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Poland takes conservative turn under twin leaders

Poland's new prime minister cements a shift away from EU and toward the right.

By Andrew CurryCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2006



WARSAW

Polish President Lech Kaczynski swore his identical twin brother Jaroslaw in as prime minister last month in what some saw as a long-delayed victory for Poland's have-nots but others see as a defeat for the liberalism that was bringing Poland closer to the rest of Europe.

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Their Law and Justice party (PiS) has talked about giving Poland a new start. The brothers focused on a populist vision of the future during their campaign last fall, promising to build subsidized housing for 3 million families in the next eight years, reform a public-finance system that has been plagued by corruption scandals, and slow the privatization of Poland's remaining state companies. They also want a ban on abortion and to distance Poland from the European Union, which the country joined in 2004.

But it's their focus on the wrongs of the past that has generated the most controversy – and passion. Many Poles see the twins as Poland's best chance finally to overcome the legacy of communism. Unlike East Germany and Czechoslovakia, Poles chose not to open secret-police files and expose communist collaborators in the early 1990s. Forgiveness was supposed to offer a fresh start. Instead, the decision resulted in 15 years of leaks, career-ruining rumors, conspiracy theories, and a lingering sense of bitterness.

The Kaczynskis promise to open the files and remove anyone from public life who secretly cooperated with the communist authorities. The effort has been widely criticized. Some are concerned the files are unreliable; others say the whole issue is a distracting sideshow – charges that Law and Justice denies.

"Collaboration, informing on other people, is treason. It's morally vicious," says Ryszard Legutko, a member of the Law and Justice party. "This isn't a side issue; it's a principal issue that should have been solved long ago."

The coalition's strongest support still comes from Poles who lost out in the transition to democracy. Poland's unemployment rate is nearly 20 percent, dividing a few booming cities and rural areas still locked in poverty. Two-thirds of rural Poles voted for Lech Kaczynski in the presidential election; elderly voters and people with no high school education voted for him in even higher numbers. But most of Poland's young people voted for Kaczynski's opponent in last year's presidential elections, and in big cities the party's support is weak. "They're no good. They'll do a lot of harm," says Warsaw law student Bartek Karolczyk.

Yet with local elections coming up this fall, Law and Justice seems poised to gain even more ground. Even though the twins control only a third of the seats in Parliament, their opposition has so far failed to come up with a vision to mobilize voters.

"To be against, one has to have an alternative, and neither the left nor [the] Civic Platform [party] are able to articulate what they'd do differently," says University of Warsaw sociologist Miroslawa Grabowska.

When it comes to concrete accomplishments, the brothers have floundered, abandoning campaign promises like subsidized housing. Experts suggest that the transition from opposition to leadership may be part of the problem. "It's not always possible to complain. They're concerned with lustration, but they haven't done anything with privatization, health care, or education," says University of Warsaw political scientist Wawrzyniec Konarski. "They're not concentrating on real reform, just making promises. Their policy is to hunt for scapegoats for policies that failed." In interviews, the brothers' former boss Lech Walesa has been equally critical of the president. "His approach is to first destroy and then think about what to build."

With local elections coming up in the fall, Poles are watching closely to see if the brothers make serious changes. And despite their hostility to the European Union, their government will certainly be buoyed by about $60 billion in funds due from the EU in the next five years.

The presidency is the culmination of a long public career for Lech Kaczynski. After communism fell in 1989, Lech rose to the top ranks of government, becoming minister of justice.

His brother Jaroslaw, however, is the political strategist. Active behind the scenes in the Solidarity movement, he later helped found the Law and Justice party in 2001, masterminding the party's rapid rise. "Jaroslaw has always been the one with a political brain," says Mr. Konarski. "His goal is to form a strong national party that could dominate Polish politics for decades."

Now there's little to stop the twins from introducing their own brand of conservatism to Polish politics. Last year's parliamentary elections were a narrow victory for their party over Civic Platform, another right-leaning party with a more liberal economic program. Since neither party had a majority, voters expected a "grand coalition," mixing the anticorruption, anticommunist passions of the Kaczynskis with the free-market, pro-Europe economics of Civic Platform.

Instead, the Kaczynskis swung even further right, forming a tense alliance with the populist, anti-EU Self-Defense Party and the ultra-Catholic League of Polish Families. Experts say their conservative campaign rhetoric went a long way toward building popular support.

Deft political maneuvering didn't hurt, either. Days before the presidential runoff election last year, they landed the endorsement of ultraconservative Catholic Radio Marja – by all accounts a huge boost. "The main source of support was Radio Marja," says Krzystof Bobinski, vice president of the Unia and Poland think tank. "Now they have serious obligations."

Together with attacking the communist past, the brothers "stressed that the fruits of development should be divided more equally," says Ms. Grabowska.

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