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Last week, two irreconcilable political opponents — conservative Polish President Andrzej Duda and conservative Prime Minister Donald Tusk — traveled to Washington in an attempt to persuade Congress of the need to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. This is the only issue on which Poland's authorities and opposition are unanimous. In parliamentary elections held this past October, a united opposition coalition of leftists, centrists, and right-wing liberals managed to interrupt the long reign of the national conservatives. Since then, numerous facts have surfaced about the former ruling party’s corruption, its surveillance of opposition politicians, and of other abuses of power. But despite the liberals’ parliamentary victory, the conservatives still hold the presidency, and a dual power situation has emerged in the country. The political divide is so pronounced that it has even spread to the judicial system, prompting Brussels to intervene by imposing sanctions on Poland. Underlying the political conflict is a societal one: the younger generation sides with the liberals, while skilled conservative apparatchiks have retained their positions in all branches of government. 

Content
  • Uniformed officials vs MPs

  • Funds of (in)justice

  • A series of scandals

  • Mr. President plays his own game

  • Youth against bureaucrats

  • Why PiS is not United Russia

In December, for the third time in Poland's history, the pro-European liberal Donald Tusk was sworn in as prime minister. This came after his broad coalition — comprising leftists (Lewica), centrists (2050 - Third Way), the agrarian party (PSL), Tusk's own Civic Platform, and smaller allied parties — won parliamentary elections in October. The new government's program aims to de-stigmatize LGBT issues, reform abortion laws, reduce the Catholic Church's influence, and orient the country towards E.U. values. However, Tusk's government faces serious challenges in implementing this agenda.

Tusk's tenure began with a crisis, as Polish farmers blocked highways at Ukraine's borders, protesting the EU's decision to lift import restrictions on four Ukrainian grain types. Against this backdrop of, Tusk declared border crossing points to be “critical infrastructure,” raising fears among farmers of an imminent crackdown.

This conflict, now taking on international dimensions, is just one element of Poland's turbulent domestic political landscape, one rich in intrigue. The new government is changing Poland's political course so drastically that many former government officials risk facing not just political oblivion, but also legal troubles.

Uniformed officials vs MPs

Over the past three months, the events unfolding in Poland have resembled the plot twists of a political thriller. In early February, Mariusz Kamiński, who had previously served as the head of both the Polish Interior Ministry and the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau, along with his loyal deputy, Maciej Wąsik, attempted to force their way into a session of the Sejm, Poland’s parliament. The two former officials were accompanied by fellow members of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which had controlled the body from 2015 up until its election defeat late last year.

Maciej Wąsik and Mariusz Kaminski
Maciej Wąsik and Mariusz Kaminski

Despite the shift in power within the Sejm, both Kamiński and Wąsik, as well as the leadership of the Law and Justice party, still regard themselves as deputies of the lower house of the Polish parliament. However, the new Sejm, led by Speaker Szymon Hołownia, nullified their mandates and subsequently revoked their immunity at the close of last year. The grounds for this action were substantial: dating back to 2015, both men were convicted, with their sentences confirmed in 2023, for “exceeding their official powers,” resulting in a two-year prison term for each. The attempted breach at the Sejm bore striking parallels to the storming of the American Capitol in 2021, albeit on a smaller scale, with the Marshals' Guard, the parliamentary security detail, sustaining mostly minor injuries during the ensuing scuffle.

Kamiński and Wąsik were arrested on January 9 in the presidential palace itself. The day before, president Andrzej Duda had extended asylum to them within his residence, yet the presidential guard effectively failed to protect them. However, their time behind bars proved endurable, as Poland's head of state granted them both clemency through a special decree after a mere two weeks. Despite his inability to prevent their arrest, immediately upon their release, the president welcomed the former detainees as his honored guests.

Duda was able to restore their freedom, but not their mandates. Thus Kaminski, Wąsik, and their Law and Justice party comrades decided to attempt to reinstate themselves by storming the deputies’ entrance to the parliament building.

