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Portrait of Jarosław Kaczyński - Former Polish Prime Minister of Poland, Chairman of the political party Law and Justice

Analyses - 21 December 2018

The Polish leader is less visible than Mr Orbán or Mr Salvini. He seems more mysterious. His portrait written by Aleksander Smolar, a Franco-Polish journalist and political researcher who is also President of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, shows that Jarosław Kaczyński is a key player in the undermining of the very foundations of the liberal model in central Europe, such as the independence of the judiciary or more generally the separation of powers.

Michel Duclos, Geopolitical Special Advisor, Editor of this series


There is something romantic about Jarosław Kaczyński’s character. First, because he has been ruling over Poland in the shadows since 2015. Everyone knows he is the one who, at 69 years old, guides the government's decisions from the leadership of the Law and Justice party, which he co-founded. Yet he is neither President nor Prime Minister. Second, because he belongs to the rather uncommon category of political twins. The tragic death of his brother Lech in 2010, who at the time was President of the Republic, did not interrupt his career. Yet most of the latter had until then been enrolled in a sort of shared destiny that strikes the imagination. Finally, this very destiny shaped a political trajectory that still dominates Poland's main orientations and its position within Europe today.

Lech Wałęsa became less and less tolerant of the two brothers' growing independence, as they started to pursue their own political agenda. Jarosław and his brother were dismissed from the presidency, and switched to the opposition.

Jarosław and Lech's involvement in politics began in the 1970s and 1980s, when they took part in the pro-Western liberal opposition to the communist regime, and later, in the 1980s, within the Solidarność organization. In their struggle, the two brothers also displayed close ties with the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR, created in 1976), of which they never became members strictly speaking. They led their activist lives whilst pursuing advanced studies in law and both earned PhDs. Jarosław was passionate about history and Lech became Professor of Labor Law at the University of Gdańsk.

The negotiations leading to the first elections of modern Poland after the fall of the USSR brought Tadeusz Mazowiecki to power. Solidarność finally won the battle it had been waging for so long. Yet the first centrist tendencies quickly began to emerge within the movement. The Kaczyński brothers gradually asserted their hostility towards the great figures of the former democratic opposition, such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Bronisław Geremek, or Jacek Kuroń. They chose to side with Lech Wałęsa, who felt  isolated in Gdańsk and betrayed by his former friends, and created their own party, the "Centre Agreement", in 1990. The latter advocated for accelerated post-Communist evolutions and wished to remove from the political process the political representatives inherited from the previous regime. The two brothers won their bet: Lech Wałęsa was elected President in November 1990, and the Kaczyński brothers, who were then 41 years old, became President Wałęsa’s closest collaborators. Lech was in charge of security matters, while Jarosław became Head of the President's Chancellery.

The idyll between the Kaczyński and Wałęsa was short-lived. From 1991, their opinions regarding the attitude to be adopted towards political executives who participated in the Polish communist regime began to differ. More fundamentally, Lech Wałęsa became less and less tolerant of the two brothers’ growing independence, as they started to pursue their own political agenda. Jarosław and his brother were dismissed from the presidency, and switched to the opposition.

The "Centre Agreement" became an opposition party, which lost momentum and was marginalized throughout the 1990s. The only message the two brothers carried at the time focused on the defense of peripheral Poland (the countryside and small towns) against the liberal urban elites. Lech and Jarosław also held an increasingly radical discourse regarding the memory of the communist period. Indeed, in the context of the debate on the Lustration Law, they demanded that former security informants be treated with intransigence. This strategy aimed to give the Poles a moral compensation for the material difficulties the country was facing in the 1990s - years that were marked by the radical liberalization of the economy.

It was not until 1997, and Jerzy Buzek’s government, that the Kaczyński brothers returned to power. The Prime Minister appointed Lech as Minister of Justice. This strategic function increased the latter’s popularity, thanks in particular to his highly publicized fight against corruption. Meanwhile, Jarosław regained a parliamentary seat in the legislative elections that same year. 

The Polish partisan landscape was reorganized in the early 2000s with the emergence of the "Civic Platform", a new party created in 2001 by Andrzej Olechowski, Maciej Płażyński and Donald Tusk, advocating for a liberal Poland. In this context, the "Centre Agreement" became the PiS ("Law and Justice") in 2003. In the September 2005 parliamentary elections, the PiS, led by Jarosław, won the largest number of seats.

Lech was elected President in October 2005 [...] Less than a year later, he appointed his brother Jarosław as Prime Minister.

Yet Jarosław, whose victory allowed him to take up the role of Prime Minister, declined this position, arguing that it could go against the interests of his brother Lech, who was running in the presidential elections in October. Jarosław was already enjoying pulling the strings of Polish politics from his parliamentary seat.

Lech was indeed elected President in October 2005 (a year after Poland's accession to the European Union). Less than a year later, he appointed his brother Jarosław as Prime Minister. The two men, who thus occupied the main positions of power within the Polish state, knew they had to keep up appearances. They rarely went out together in public. In 2005, they embarked on their illiberal project to reform the state, based on the doctrine of "impossibilism". The judiciary frequently censoring the government’s action between 2005 and 2007 convinced Lech and Jarosław that Poland was impossible to govern because it was paralyzed by the too many regulations and institutions imposed by the rule of law. According to them, effective governance could not be restored without a weakening of the legislative and especially of the judicial powers, to the benefit of the executive. This is at least what Jarosław concluded from his readings on the father of Polish independence (1918), Marshal Józef Piłsudski. The two men also drew inspiration from Viktor Orbán, whom they felt ideologically close to.

