Members of a far-right group wear masks of Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they stage a demo criticizing Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki for having backtracked on parts of a Holocaust speech law, in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, July 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Members of a far-right group stage a demo criticising the Polish government for its U-turn on a Holocaust speech law © AP

A recent and sudden U-turn on a Holocaust speech law by the Polish government was interpreted by some as a victory for the prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and also a sign that the ruling Law and Justice party may reverse its controversial judicial reforms. This analysis is mistaken. Mr Morawiecki’s cabinet is split and his position depends on one man — Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of Law and Justice. On top of that, the prime minister himself is hardly a moderating force.

An episode from last year illustrates just how precarious the position of any Polish prime minister is. One evening in early March, several ministers, the speakers of both chambers of parliament, Mr Kaczynski and other leading Law and Justice figures waited impatiently at Warsaw airport, some of them clutching roses, for then premier Beata Szydlo. Ms Szydlo was due to return from Brussels where she had tried to block Donald Tusk’s re-election as president of the European Council.

Despite her efforts, the other 27 EU member states voted for Mr Tusk to carry on. It is said that after this humiliating defeat Ms Szydlo was determined to resign. So Mr Kaczynski rushed to the airport to show his support and convince her to stay.

Only nine months later, after weeks of speculation, Mr Kaczynski forced Ms Szydlo out, despite her personal popularity and Law and Justice’s lead in the opinion polls. She was replaced by Mr Morawiecki and went on to become one of his deputies in the new cabinet, with no ministerial portfolio.

Law and Justice supporters, perplexed by this abrupt change of personnel, were told that after the introduction of new social policies, the next prime minister would focus more on economic growth. Mr Morawiecki’s most pressing task, however, was to calm the conflict with the EU. Mr Kaczynski must have believed that Mr Morawiecki, a former banker fluent in English and German, would be better able to persuade European political elites that Polish democracy was not under threat.

Considered a political novice, Mr Morawiecki did not give up his banking career until after parliamentary elections in 2015, when he joined the newly formed Law and Justice government as a minister of development. To those who have stood by Mr Kaczynski’s side for years, he will always be an outsider.

His position is made more precarious still by the fact that the seemingly more conciliatory approach he has adopted towards the EU has failed to produce results. The European Commission’s announcement that it may challenge the proposed “reform” of the Polish Supreme Court before the European Court of Justice, appears to close the door to any possibility of compromise.

In fact, compromise was highly unlikely from the very beginning, because Mr Morawiecki really believes what he says. A few days after taking office, he wrote that the Polish judiciary has never shed its communist past: “Favours go to friends. Vengeance is wreaked on rivals. Bribes are demanded in some of the most lucrative-looking cases.” The only way to eradicate these pathologies, he went on, is to “overhaul this deeply flawed system”. When, on July 4, Mr Morawiecki said in the European Parliament that his government was fighting what he called “post-communism”, he was merely repeating what he had said many times before.

Nearly 30 years after the fall of communism in Poland, and following the country’s remarkable political and economic transformation, this so-called technocrat and moderniser is still fighting the ghosts of the past.

As far as Mr Morawiecki’s future is concerned, there are a number of uncertainties. One is Mr Kaczynski’s health problems . If the party chairman steps down, a new chapter in Polish politics will be opened. A fight will follow — one that Law and Justice will probably not survive, at least not in its current form.

The writer is a managing editor at Kultura Liberalna magazine

Get alerts on Jaroslaw Kaczynski when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article