Aleks Szczerbiak – Poland: How will Jarosław Kaczyński joining the government affect Polish politics?

Jarosław Kaczyński in his struggle to modernise the conservative Law and Justice Party (PIS), but not turning neo-liberal. It is a pity that the party is so denigrated by mainstream media as it is one of the most dynamic and interesting in the EU.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe?(Routledge, 2012) and ‘Politicising the Communist Past: The Politics of Truth Revelation in Post-Communist Poland‘ (Routledge 2018). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at

Cross-posted from The Polish Politics Blog

File:Jarosław Kaczyński (5).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The fact that the leader of Poland’s right-wing ruling party had to overcome his misgivings and join the government as deputy prime minister to solve its most recent political crisis suggests his authority may be starting to wane. Various factions and future leadership rivals are likely to continue to test the limits of his hegemony, which has hitherto been the key to the governing camp’s unity and cohesion.

Conflicts over policy and government composition

The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, is the largest component within the ‘United Right’ (ZP) electoral alliance which also includes the smaller right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP), led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, and more liberal-conservative ‘Agreement’ (Porozumienie). These two groupings have had much greater leverage within the governing camp since the autumn 2019 election, when both increased their parliamentary representation. Indeed, the government almost collapsed in May when ‘Agreement’ leader and then-deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin resigned his ministerial post and threatened to pull his party out of the ruling coalition over a disagreement about the timing of the presidential election during the coronavirus pandemic crisis; in the event, the election was postponed until July.

However, following ruling party-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda’s narrow but hugely consequential presidential election victory, the governing camp has been embroiled in a bitter conflict over policy, government composition and leadership. Initially, it was Mr Ziobro’s party that was the centre of controversy as it engaged in a summer offensive staking out a series of hardline conservative policy positions and criticising the government for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid. This included Mr Ziobro calling for Poland to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe international treaty aimed at preventing domestic violence against women but which many Polish conservatives felt promoted a radical left ideological vision that undermines traditional families. In another flashpoint, ‘Solidaristic Poland’ called upon the government to threaten to veto the July EU budget negotiations in order to block a proposal linking Union funding to ‘rule of law’ conditionality which, they argued, discriminated against Poland.

The governing camp also became embroiled in negotiations over a revised coalition agreement and planned ministerial re-shuffle aimed at streamlining the government. The latter would involve the two smaller parties losing ministers so, in spite of their ideological differences, they shared a common interest in preventing Law and Justice from increasing its grip on the levers of power in this way. Moreover, looking to the longer-term, both parties were also concerned that Law and Justice could limit the number of places available to them on ‘United Right’ candidate lists at the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2023.

Deeper rifts over strategy and leadership

These recent disputes came to the fore because of a deepening rift within the governing camp over its broader strategic and ideological direction, together with an increasingly open conflict over the future leadership of the Polish right. This jockeying for position was prompted by a sense that Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s authority as the dominant force on the political right was starting to wane following speculation that he was considering playing a less prominent role in front-line politics. Although he did not hold any formal state positions, Mr Kaczyński has exercised a powerful behind-the-scenes influence in guiding and determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities, and thereby provided a crucial source of cohesion and unquestioned authority within the governing camp.

At the heart of these conflicts has been a bitter power struggle between two protagonists who have been rivals since Law and Justice took office in 2015 and represent the main ideological-programmatic currents within the governing camp: Mr Ziobro and prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The justice minister is a ruthless political operator who has introduced many of the government’s most controversial policies over the last five years in areas such as judicial reform, and represents what might be termed the ‘traditionalist-revolutionary’ camp that remains committed to pushing ahead with radical state re-construction and promoting a conservative vision of national identity and traditional values. Mr Ziobro has been trying to strengthen his power base by presenting himself as a guarantor of the governing camp’s right-wing credentials. According to media reports, earlier this year he offered to dissolve his party and re-join Law and Justice (which he left in 2011 after questioning Mr Kaczyński’s leadership) but was rebuffed by the ruling party’s leader.

Mr Kaczyński is instead backing Mr Morawiecki, whom he appointed as prime minister in 2017 and is the key figure in the governing camp’s ‘modernising-technocratic’ wing. This current also has strong conservative values, and has at times been very critical of Poland’s post-1989 establishment, but believes that Law and Justice has to find more effective ways to reach out to better-off, well-educated voters in urban areas where traditional institutions such as the Catholic Church hold less sway, especially among younger Poles, by focusing on socio-economic transformation rather than moral-cultural and ideological issues. Although Mr Morawiecki is a relative newcomer to Law and Justice, Mr Kaczyński appears to regard him as his preferred successor and the prime minister is expected to be elected one of his deputies at the party’s November Congress. Mr Kaczyński seems to believe that, in order to make progress with its radical state reconstruction project and engage effectively in broader ideological debates on moral-cultural issues, Law and Justice has to win public support by demonstrating its competence in socio-economic policy and international relations, and feels that Mr Morawiecki is best placed to achieve this.

