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Teflon Populism

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland's populist Law and Justice party has chalked up repeated scandals and proven to be utterly unworthy of the public's trust. Yet, by disbursing handouts to key constituencies, debasing the country's public discourse, and co-opting the prosecutor's office, it has escaped accountability.

WARSAW – Populist rule is invariably associated with corruption, nepotism, and incompetence. Why, then, do populists appear immune to scandal? Revelations that would have shocked electorates just a few years ago leave nary a mark on populist leaders and government ministers. And, sometimes, what doesn’t kill them even seems to make them stronger.

Examples are legion. When Der Spiegel reported that the far-right Alternative für Deutschland had misappropriated funds, the party’s supporters could not have cared less. When the same publication unearthed a video of Austria’s now-former vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, negotiating a quid pro quo with a Russian interlocutor, his far-right Freedom Party lost only a couple of percentage points in the polls, and probably only temporarily. Likewise, the parties of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continue to dominate their countries’ politics, despite repeated corruption scandals.

But the most scandal-proof populist of all is Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński. Independent Polish media outlets have revealed new affairs involving Kaczyński and his Law and Justice (PiS) party practically on a weekly basis – all of them damning.

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