Poland’s Political Earthquake – aftershock or more tremors to come?

Marek Matraszeck, Founding Partner of CEC Government Relations in Poland, gives us his view of the most recent developments in the Polish government - most notably the Prime Minister's decision to dismiss leading ministers. But is there more to come?

The sudden decision of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz yesterday evening to dismiss leading ministers in the Polish Cabinet is the second major earthquake to hit Polish politics after the shock defeat of incumbent President Bronislaw Komorowski in the May 24th Presidential elections. As the dust settles from yesterday’s news, the focus of discussion are not only the causes – but what might happen next.

At a hastily organized press conference, Kopacz announced that she was dismissing three Cabinet Ministers – Minister of Sport Andrzej Biernat, Minister of State Treasury Wlodzimierz Karpinski, and Minister of Health Bartosz Arlukowicz. Also dismissed were key deputy ministers – Deputy Minister of Economy Tomasz Tomczykiewicz (responsible for coal), Rafal Baniak in the State Treasury Ministry and Stanislaw Gawlowski in the Environment Ministry. Also relieved of their duties were Jacek Rostowski, former minister of finance and until yesterday the head of Kopacz’s Advisory team, whilst Jacek Cichocki lost his title as coordinator of the intelligence services. The biggest scalp of the evening was former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who was forced to resign as Speaker of Parliament. Earlier in the day the former minister of interior, Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, reigned from his post as head of the Civic Platform (PO) party think-tank.

Kopacz explained the dismissals as her reaction to the publication on Tuesday on Facebook of prosecution investigation files into the notorious “Waitergate” scandal of last year, which saw leading Warsaw politicians taped in Warsaw restaurants. Many feel they should have lost their jobs at that time, but Kopacz used the Facebook leak to do what many of her closest advisers had been saying since Komorowski’s defeat: that only a complete clearout of ministers who had allowed themselves to be taped or otherwise compromised would allow the PO to enter the upcoming parliamentary election with a sliver of hope of rescuing their increasingly perilous poll position. At the same time, Kopacz took the opportunity to remove some ministers who had nothing to do with Waitergate but whose track record was an increasing liability to the government. This category covers Arlukowcz and Tomczykiewicz.

Most commentators are sceptical whether this belated wielding of the political long knife will rescue the PO from voter wrath, who already in the Presidential elections turned their backs on the party’s candidate. Kopacz’s move strikes many as an act of desperation rather than strategic planning, and may merely confirm in voter eyes that the PO establishment is indeed a rabble of discredited and semi-corrupt politicians. Far from rescuing PO fortunes, Kopacz may have merely hammered another nail into the party’s political coffin. In the immediate aftermath of the press conference, opposition politicians in the Law and Justice (PiS) party ratcheted up the political stakes saying that the move was too little too late – and that Kopacz herself should resign, and even that parliament should dissolve itself immediately after the inauguration of President-elect Duda on August 6th and force elections before the October end of its constitutional term. Duda himself held a press conference on Thursday saying that the scandal reaffirms the need for wholescale political and institutional change, although he stopped short of an outright call for accelerated elections

There were no indications from Kopacz as to who would succeed the dismissed ministers, which added to the view that the purge was undertaken in a panic, with little strategic thought. The only ruling politician who seems to gain from the chaos is current Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, who is a natural candidate to take over as Parliament Speaker. If that indeed happens, his successor in turn at the Foreign Ministry would be the current deputy minister for EU affairs Rafal Trzaskowski, who is rapidly building himself up as a potential future PO leader. Other names remain speculative, but most agree that Kopacz will want to bring in a generational change of politicians to match the change in party image achieved by PiS’s Andrzej Duda.

The next few days, and especially upcoming opinion polls, will show whether Kopacz’s move was a political masterstroke that will restore credibility to PO, or whether voters will take it as a signal that the current PO establishment has completely collapsed – and thereby hasten their electoral departure from the party. There may also be further Waitergate tapes that will see the light of day, reviving the fundamental scandal and damaging the government still further. At the very least, the sackings have given the opposition – both PiS and the newly minted political movements around Pawel Kukiz and Ryszard Petru – the opportunity to affirm that it is time for a change in Poland. Change in the upcoming parliamentary elections has of course been certain for some time. Until yesterday, the major unanswered question was the scale of the change to come. As of last night, the additional question being posed in Warsaw is when those elections will happen – in October or perhaps now much earlier. Politics in Poland have once again accelerated, and today seem to be speeding increasingly out of anyone’s control.

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