Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Poland's terrible twins

Before Lech Kaczynski and his identical twin brother Jaroslaw became, respectively, president and prime minister of Poland in 2005, a mocked-up group photo of the future president standing in a row with the rest of Europe’s leaders did the email rounds among Poland’s intelligentsia. “Think before you vote!” read the caption. The head of the diminutive Lech reached, on average, elbow level of the other leaders.

Poland’s twin leadership have indeed stuck out like two sore thumbs in Europe from the moment they entered office. They squat like garden gnomes on Europe’s political landscape, a grumpy Tweedledum and Tweedledee whose high self-esteem and low physical stature makes them irresistible to tabloids throughout Europe.

The brothers’ credentials as pre-1989 anti-communist activists and their hard talk on corruption have earned them the benefit of the doubt among most western observers. But what may seem at worst a distant comedy from Britain feels like a living tragedy in Poland. The Kaczynskis, once freedom fighters, are bringing the habits of authoritarianism back to Poland.

The brothers earned their spurs in the 1980s as part of the anti-communist Solidarity trade union movement. They became marginalised following Solidarity’s mid-1990s bust-up, and have now returned harbouring a personal grudge. What’s more, it’s a grudge apparently shared by much of the populace. The Kaczynskis collect their electorate mostly in rural areas, among the elderly, unskilled and poorly educated; those who have most reason to feel they’ve been short-changed in the transition to capitalism. As one taxi driver put it to me, “Before, we had money and there was nothing in the shops. Now the shops have everything. But who’s got the money to buy it?”

The authoritarian tendency of the Kaczynskis' Law and Justice (PiS) party’s coalition government has had an impact in almost every area of public life. Its very first act, in autumn 2005, was to rush through parliament a bill giving it control over appointments on public radio and television. Meanwhile, the coalition has slammed the brakes on privatisation, with some members even talking of re-nationalisation.

The Kaczynskis are entirely open about their willingness to use public offices for political patronage. Poland’s state-owned firms have begun to resemble the towers of medieval Tuscan cities, as the government hurls out board members, replacing them with ill-qualified cronies. Scrapping civil service exams, the coalition has opened up thousands of jobs for the boys. And few expect Poland’s new central bank chief, Slawomir Skrzypek, to prove more than a Kaczynski puppet.

And the twins have co-opted much of the right wing of the church. Jaroslaw Kaczynski propounds an authoritarian social ethos combined with a Catholic “solidarity.” So while his government talks of laying out maternity inducements and pension privileges, Poland’s religious and sexual minorities are increasingly marginalised. Evolution will vanish from biology curriculums if the current minister of education has his way. The health ministry is promoting—exclusively—Catholic calendar methods of contraception in schools. Coalition members are calling for a total ban on abortion, even when the mother’s life is under threat. As mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski manipulated technicalities to block a gay rights demonstration.

The PiS-led coalition has two main bogeymen. First there are the “liberals,” traitors who want to allow foreign companies to exploit innocent Poland. They include “unpatriotic” intellectuals like the architect of Poland’s economic transition, former central bank chief Leszek Balcerowicz. “Liberals” want to poison Catholic Poland with the tolerance of western Europe, where gays and paedophiles walk unashamed, loose women have abortions for fun, and rampant atheism is relativising all concept of morality. The second, the “post-communist networks,” supposedly aim to belittle all the achievements of post-1989 Poland. These networks, the Kaczynskis insist, still secretly control Poland in collusion with the liberal wing of former Solidarity.

These two labels are so nebulous that one or the other can usually be pinned on anyone who gets in the way. And if neither sticks, then, in the best Soviet tradition, you can nab them on corruption. A classic case came up last autumn, when a private television channel, TVN, filmed a government member offering taxpayers’ money to pay off an MP’s legal debts. But the sting was the work of a conspiracy inspired by “post-communist networks,” ruling-party MPs announced. Before long, the government’s anti-corruption bureau announced it was examining claims that financial irregularities had accompanied TVN’s IPO on the Warsaw stock exchange two years before.