Crisis and a new coalition agreement

Although political tensions built up within the governing camp over the summer they actually came to a head at the end of September following a dispute over two draft laws. One of these was an animal welfare bill championed by Mr Kaczyński which proposed: banning all fur production, curbing the ritual slaughter of animals, closing circuses with trained animals, and limiting the tethering of dogs. Although the prominence given to the bill came as a surprise to many commentators, Mr Kaczyński has always been very personally committed to animal welfare (he is renowned for his love of cats!) and it appeared to be part of a wider strategic pivot to broaden Law and Justice’s appeal, especially among younger Poles. However, the bill drew vehement protests from farmers, a key element of the ruling party’s rural electoral base, and outgoing agriculture minister Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski who is very popular in the Polish countryside. The law was only approved with the votes of the liberal-centrist and left-wing opposition as ‘Solidaristic Poland’ and 17 Law and Justice law-makers opposed it in a parliamentary vote (‘Agreement’ deputies abstained).

The second piece of controversial legislation was a bill granting legal immunity to state officials who violated the law when implementing the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which ‘Solidaristic Poland’ argued violated the principle that all citizens be treated equally under the law. Some commentators argued that the immunity bill was designed to protect Mr Morawiecki as, in September, the Warsaw regional administrative court ruled that he had exceeded his competencies when ordering officials to prepare for the abortive May presidential election. At one point, the dispute appeared to be spiralling out control as government reshuffle talks were suspended and senior Law and Justice officials declared that the party would be prepared to govern as a minority without its junior coalition partners, even raising the prospect of an early parliamentary election.

However, after a week of media frenzy the crisis was extinguished when the three parties signed a new coalition agreement. Knowing that they were very unlikely to secure re-election if they stood independently in a snap parliamentary poll, the two smaller groupings insisted they were loyal governing partners. Law and Justice also knew that it would almost certainly be unable to construct an alternative majority in the current parliament (discussions with deputies from other parties came to nothing), nor govern effectively as a minority administration at a time of public health and economic crisis, never mind implement an ambitious programme of reforms and state reconstruction. Nor could the party be sure of securing another outright parliamentary majority in an early election. Law and Justice thus appeared to grant its two smaller partners a certain amount of leeway to assert their independence hoping that the knowledge that they could be expelled from the governing camp at any time would keep dissent within tolerable boundaries, and that Mr Ziobro in particular would stop challenging Mr Morawiecki’s authority.

Stabilising the government or a temporary truce?

The key element of the truce involved Mr Kaczyński joining the government as deputy prime minister responsible for security issues with a mandate to oversee the justice, defence and internal affairs ministries. The Law and Justice leader had always preferred to focus on strategic decision-making without taking on a direct executive role so this signified a major shift of political gravity within the ruling camp towards the government. It was hoped that Mr Kaczyński’s presence as a key figure in the administration would strengthen Mr Morawiecki’s authority in his dealings with Mr Ziobro, by raising the political costs of undermining the prime minister and helping to mediate differences within the government itself so that his protégé does not have to expend further time and energy on disputes with competing power centres. By bringing such an (admittedly very unusual) internal stabilising mechanism, based on Mr Kaczyński’s personal authority, into the heart of government it was hoped that future conflicts could be contained and resolved swiftly, thereby increasing the administration’s overall cohesion and effectiveness.

However, some commentators argue that the most recent government crisis (the second, apparently existential, one in the last six months) revealed a more deeply-rooted lack of trust between the competing factions within the governing camp, particularly the two key protagonists. Although Mr Ziobro was forced to retreat and scale down his media profile, the fact that Mr Kaczyński was not able to actually remove the hugely ambitious justice minister from office means that the ‘Solidaristic Poland’ leader’s bitter personal rivalry with Mr Morawiecki will continue and he is likely to try and push the boundaries again sooner or later. Ironically, the presence of Mr Kaczyński in the government as a deputy prime minister could actually end up undermining Mr Morawiecki who will find himself in the rather awkward position of having the Law and Justice leader as his formal deputy while, at the same time, he is subordinate to him as the de facto key decision maker within the governing camp.

Moreover, these divisions within the governing camp between more ideologically hardline traditionalist-conservative and ‘centrist’ technocratic-modernising currents also run through Law and Justice itself. Many of the its old guard – such as former prime minister Beata Szydło, who remains very popular with the party grassroots – are, in many ways, ideologically closer to Mr Ziobro and wary of the idea of Mr Morawiecki as a future leader. The new arrangement thus represents another temporary truce and further disputes over policy, strategy, ideology and leadership are certain to re-surface at some point.

Is Mr Kaczyński’s authority waning?

Mr Kaczyński’s continued hegemony on the Polish right, keeping the lid on the various factional and leadership disputes, remains the key to the governing camp’s political unity and cohesion. For sure, he has no imminent plans to retire and there is every indication that Mr Kaczyński will remain Law and Justice leader throughout the current parliament. But the fact that he had to overcome his misgivings and finally join the government in order to prevent the collapse of the ruling coalition suggests that Mr Kaczyński’s authority may be starting to wane. If that is the case, then the current truce has simply postponed rather than resolved the crisis in the governing camp, and the various factions and potential leadership rivals are likely to continue challenging, and testing the limits of, that authority.

We have begun our Fundraising Campaign 2020. Help BRAVE NEW EUROPE bring authors at the cutting edge of progressive thought together with activists and others with articles like this. If you would like to support our work and want to see more writing free of state or corporate media bias and free of charge, please donate here.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.