Mateusz Morawiecki JP Black/Getty Images

New Puppet, Same Puppet Master in Poland

The choice of Mateusz Morawiecki to lead Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) government is widely believed to reflect the PiS's desire to endear itself to investors and the European Union. In fact, Morawiecki, like his predecessor, was chosen for a very different reason: to facilitate PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński's consolidation of power.

WARSAW – Whether Poland’s parliament, the Sejm, would manage to hold a vote on Mateusz Morawiecki’s nomination as prime minister remained unclear until the last minute. December 13 was fast approaching, and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party wanted to avoid holding the vote on that date at all costs.

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For Poles, December 13 is associated with the communist government’s declaration of martial law in 1981. On that night 36 years ago, Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS’s chairman and today the de facto leader of Poland, was sleeping soundly while communism’s true opponents were arrested by the thousands. Stanisław Piotrowicz, the state prosecutor under martial law (which remained in effect until 1983), is currently leading the PiS government’s campaign to seize control of the Polish judiciary.

Morawiecki has now been sworn in as prime minister, succeeding Beata Szydło, under whose premiership the PiS enjoyed higher favorability – reaching 47% in October – than at any other time in its history. According to the most popular theory, the only reason for replacing her is PiS’s desire to mollify the European Union (which is poised to impose unprecedented sanctions on a Union member because of Poland’s failure to uphold EU norms) and attract investors.

Investment as a share of GDP fell significantly in 2016, to just above 18%, and has continued to fall through 2017, amounting to the worst performance in 21 years. While serving as deputy prime minister in Szydło’s cabinet, Morawiecki, a former bank executive, announced a plan to attract investment in new technologies, which Poland needs to sustain economic convergence with its wealthier EU neighbors.

But Poland owes what limited economic growth it has experienced under the PiS government not to Morawiecki, but to Elżbieta Rafalska, the minister of labor and social policy, who has been propping up consumption with social measures such as a monthly child credit of 500 złoty ($140).

So, what is the real reason for Szydło’s ouster? Simply put, during her tenure, the government took the Polish ship of state for such a ride that the keel eventually had to be replaced. Her party has co-opted every institution and instrument of power that it can, with little thought about the consequences.

But now it will have a harder time broadening its hold on power. Taking over or suppressing the private media, for example, would bring the party into conflict not just with the opposition, but also with entrenched business interests, which carry much more clout abroad than Poland’s beleaguered courts do. Morawiecki confronted this reality the day after his nomination, when a draconian government fine against the independent TVN24 television network, a subsidiary of the American media company Scripps Networks Interactive, drew sharp rebukes from both the US Department of State and the EU.

In his first interview as prime minister, Morawiecki told the far-right broadcaster Radio Maryja that he plans to “re-Christianize Europe.” Does that sound like someone seeking reconciliation with the EU?

Morawiecki is not exactly known for his tact or foresight. When TVN24’s Monika Olejnik asked him to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, he replied that it would be like choosing between plague and cholera. Needless to say, Morawiecki’s first meeting with the US president will be interesting to watch.

The fact is that the Polish government’s overhaul has been in the works for some time. But in the original plan, Kaczyński himself was supposed to step in as prime minister. But he had second thoughts, fearing that the move would jeopardize the PiS’s chances in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Kaczyński wants an overwhelming victory, and he knows that he, along with Antoni Macierewicz, the defense minister, is one of Poland’s least popular or trusted politicians. Szydło and Morawiecki are viewed more favorably.

Kaczyński is, moreover, already prone to public outbursts, and he would have been expected to speak publicly – and even to answer occasional questions from journalists – were he to have assumed the premiership. With Szydło, government officials were not too afraid to tell the boss unpleasant truths. But with Kaczyński formally in charge, the government would quickly end up entangled in its own lies – deceiving itself and the public at the same time.

With Morawiecki as prime minister, Kaczyński can continue to use his current non-governmental role to control the government without having to take responsibility for its policies or actions. In this, Kaczyński is emulating his idol, the interwar leader Józef Piłsudski (though the “First Marshal of Poland” did go on to serve as prime minister twice).

Given these political considerations, Morawiecki is good prime minister material for the same reason that Szydło was: he is a nobody in the party. And now that he has Kaczyński’s support, he is deeply resented by other leading PiS figures such as Macierewicz and justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who has just assumed direct control of the courts.

This makes Morawiecki a reliable puppet. And he is meant to serve a specific purpose. After shoring up its position on the Polish right, PiS wants to broaden its appeal to the center in preparation for the next election. Morawiecki job is to impede the opposition and counteract President Andrzej Duda, who has acted independently, such as by vetoing part of the government’s judicial power grab. (Duda gave up eventually, but Kaczyński had already lost confidence in him.)

Morawiecki will seduce neither the EU nor the business community. But he will make it easier for middle-class voters to identify with PiS. In the first opinion poll conducted after his nomination, the party achieved a 50% favorability rating – a new record.

As always, Kaczyński’s top concern is to consolidate his own power. He has never been interested in the European project, and he has demonstrated over the past two years that he has no use for the EU. Sooner or later, the EU will demonstrate that it has no use for him, either, and Poland’s people will lose out once again.

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