Why Poland's crisis may come down to a president and a puppet master

Last month, President Duda unexpectedly vetoed two controversial government bills, setting up a possible power struggle with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party's passionate leader. The result could help solve Poland's roiling constitutional crisis where opposition protests and EU criticism have not.

Alik Keplicz/AP
Protesters raise candles during a protest in front of the presidential palace, as they urge Polish President Andrzej Duda to reject a bill changing the judiciary system, in Warsaw, last month. For nearly two years Mr. Duda has been widely derided as a marginal figure, a man chosen by the powerful ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski for his loyalty whose role was to rubber-stamp the party's program.

“The Chairman’s Ear,” a popular online satirical video series in Poland about the country's ruling party, leaves little doubt over who wields the power in Polish political life.

The titular chairman, operating out of his sparsely decorated office, holds no elected mandate. But he is at the eye of a sphere of bureaucrats and politicians, either buffoonish or easily cowed by the imperturbable puppetmaster. And through clever manipulation and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) threats, he pushes those with real power to do what he wants – and to pamper his beloved cat, Mruczuś.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum – and always just outside the chairman's door – sits the sheepish Polish president. Episode after episode, he eagerly waits to get into the chairman's office to speak with the true kingmaker in Polish politics. But he is always stymied by the chairman's staff – who not only don't see the president as important enough to let into the inner sanctum, but don't even show him the respect of remembering his name correctly.

For many Poles, it's funny because it mimics their political reality.

The chairman is an obvious stand-in for the leader of the ruling, ultraconservative Law & Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. He has not held government office since 2007 and polarizes the Polish public, but enjoys nearly complete control of PiS.

Alik Keplicz/AP
Polish President Andrzej Duda makes a statement in Warsaw last month.

The impotent president is a proxy for President Andrzej Duda, formerly of PiS and still allied with the party. The 45-year-old Mr. Duda won the presidency in 2015. It was widely believed at the time that he was handpicked for branding purposes – a young, modern face who would attract voters beyond hardcore supporters but still allow Mr. Kaczynski to pull the strings. It worked. The party is the only in post-communist Poland to have won enough seats to govern without a coalition.

But that once predictable mode of operation began to fray in recent weeks, as PiS under Kaczynski tried to fundamentally reshape the independence of the country's judiciary. What should have been clean sailing for a trio of PiS bills to reform the system ran aground, as Duda – defying his “Chairman's Ear” caricature – signed vetoes thwarting two of the three laws.

Now, some in Poland are wondering if the president may turn out to be more than just a rubber stamp – and whether he may prove a moderating force against the hardline "chairman" who has been steering Poland's government unchallenged for so long.

“Before [the vetoes] PiS looked like a monolith,” says Michał Bilewicz, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Warsaw. "Now, for the first time, you can hear openly expressed criticism, of right-wing journalists, intellectuals, who used to be highly supportive of PiS who are now suddenly highly critical.”

The twin in mourning

The stakes of a power struggle within the halls of the Polish government are high, with the effects spanning far beyond a single party. Since taking power in late 2015, PiS has been engaged in a broad campaign to centralize power and reduce the judiciary's independence – a reform it claims is necessary to reduce corruption in the courts. It has also been one of the loudest critics of the European Union's plan to relocate refugees across the bloc. Critics say that Poland under PiS, much like Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is sliding toward authoritarianism. And neither widespread protests by PiS opposition on Polish streets nor warnings from officials in the EU, which provides Poland with significant funding, has slowed down their momentum.

Yet if Kaczynski and Duda continue to be at loggerheads, that might derail PiS where the Polish opposition and the EU have so far failed.

Alik Keplicz/AP
The leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, votes to approve a law on court control, in the parliament in Warsaw last month.

Officially, PiS dismisses any rift as “gossip.” Some even believe the vetoes were engineered to take the wind out of the sails of demonstrators.

But earlier this week the president blocked the appointment of reportedly more than forty generals by Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, a close ally of Kaczynski, keeping tensions with PiS leadership aflame.

This sort of dissent is not how Kaczynski, whom his biographer Michał Krzymowski calls one of the most important political figures to have emerged since 1989, intended the party he founded to operate. He was involved in a few movements in the 1980s and '90s, including the Solidarity trade union that helped bring down communist rule in Poland. In 2001 he and his identical twin brother, Lech, founded PiS. Four years later, PiS won parliament and Lech was elected president; a year after that, Kaczynski became prime minister.

But tragedy struck the Kaczynskis in 2010, one that has shaped the PiS leader's life since. In April 2010, Lech was killed when the Polish Air Force plane he was on crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk. The event seems to have made Kaczynski, already isolated, even more solitary. He has said he will mourn his brother’s death the rest of his life. He wears only black attire, even on vacation.