After that, new prime minister Tusk threatened both with a “sentence that has entered into force” and promised to do everything to have the pardon annulled. “Their actions were not about preventing crimes, but about committing them,” the Polish court's 2015 ruling in the Kaminski and Wąsik case stated. The cause behind that case was the illegal prosecution by the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau in the late 2000s and early 2010s of Andrzej Lepper, the leader of the Self-Defense movement, who was allegedly involved in a land plot scandal. For the former ministers, the prosecution became a kind of debut in the use of forceful methods in the political process. The investigation was conducted with the use of the controversial Israeli spyware program Pegasus, which security services can use to trace all activities and eavesdrop on all conversations on the victim's phone, leaving no digital traces.

Jarosław Płuciennik, a participant and former press secretary of the horizontal civil movement KOD (Komitet ObronyDemokracji), told The Insider that this is exactly the reason why the two former ministers and deputies enjoy such passionate support from their party. Kaminski and Wąsik, apparently, have collected substantial compromising material not only on representatives of the now victorious opposition, but also on functionaries of the previous government, as well as high-ranking members of the PiS, the expert believes.

Kaminski and Wąsik have collected substantial compromising material not only on representatives of the opposition, but also on high-ranking members of the PiS

Funds of (in)justice

Lepper, who committed suicide in 2011, was not the only victim of wiretapping that utilized Pegasus software. Polish prime minister Tusk has presented president Andrzej Duda with a long list of figures who were targeted, including the leader of the League of Polish Families Roman Giertych, Senator Krzysztof Brejza, prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek, and many other political opponents of the PiS party. The Sejm has appointed a parliamentary commission to investigate this crime, summoning not only Messrs. Kaminski and Wąsik, but also the leader of the Law and Justice party Jarosław Kaczyński, as well as the former Minister of Justice and Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro.

According to Płuciennik, Ziobro will find it particularly difficult to explain himself. Under his leadership, the Fund of Justice was established to supposedly help victims of crimes. While it received around 5 billion zlotys ($1.26 billion) from various sources, only a small portion reached the people who actually lost their property or suffered health problems. The interlocutor claims that 25 million zlotys ($6.29 millions) from this fund were allocated to purchase and implement the Pegasus spyware.

Roman Sakharov, a media researcher at the University of Lodz, highlights the Fund of Justice as one of numerous questionable entities established under the previous administration. “Funds were established across different ministries — culture, development, etc. While information on fund allocations should be transparent, it wasn't always clear where the funds were directed,” Sakharov observes. The researcher underscores a recent example in which church organizations purportedly received approximately 60 million zlotys ($15.09 million) for constructing a center to provide psychological assistance to orphaned children. However, an audit revealed that the organization had actually received 100 million zlotys ($25.16), with a portion of the funds apparently concealed from public scrutiny.

Sakharov notes a particularly egregious instance involving the former Minister of Education, Przemysław Czarnek, who, by decree, allocated funds through a similar fund to acquire real estate for orphaned children and those with disabilities. However, when Sejm deputies and independent journalists visited the purchased properties, they discovered that Czarnek and his family resided in one of the residences, which looked much more like a lavish villa than a facility constructed for the purpose of aiding disadvantaged children. The decree in question earned the moniker of “Czarnek Villa Law” in the Polish media, Sakharov notes.

Czarnek and his family resided in one of the villas intended for orphaned children and those with disabilities

In a curious turn of events, journalists from the TVN television channel arrived at the address listed in the charter documents of the Fund of Justice — only to encounter a closed door to a basement-level room. Neighbors in the vicinity expressed disbelief, as they had no recollection of such a purportedly significant institution ever occupying their building.

A series of scandals

Yet another scandal commanding widespread attention and prompting the establishment of a dedicated parliamentary investigative commission revolved around the controversial sale of two Polish companies: Orlen, Poland's largest oil trader and a near monopolist, and Lotos, a gas station network, which were transferred to Saudi Arabian buyers at a price significantly below market value. Adding fuel to the fire, investigators from the National Audit Office allege that the purchasers maintain close ties with Russia. In response to mounting pressure, the Sejm initiated the formation of a specialized commission to delve into the matter. Now, the former Minister of State Assets, Jacek Sasin, finds himself in the hot seat, grappling to recall pertinent details as he faces intense scrutiny.

Another special parliamentary commission is currently investigating the incident known as the “envelope elections” of 2020. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the ruling PiS government opted to proceed with the presidential election under a remote voting format that observed social distancing measures. Strangely, the responsibility for organizing the elections was delegated not to the Central Election Commission, but to the Polish Post Office. The plan was for voters to cast their ballots at home and mail them in. However, despite the expenditure, the elections failed to materialize. “Speaker of Parliament Elżbieta Witek has informed the parliamentary commission that she lacks recollection and knowledge of the events. She asserts that at the time of passing of the election act, she placed complete trust in the government's decision-making,” KOD’s Płuciennik says.

