Poland's president and prime minister, former freedom fighters, are reintroducing the habits of authoritarianismby Hilary Davies / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Before Lech Kaczynski and his identical twin brother Jaroslaw became, respectively, president and prime minister of Poland in 2005, a mocked-up group photo of the future president standing in a row with the rest of Europe’s leaders did the email rounds among Poland’s intelligentsia. “Think before you vote!” read the caption. The head of the diminutive Lech reached, on average, elbow level of the other leaders.
Poland’s twin leadership have indeed stuck out like two sore thumbs in Europe from the moment they entered office. They squat like garden gnomes on Europe’s political landscape, a grumpy Tweedledum and Tweedledee whose high self-esteem and low physical stature makes them irresistible to tabloids throughout Europe.
The brothers’ credentials as pre-1989 anti-communist activists and their hard talk on corruption have earned them the benefit of the doubt among most western observers. But what may seem at worst a distant comedy from Britain feels like a living tragedy in Poland. The Kaczynskis, once freedom fighters, are bringing the habits of authoritarianism back to Poland.
The brothers earned their spurs in the 1980s as part of the anti-communist Solidarity trade union movement. They became marginalised following Solidarity’s mid-1990s bust-up, and have now returned harbouring a personal grudge. What’s more, it’s a grudge apparently shared by much of the populace. The Kaczynskis collect their electorate mostly in rural areas, among the elderly, unskilled and poorly educated; those who have most reason to feel they’ve been short-changed in the transition to capitalism. As one taxi driver put it to me, “Before, we had money and there was nothing in the shops. Now the shops have everything. But who’s got the money to buy it?”
The authoritarian tendency of the Kaczynskis’ Law and Justice (PiS) party’s coalition government has had an impact in almost every area of public life. Its very first act, in autumn 2005, was to rush through parliament a bill giving it control over appointments on public radio and television. Meanwhile, the coalition has slammed the brakes on privatisation, with some members even talking of re-nationalisation.
The Kaczynskis are entirely open about their willingness to use public offices for political patronage. Poland’s state-owned firms have begun to resemble the towers of medieval Tuscan cities, as the government hurls out board members, replacing them with ill-qualified cronies. Scrapping civil service exams, the coalition has opened up thousands of jobs for the boys. And few expect…