In the recent “Kaczyński tapes”, on which we hear the president of the PiS party conducting discussions on economic investments are breaking a taboo.
The leader of PiS is in on the record discussing an investment from Srebrna ltd, a company known to be a safe harbour for PiS politicians. He is talking with an Austrian contractor who demands payment for his services that were meant to prepare a skyscraper development for Srebrna and Kaczyński declines to pay for the invoice.
The veil is lifted
Kaczyński has no legal title to officially represent this company, not as a person nor as a chairman of the party, even though the recording takes place in the office of his party headquarters.
Political parties in Poland are forbidden from conducting business activity, so the myth of Kaczyński – a politician who so far has been regarded as steadfast in the fight against corruption and nepotism – is no more.
Prezes – as the chairman of the party is referred to – has gathered so much power around his desk that he has his own centralist strategy. Instead of giving up the chair of the party a long time ago and running business interests in the background, he stayed in power, not wishing to give up the political role that serves him.
He obviously believes that whatever is bad for his politics and might be also bad for his business.
Poland is so fervently against the corruption of power that the “good change” slogan carried the PiS party through a major electoral victory in 2015. Then, PiS was promising to fight all sorts of dodgy schemes, which typically result from entanglement of politics and business.
Yet, the PiS government – despite its unprecedented control over state and law enforcement agencies – did not discover any wrongdoings by key politicians from the previous government. Instead it apparently created its own plots to defraud the nation.
However, it could not have been done in a Berlusconi-esque style since Kaczyński knew that centralisation is such an unpopular method of governance in Poland that these actions could not be led from the prime minister’s chair; the real boss had to remain away from the spotlight.
Now it’s getting to the point that the president consciously chose to conduct business from behind the curtain. It turns out that the greatest threat to the party may not be the opposition, but its leader himself and his methods of controlling and micromanaging the party.
Signals of the pernicious centralisation effects in PiS have been beginning to show for a long time, but Prezes’ ear has been deaf to these calls.
For instance, in the Nowy Sącz local elections, traditionally one of PiS’ loyal backyards, the party decided to block all local leaders from standing in the election and parachuted in nominees from Warsaw, which resulted in such an ignominious loss that it has had to start building up its local base anew.
Moreover, the move to centralise power and the deleterious consequences associated may force PiS to forget about its pre-election tactics about moving to the middle of the political spectrum. The punishing hand of the founder’s father, who reliably and unequivocally proved attachment to standards, has lost authority.
Until the last few weeks, it was generally believed that PiS was headed by someone who would dominate the spreading of scandals, but the myth of the president (Prezes) is broken.
Can the centre hold?
This does not mean that voters will turn away from PiS. For many diehard supporters of the party, there is no alternative.
PiS’ base has been revived and invigorated by several conspiracy theories – from the Smoleńsk crash to a plot of liberal elites working against Poland – and within these theories everything that contradicts it paradoxically only strengthens the power of faithful in these conspiracies.
But what about the voters who are in the middle and can be swayed to or away from a party, guided by their own independent judgment. PiS has just lost them irretrievably, yet the question remains which party will win them over.
PiS’ first tactic of getting out of the crisis consisted of belittling the issue and turning the matter into a joke.
It cannot be ruled out, however, that soon more revelations could emerge, and it is difficult to assess whether this strategy of sweeping the issue under the carpet will have a further chance of success. Nobody expects the president himself to go out to the press to dispel all doubts with a smile on his face, so the scandal may linger.
PiS, therefore, has reason to consider a strong right turn with their entire repertoire of tightening activities, which Kaczyński has so far withheld implementing due to pressure from Europe and in an attempt to court moderate voters.
From the courts to the media, the PiS government would eventually follow the illiberal achievements of Viktor Orbán. However, this scenario has serious limitations, and it cannot be ruled out that this might accelerate their demise.
The collapse of PiS could lead to Zbigniew Ziobro – the current Minister of Justice and Prosecutor General – winning over the remnants of party’s loyal followers and joining forces with other radicals in an effort to make a consolidated front, one which strongly advocates an exit from the EU.
Another scenario should assume that Prezes will not move an inch and will wait in his office for the affair to cool down and maybe even win the upcoming national elections as a result. But should this succeed, it would mean that the illiberal trend is already so strong in Poland that the society is indifferent to obvious signs of corruption.
Although Poland has been ranked 36th in the recent Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International – in comparison, Hungary is far behind at the 64th position – certainly the awareness of corruption after this experience has increased.
If, despite all these events, PiS maintains its popularity and consequently wins the elections, it will no longer be possible to say that something is wrong with the party. Instead, we will have to face the conclusion that we have a real problem with democracy in Poland.