In 2007, the early parliamentary elections organized by the PiS to consolidate its power against the small populist parties with which it had to ally ended up benefitting the Liberals of the "Civic Platform". A difficult cohabitation between Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Lech Kaczyński ensued.

According to them, effective governance could not be restored without a weakening of the legislative and especially of the judicial powers, to the benefit of the executive.

A tragic event occurred in 2010 with the death of President Lech Kaczyński and the 96 Polish politicians and soldiers who were with him in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia. Jarosław was now alone to defend his ideas as leader of the Law and Justice party. He was not popular, and largely lost the elections held for his brother's succession.

Some observers insisted on the psychological burden weighing on Jarosław Kaczyński during this period. He was left without a wife, without a brother, without an executive position and unpopular - he is still one of the most unpopular politicians in Poland to this day. He felt like a loser who needed to take revenge on life.

Nevertheless, he remained a good strategist. Strengthened by his misadventure in the 2010 presidential election, he understood that he could only govern in the shadow of someone more popular than himself. In the 2015 presidential elections, he put forward an unknown young lawyer, Andrzej Duda, to succeed outgoing President Komorowski. To everyone’s surprise, Duda won the elections, thus marking the return to power of the Law and Justice Party. This recipe worked well: he replicated it with Beata Szydło, whom he positioned as Prime Minister after the PiS victory in the legislative elections of October 2015. The latter was eventually replaced by a young banker, Mateusz Morawiecki, who seemed more flexible, particularly in his relations with Brussels and Berlin. Despite appearances, the international positioning of Poland was not improving. The relations the country had with Russia were still very bad, since the plane crash in Smolensk in 2010. Its relations with Germany, France and even Ukraine - despite the latter being Poland's traditional ally - were not getting better. Relations with the European Union were also becoming increasingly complex.The European Commission had triggered the application of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), that it had never used before, by considering that there was “a clear risk of a serious breach by Poland of the rule of law” (this mechanism has also been triggered towards Hungary). 

The EU is indeed considered responsible - together with Germany - for the poor management of the migration crisis, and its values are deeply opposed to the Catholic conservatism of Kaczyński’s Poland. The party is not fond of Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a liberal and open Europe, and far prefers General de Gaulle's "Europe of Nations". The Church, the power of which was significantly strengthened in the country by the PiS’s coming to power, champions this discourse on European decadence. Meanwhile, Warsaw invests a lot of diplomatic effort in its relations with Trump’s United States and Viktor Orbán's Hungary. Kaczyński is still the most influential man in the parliamentary majority. This guarantees him considerable influence - if not control - over the Polish state.

What kind of policy does he promote? Clearly one in favor of the concentration of geographical and institutional powers within the state. Kaczyński perceives the judiciary as a corrupt, overly liberal "corporation", and believes its damaging powers must be restrained. The public media are entirely controlled by the ruling party, and have thus become tools for official propaganda. Their audience is dropping considerably, to the benefit of new private media. The latter are severely criticized by the PiS, which seeks to control these media or to make sure they are bought by public companies managed by people from Jarosław Kaczyński's political party. The example of Mr Putin undoubtedly influences the PiS. Jarosław Kaczyński could be close to Moscow if it wasn’t for the insurmountable and historical Russianophobia deeply embedded in Polish public opinion.

Private media are severely criticized by the PiS, which seeks to control these media or to make sure they are bought by public companies managed by people from Jarosław Kaczyński's political party.

There is more to J. Kaczyński’s politics: the recruitment examination for the once competitive school for senior civil service administrators (based on the model of the French school ENA) was reformed to promote personalities committed to the PiS’s ideas. This is an important reform, the goal of which is to eliminate the country's former administrative frameworks, be they post-communist or liberal. This willingness is also present in sectors such as the army, education and culture, and aims to promote a nationalist and Catholic, devout and conservative Poland.

PiS reforms could not be carried out without the approval of a large segment of the Polish people, 30-40% of whom still support J. Kaczyński's party today. This support can partly be explained by a past trauma related to the country’s economic transformation, for which the Liberals are held responsible. This is the reason why the populist measures implemented by the government since 2015 favoring the redistribution of wealth (rise of the minimum wage, lowering of the retirement age, substantial transfer incomes allocated to families starting from the second child) satisfy most Polish people, despite these reforms’ long-term financial viability being questionable.

During a meeting with V. Orbán a few years ago, the two men spoke of a "cultural counter-revolution".

Finally, Kaczyński skillfully handles the nationalism issue, by exciting the Polish pride. This discourse is not openly anti-European (the European Union's structural funds provide substantial support to the country, and the EU remains very popular in Poland), but rather targets the liberal and open Europe as defended today in Brussels.

According to Kaczyński, Europe should on the contrary protect national identities, and first and foremost that of Poland. Finally, this discourse focuses particularly on the Polish people as a collective, who must work together to survive in the face of external dangers and increasingly individualistic European values.

What are J. Kaczyński’s ultimate goals, beyond of course the sustainability of his own power? A great mystery hangs over this question. On one occasion, during a meeting with V. Orbán a few years ago, the two men spoke of a "cultural counter-revolution". Yet the expression immediately disappeared from their jargon. For the time being, the European and parliamentary elections to be held in 2019 in Poland do not guarantee that the PiS will remain the ruling party in Poland. Opposition forces and independent social movements are much stronger in Poland than in Hungary or other countries in the region.

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne.


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