As the first political season unfolds, it appears that the second, centered on judicial matters, is already underway. Stemming from the judicial overhaul initiated by the previous administration — in which new judges for the higher courts, including the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, were appointed through parliamentary and governmental channels rather than via the council of judges — a judicial power struggle has emerged in the country. Existing judges now contend with counterparts appointed by the PiS government, effectively creating duplicates within the judiciary.

In response to these developments, the E.U. levied sanctions on Poland several months ago, imposing a hefty fine of 1 million euros per day for failing to adhere to E.U. justice standards. This financial penalty translates into a reduction of funding from the European Commission to Poland.

Following the installation of the new government, a fraction of E.U. subsidies was released to the country as a goodwill gesture, with the bulk of the funds remaining withheld by Brussels. The newly appointed Minister of Justice has wasted no time in initiating reforms aimed at reinstating Poland's previous judicial system, and the PiS minority was defeated in its attempt to oust the minister via a vote of no confidence in parliament. In a show of support for the new Polish liberal majority, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen herself visited Warsaw to back the minister, pledging to release the 600 billion zlotys ($151 billion) that had been frozen in the wake of the PiS's judicial reforms.

Mr. President plays his own game

As a parliamentary republic, Poland conducts multi-party elections to form its government, alongside electing a president. While the president's powers are not as extensive as those of leaders like Putin or Macron, they surpass those of presidents in parliamentary republics like Germany and Israel, where their functions are largely representative and occasionally conciliatory.

For instance, the Polish head of state possesses the authority to grant pardons and wield veto power. In recent months, the conservative sitting president Andrzej Duda has actively exercised both of these prerogatives. He vetoed a proposed pay raise for teachers initiated by members of Tusk's coalition and subsequently granted pardons to Kaminski and Wąsik. Notably, nearly all legislative enactments passed by the newly elected parliament face scrutiny from the Polish president, who refers them to the Constitutional Court, helmed by the PiS-aligned Julia Przyłębska, whose legitimacy faces scrutiny from both Polish legal authorities and E.U. institutions.

Despite being a nominee of the PiS, the officially independent Duda has demonstrated a capacity for policymaking on his own terms. According to Roman Sakharov, “Duda is certainly a product of the Law and Justice party milieu, yet accusations from within the party suggest he is charting his own course.” The expert contends that the Polish president recognizes his augmented role in national politics following the PiS party’s loss of control over the Sejm.

The Polish president recognizes his augmented role in national politics following the PiS party's electoral setback

“Indeed, the president is eager to carve out his own path,”Płuciennik concurs. “And his inner circle, dissatisfied with the policies of [PiS party leader] Jarosław Kaczyński, is actively encouraging him to assert his independence.” However, the expert notes, Duda's extensive tenure in the shadow of the Law and Justice leader has likely limited his capacity to engage in independent decision-making, or to develop a strong political will.

The president seems to alternate between two courses of action: either referring bills passed by the new parliament to the scrutiny of the PiS appointed Constitutional Court, or else seeking reconciliation with the liberal Sejm. The latter approach was evident during a recent informal gathering with the new government’s Council of the Cabinet of Ministers. During this meeting, Duda attentively listened to the prime minister's report on the state of the Polish economy and expressed concern as he received a detailed list of Polish politicians and public figures who had been subjected to wiretapping via Pegasus.

Youth against bureaucrats

The transition of power from the PiS to opposing liberals reflects a shift in the demographic makeup of Polish voters. In the 2006 elections, disillusionment with the ruling left led young people and the middle class to abstain from voting, inadvertently empowering PiS supporters — often older citizens of modest means hailing from small Polish towns and villages.

PiS's tenure ended with the collapse of the coalition and the subsequent call for early elections, which were won by Tusk’s Civic Platform party. However, in 2015, amidst scandals within Civic Platform, young people and active liberal voters once again refrained from voting, facilitating PiS's return to power. After eight years under PiS rule, nearly all of its opponents mobilized to an unprecedented extent in 2023, resulting in record-high voter turnout of 74%.

