Friday, September 29, 2006

Taped bribe offer hits Poland PM

POLAND was plunged into political chaos yesterday after a secretly filmed videotape showed a member of the ruling party trying to buy the support of a woman politician.
Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski was bombarded by opposition calls to resign and dissolve parliament because his main policy plank - to combat corruption - had effectively been destroyed.

"A government that attempts to corrupt parliament cannot rule any longer," said Donald Tusk, leader of the opposition centre-right Civic Platform (PO).

"Today, all decent people are demanding the immediate resignation of Jaroslaw Kaczynski."

An opinion poll published by the Rzeczpospolita daily, however, showed that new elections would merely reproduce the current stalemate, giving the PO (which has 223 seats) a definite edge over Mr Kaczynski's Law and Justice party.

But it would still be eight seats short of an absolute majority and would have no obvious coalition partner.

The alleged bribery case was an attempt by Mr Kaczynski's team to break out of this impasse.

Until last week it had formed a coalition with the Self-Defence Party, a radical farmers' grouping led by volatile pig-farmer Andrzej Lepper.

Mr Lepper, who was deputy prime minister, broke away from the governing coalition after refusing to approve Mr Kaczynski's draft budget, which included cuts in agricultural subsidies. Since then, the Prime Minister has been struggling to woo dissident members of the Self-Defence Party.

The covertly recorded film - broadcast on private channel TVN on Tuesday night local time - shows one of Mr Kaczynski's close confidants, Adam Lipinski, in a hotel room trying to persuade Renata Beger, the Self-Defence Party deputy, to stay with the Government.

Ms Beger admitted that she tipped off the television station.

Ms Beger was a vulnerable target - she was under investigation for faking voter signatures - but, aware of the hidden camera, she threw her weight about during the conversation.

In return for her defection, she demanded the post of deputy agriculture minister.

"That's no problem, we have many free positions," Mr Lipinski told her.

After consulting with his bosses, he had to backtrack. Instead, he offered her free legal advice - and financial help to pay off her debts to the Self-Defence Party. It was this financial offer that has been considered a bribe.

Mr Lepper has made every member of his party pledge E140,000 ($237,600) in return for help at elections. At the end of a legislative period, the politician gets back 80 per cent of this deposit. But if a politician defects, he or she forfeits the whole sum.

This legally dubious system has been enough to keep Mr Lepper's shambolic party together.

Mr Lipinski saw his offer not as a bribe but as a liberation for an unhappy politician.

"This was normal coalition-building," Mr Lipinski said.

"I take nothing back and intend to continue persuading deputies to join our parliamentary majority."

Mr Kaczynski's only chance of mustering a majority in parliament now is to strike a deal with a second farmers' party, the PSL. But it broke off all negotiations yesterday, expressing shock at the revelations.