According to a recent profile in the Polish edition of Newsweek, Kaczynski's assistants do all his shopping for him, they buy his suits, and food for his cats (he is a well-documented cat lover). He used to share meals with his mother, with whom he lived, before she passed away. Now he usually eats alone.

The crash also put into sharp relief Kaczynski’s sense of victim and aggressor. He insists that the crash could have been a political assassination on the part of Russia, though no investigation has found any foul play. “His personal trauma has an impact on his political life and the whole politics in Poland,” says Mr. Krzymowski, who wrote “Jaroslaw: The Kaczynski secrets.”

Still, he appeals to a large swath of Polish society who shares his socially conservative, Catholic ethos and has failed to find footing in the post-communist economy. In the PiS chairman, Poles see someone who has eschewed the extravagance associated with Civic Platform, which ruled Poland during the boom years of the past decade, but exacerbated a sense of inequality and “them” vs. “us.”

The unknown president

Duda seems an unlikely foil for the strong-willed Kaczynski. The president rose through the ranks of PiS, but was relatively unknown when he ran for office. (He left the party upon being elected to the presidency, as is constitutionally required.) And over the past two years, he reliably agreed with every policy floated by PiS, even its most controversial like packing the Constitutional Tribunal.

Just like Kaczynski, he seems to eschew extravagance that the populace associates with the ruling classes. While he served as an EU parliamentarian, he put his high salary towards saving for an apartment for his daughter instead of moving into a more luxurious home.

And he too has close links to the Catholic church. As a teenager he was a boy scout and an altar boy. The day before he vetoed the controversial judicial bills, he was seen praying in the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa as demonstrations rose to tens of thousands in cities around the nation.

But Duda is also more than two decades younger than Kaczynski, which may factor into his decision to block PiS. Indeed, many first-time PiS voters, including youths and middle-class urbanites, were drawn the party precisely because Duda signaled that it was not just for those like Kaczynski who came of age during the cold war.

Jan Olszewski, who was prime minister in 1991-92, offered another reason why Duda may have taken a stand: The bills were simply badly written. Mr. Olszewski told a reporter in the Super Express daily newspaper that Duda’s decision showed that he is willing to stand up against legally flawed legislation. “For a lawyer, and everyone who knows the law, it would have been hard to sign it,” he said. “Pushing the bills at such a fast pace, we saw occur in previous parliaments. It's a shame that PiS hasn't changed these practices.”

Whatever Duda's motive, says Krzymowski, the Kaczynski biographer, “[Duda’s] vetoes are seen by Kaczynski as a betrayal.”

Dominik Tarczynski, a PiS lawmaker, dismisses talk of divisions within the party as politically motivated. He says that the vetoes show democracy is working in Poland. “It is [Duda's] constitutional right. He has his own view. He has his own opinion,” says Mr. Tarczynski. “We are the political party. We are in the parliament. He is the president of Poland.... This is the normal democratic way.”

A new dynamic?

According to the latest opinion polls, 78 percent of Poles support the vetoes, but only 50 percent of PiS supporters do. Now the bills are being amended.

Meanwhile, the party itself is still as popular as ever – in fact, according to a recent poll, their approval rating has grown to 40 percent, higher than before the bills were written. But Mr. Bilewicz contends that the divisive rhetoric the party employed to support its judicial reform and criticize foes – which was absent during its electoral campaign – may have backfired internally, and perhaps not surprisingly: It is right-wing conservatives, Bilewicz's studies have shown, who are most repelled by radical language.

He says criticism that he has seen emerge from conservatives over governmental policies, such as demands for German war reparations or plans to continue forest logging, is a sign that it could be harder for the party to move forward with its program as easily as it has in the past two years. “It will be hard for them to effectively govern once they lose support from former PiS-supporting intellectuals.”

On the other hand, Piotr Wawrzyk, a political analyst at Warsaw University, says he doesn’t believe that PiS unity will erode because Kaczynski appealed to PiS bases to accept Duda’s constitutional right. “[His] voice is the most important, so when he said that they had to come to terms with that, it is closing the case,” he says.

In the end, Duda and Kaczynski might have to accommodate each other, says Krzymowski, because neither can survive without the other.

“Kaczynski can be very brutal towards people who betrayed him. He is very emotional. But he is also very pragmatic, and I think that a cold calculation will win at the end, because both Kaczynski and Duda need each other,” he says. “After the vetoes, there will never be a love relationship between them, but I don't think they will attack each other so openly. It will be a cold war.”

• Sara Miller Llana contributed to this report from Paris.

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