Liberals secured victory through a broad coalition, with the left, center, and agrarians, coupled with a commitment to addressing the concerns of young voters. For instance, the new government established a Ministry of Equality, helmed by activist Katarzyna Kotula, who prefers to be addressed in the feminine gender — “ministra” (the Polish language does have feminitives, meaning that the word “ministra” is new to the Polish ear). Tusk and his supporters’ ability to embrace new ideas and formations on the political stage has been pivotal to their success.

In contrast, PiS has pursued a different strategy: seeking to entrench itself in various democratic institutions and thus maintain influence even when the party finds itself out of power. This process involved restructuring or creating parallel structures to maintain influence or exclude opponents altogether. Over the past eight years, PiS has bolstered its presence not only in ministries and departments, but also in the Polish Council for TV and Radio, while establishing the National Media Council outside constitutional bounds.

Legislation akin to Russia's restrictions on foreign media ownership was enacted, limiting non-E.U. companies to a 49% stake in media outlets. Consequently, the prominent liberal TVN channel, owned by American company Warner Bros. Discovery, faced the threat of losing its broadcasting rights.

Moreover, PiS has harbored longstanding animosity toward the E.U., particularly to Germany, with party leader Jarosław Kaczyński attributing all sorts of perfidy to Berlin as a regular part of his public rhetoric. Even amid fierce pre-election battles, PiS labeled its opponent Tusk a “German agent,” perpetuating accusations of “German influence” even after the campaign's conclusion.

Why PiS is not United Russia

The current state of affairs in Poland evokes memories of the historic 1989 elections, a pivotal moment when the Communist authorities of the Polish People's Republic, pressured by the Solidarity movement, acquiesced to calls to hold legitimately free elections. Following their defeat, the Communist regime dissolved, and the nation reverted to its former name — the Republic of Poland. During this transformative period, president Lech Wałęsa and prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki adopted a policy known as the “thick line,” which involved the vetting of employees, collaborators, and activists from the former pro-Soviet regime.

The recent arrest and stripping of parliamentary mandates from two influential uniformed officials has certain parallels to that earlier Polish political transition. However, those on the losing side this time have taken to referring to themselves as “the first political prisoners since the times of the Polish People's Republic,” essentially claiming that the Tusk government is acting like the country’s pro-Moscow, Cold War-era rulers did.

Płuciennik disagrees: “Let's be clear. The Round Table negotiations, which led to the Communists agreeing to free elections, were a significant, albeit coerced, step towards the people by the authorities. However, in the current context, there's no genuine effort towards public consensus — instead, we see confrontation from the PiS.” He stresses that the former ruling party is intent on discrediting any actions taken by the victorious opposition, this despite the fact that many of the actions carried out by PiS officials while in power are deserving of scrutiny and potentially criminal investigation.

Many of the actions carried out by PiS officials while in power are deserving of scrutiny and potentially criminal investigation

In Poland itself, PiS has often been likened to the “Polish United Russia,” drawing parallels between the two parties’ paths to power and the allegations of corruption that followed their rise. However, media expert Sakharov challenges this comparison: “The PiS is a genuine grassroots party,” he contends. “Contrast this with United Russia, where true believers in their stated principles are scarce, and transitioning to opposition is virtually unheard of. Moreover, the PiS has a clear ideological stance, unlike United Russia.”

Each time it has come to power, PiS has made a concerted effort to solidify its position and discredit its opponents from the center and left. Conversely, these opponents appear determined to dismantle PiS itself. However, success for either side is far from guaranteed. With President Andrzej Duda remaining in office for the next two years and Law and Justice wielding enough parliamentary deputies to impede liberal and leftist legislative initiatives, the road ahead for the opposition remains fraught with challenges.

“In Poland, unlike Russia, there is still a party system,” Sakharov says, “and it is this constant political competition that serves as a safeguard against the processes that have occurred in Russia.”

At the same time, Sakharov suggests that the Russian opposition can draw valuable lessons from its Polish counterpart, taking inspiration from the Tusk coalition’s “capacity to unite promptly and craft a program of constructive initiatives, rather than solely negating the ideology of the incumbent regime.” He points to initiatives by the new coalition aimed at reforming anti-abortion laws, at fostering closer ties with the EU, and at implementing measures to support teachers and families.

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