, Theresa May, held a snap election, following the Brexit referendum, that didn’t turn out so well.)

The grand old man of the PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, is a superb tactician and, if he judges the timing right, he may very well push for an early vote. However, one should keep in mind that when his orientation was in power previously between 2006 and 2007, Kaczyński miscalculated by calling for a premature parliamentary poll and was promptly voted out of power. Yet, we should recall that previously the PiS was a senior partner in a volatile coalition, which barely fielded enough strength in the Sejm to coast on for a short while. And then it fell ignominiously among bitter recrimination.

Now it is different. The Law and Justice Party alone controls the legislature with 234 deputies out of 460. Instead, it can additionally count also on 43 deputies from the populist Kukiz-15 group and smaller clusters of centrists and right-wingers. Thus, the government side usually can muster up to 277 votes, even if the informal alliance partners comply only grudgingly. Meanwhile, the hard opposition coalition led by the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) relies on 183 deputies. But their power has significantly dwindled. All opposition parties have been hemorrhaging parliamentary deputies and slipping in the polls. The PiS is riding high.

For all those reasons we cannot entirely rule out a snap election stemming from the current Polish cabinet rearrangement. Its novelty will soon wear off with the voter, but its etatist program, including generous child and senior citizen subsidies as well as subsidized housing for young couples, enjoys enduring popularity. So does an unequivocal stance on national sovereignty based upon an alliance with the United States.

Thus, since its victory in 2015, the domestic and foreign policy of the government have generated a great deal of grass roots support. If Law and Justice stays the course, and the economy continues to perform as well as it has, it will, once again, carry the parliament, whether in snap or regular elections.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Online-Conservative-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.