Poland: Corruption scandal hits an already battered government

Supposedly anti-corruption party PiS caught selling minsterial posts

A corruption scandal has erupted in Poland that threatens to dash hopes of cobbling together a new coalition government. It has also exposed the lie that the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has introduced a new standard in Polish politics. Support for the party has fallen from 27% a year ago to 18% after the scandal hit the news.

A week earlier, Andrzej Lepper, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the populist party, Self-defence, was sacked after cracks opened up within the government coalition on the issue of Poland’s involvement in Afghanistan and the level of the budget deficit. See article by Karl Debautt for background.

Without Self-defence’s votes, a question mark hung over the future of the PiS-LPR (League of Polish Families) coalition government. PiS attempted to persuade renegade MPs from Self-defence to leave their party and join PiS. There was just one problem – before being elected, all Self-defence MPs had been forced to sign an IOU to the party of around 125,000 euros, which would be realised if they left the party’s parliamentary club. Nevertheless, PiS entered into negotiations with the MPs.

Exactly to what extent PiS was prepared to lure the MPs was revealed when the private TV station TVN broadcast a secret recording of a discussion between Renata Beger, prominent Self-defence MP, and the head of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, Lipinski. Not only did Lipinski offer Beger the Ministry of Agriculture in return for leaving Self-defence and joining PiS, but he also promised that PiS would pay her 125,000 euros IOU to Self-defence! The Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL), another potential coalition partner, withdrew from negotiations with PiS in the political fallout that followed. The prospect of an early general election, just one year after the last one in Poland, became more real.

Although a central element in Law and Justice’s election campaign was the struggle against corruption and the need for a strong government that would establish law and order, the latest scandal shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. As soon as PiS came to power, they began purging the state and replacing civil servants at all levels with their own people. At the beginning of the year they sacked the CEO of the biggest Polish insurance company, which is still in state hands, and replaced him with one of their cronies who is suspected of money laundering. Some prominent MPs from LPR, including the party’s leader, Roman Giertych, are involved in a scandal concerning siphoning off 600,000 euros from a regional savings bank. The LPR leaders were members of the supervisory boards of the beneficiary companies, which later went bankrupt leaving massive debts.

One of the most prominent PiS members has also been implicated in a similar banking scandal. Moreover, Jacek Kurski, former journalist and now PiS MP closely involved in the PR side of PiS’s election campaign bought a house in a forest from the State Forests for a fraction of the market price. He also passed his driving test recently thanks to the fact that his close friend was the examiner. Then there’s the former prime minister and PiS candidate for mayor of Warsaw, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, who reportedly bought a large flat in the centre of Warsaw from the city council for a fraction of the price.

Similarly, it would be wrong to conclude that Self-defence MPs are as poor as the poor farmers that they supposedly represent. Self-defence MPs are amongst the richest MPs in Poland. In fact, in Poland there are only three Maybachs (luxury cars produced by DaimlerChrysler, on a par with Rolls Royce and selling at around 1 million euros) and one of them is owned by a Self-defence MP. Whilst Self-defence achieved fame as a protest party fighting to defend poor farmers, and these still represent the party’s electoral base, in reality it is a party of the rural petty bourgeoisie and to a lesser extent, the urban petty bourgeoisie (shopkeepers, petty traders etc.). These are the people whose interests the party defends – poor peasants receive the crumbs. This explains why Lepper now supports the EU – this section of society has benefited from joining the EU. Lepper also calls himself a social-liberal and has discarded much of what could have been conceived as left-wing in his earlier programme. Nowadays he wants to appear respectable. The dispute over the budget was Lepper’s attempt to appear to be the defender of the interests of farmers and other impoverished urban professions, such as teachers and nurses, in other words, it was his attempt to win a larger electoral sausage for voters before the local elections and prove himself to be independent of PiS, a champion of the people. However, in reality he is far from this.

Whether the latest scandal will end with early elections is not yet clear. There is a possibility that the PiS-LPR coalition will succeed in bringing PSL on board. However, if they manage this, it will not mean a strong, lasting government. Further splits are possible, as well as further erosion in support for the government.

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October 2006