Despite all this, the twins have proved so quarrelsome and ineffective that many hope they’ll wrestle themselves off scene before too long. The government has done no more than any of its predecessors to end the muddled laws, capricious clerks and bureaucracy that mean the average Pole still wastes half his life trailing around government offices. And it has been no stranger to sleaze. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s right-hand man, Przemyslaw Gosiewski, spent much of last year arranging for a national express train to stop at his hometown (population 47,000). When Poland’s labour minister grew peckish recently, she called for the police to bring her sandwiches. Most spectacularly, vice-prime minister Andrzej Lepper remains in office, despite being accused of beating a prostitute and trading public office in return for sexual services.

But the Kaczynskis have maintained their high ratings. One reason may be the appeal they still seem to hold for much of their own generation. In 2005’s presidential elections, 61 per cent of voters over 60 voted for Lech Kaczynski, compared to 54 per cent of the total electorate. My elderly neighbour, a former opera singer, recently confided, “I have the greatest respect for the Kaczynski.” “But why?” I protested. “They do nothing but pick fights!” “That’s so very true!” she rejoined, adding, after a thoughtful pause, “Yes, I have the greatest respect for the Kaczynski.”

The Kaczynskis' distrust of foreigners and emphasis on pre-war values chimes with Poles who lived through Nazi and Soviet occupation. There is also a sense that Poland needs to stand up to the west. This finds expression in an increasingly prevalent prickly patriotism. Last summer, when a German satirist compared Lech Kaczynski to a potato, it wasn’t just the president—who reacted by calling off a French-German-Polish summit—that took offence. The entire Polish press united in declaring that the satire was not funny.

The twins have taken care of their core electorate. Pensioners make up over a quarter of Poland’s 38m population, and their numbers are growing fast as postwar baby boomers join their ranks. Last year the government granted privileged pension terms and early retirement to miners, adding future billions to Poland’s already overloaded budget. Early retirement deals are also on the cards for dozens of other professional groups.

Meanwhile, young people are leaving the country. With total unemployment at around 14 per cent—double that among those under 25—taxable workers are few. But a crippling payroll tax means that those with jobs are being fleeced to support Poland’s swelling army of pensioners. “Work in Poland is taxed so hard, it’s become a luxury good. It’s not surprising that young Poles want out,” says Ryszard Petru, chief economist at BPH bank. Bartek Malinowski, aged 21, who takes home just PLN 4 (just under 80p) an hour from his job at Tesco in the southeastern town of Ostrowiec Swiętokrzyskie, agrees. He can’t afford to rent a flat, so Bartek lives with his parents. “I’m going to have to leave,” says Bartek, “I can’t go on like this.” According to Rafał Antczak, an economist at Poland’s Case Foundation, “After funding their parents and grandparents, Poles can’t afford to have children in Poland, which means that in the future, things are only going to get worse. There’s no demographic high coming up to support future pensions.”

But Poland lacks a credible alternative to the twins. Most Poles are so sick of their governments that they don’t bother to vote; turnout at the 2005 parliamentary elections was 41 per cent. Poland’s Socialist party is sunk in sleaze, while the indecisive economic liberal (PO) party irritates even its own young, urban, professional electorate.

Many Poles now treat politics as a running joke. Despised by the government, outvoted by the countryside, Poland’s disillusioned young now unload their desperation, just as they did in the communist People’s Republic, into a sparkling treasure trove of subversive humour. Quips, digs and caricatures of the Kaczynskis buzz around the country, creating, ironically, a warm, new, electronic solidarity.

One recent email reawakened a memory shared by many Poles: that the Kaczynski brothers’ first brush with fame was at the age of 13, when they starred as fair-haired innocents in the film The Two Who Stole the Moon. Footage showed the pair gazing longingly at the moon through their bedroom window, while definitions of the English “lunatic” whizzed by. As did the comment, “But did they have to take us all there with them?”