Monday, October 08, 2007

''Can Elections Pull Poland's Politics Out of the Gutter?''

he Polish Sejm has voted to dissolve itself two years ahead of regularly scheduled elections, with new voting planned for October 21. The country has watched its leaders lurch from one crisis to the next, without a clear sense of purpose or attention to critical domestic issues. In recent months, the government has been racked by scandals, public embarrassments, foreign policy blunders, allegations of ties to criminal syndicates, debilitating personality clashes, and legislative gridlock -- resulting in a loss of its majority status and capacity to govern.

Early elections will provide the Sejm with the semblance of a fresh start, although key political figures are likely to remain unchanged. The European Union and United States will be watching as well, with major international agreements either postponed or potentially up for renegotiation.

Law and Justice: Background on the Ruling Party

Poland is in the unique position of being governed by twin brothers, President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, of the leading rightist Law and Justice Party. Since achieving a narrow victory in the Sejm in September 2006, the party has struggled to maintain a coalition; its latest coalition with the Self Defense Party and a radical nationalist party lasted only four months.

During previous elections, the party capitalized on a fear of rapid market reforms, labeled by the president during his campaign as a "dangerous liberal experiment." Their strongest supporters came from the countryside (gaining two-thirds of the vote there) and from Catholics who feared a dilution of traditional values. As mayor of Warsaw, President Kaczynski twice banned gay pride parades and spoke in support of reintroducing the death penalty.

The son of a freedom fighter, the president was a leading proponent of a state-of-the-art museum commemorating the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupation, contributing to a sense of solidarity with the older generation. He has also strived to appear as the champion of the poor in a country with an official unemployment rate of 18 percent, promising to maintain welfare benefits and rejecting tax increases proposed by the opposition to spur economic development.

In the realm of foreign policy, the staunchly anti-communist party has focused on close ties to the United States, occasionally at the expense of relations with the European Union and Russia. Affairs with Germany have suffered the most, as the party and its coalition members have spotlighted minor quarrels with their neighbor to gain supporters domestically.

Scandal Stage One: Andrzej Lepper

Its struggle to maintain a majority coalition government pulled Law and Justice into a riptide of scandals. No single episode towered above the rest in public outrage; the cumulative effect was to turn the Sejm into a stage for political soap opera with daily dramas fueling the tabloids and public disenchantment. While many names and faces emerged in the press, a gravitational force seemed to spiral around two Members of Parliament: Andrzej Lepper and Janusz Kaczmarek.

Andrzej Lepper is the leader of the populist Self Defense Party. Through his party's coalition of necessity with Law and Justice, he was awarded two additional positions: agricultural minister and deputy prime minister (one of four such appointments). The uneasy coalition began to crack almost immediately, with Deputy Lepper's departure in 2006 after he was accused of "squabbling" by the prime minister. He returned by the end of the year in order to avoid early elections, only to resurface in the news attached to a sex scandal.

Together with Deputy Stanislaw Lyzwinski, he was accused of requiring female employees to trade sex for government employment. This led in turn to a paternity scandal for Mr. Lyzwinski, who later appeared to be cleared by DNA testing. The edgy coalition -- already damaged by the earlier fracture -- was now on shaky ground, as Lepper was believed to have embarrassed the ruling party and the prime minister who had campaigned on a moral values platform.

Surviving the sex scandal, Lepper was finally sacked in July by the prime minister for "sowing discord." Lepper, a former pig farmer and champion of rural rights, had voiced his opposition to the budget offered by the prime minister -- in particular the funds for continued troop deployment in Afghanistan. Lepper complained publicly that the prime minister did not consult him and refused to speak with him on the matter, but instead was "only interested in having people kneel before him." Worse than the charges of "sowing discord," Lepper was concurrently alleged to have profited from his position as agricultural minister by participating in a bribing scheme of millions of dollars to re-designate agricultural land for commercial use. As a result of the personal and political clash, Lepper lost his position and the party was expelled from the coalition.

On September 3, another blow was dealt to Lepper's career when the man responsible for crafting his public image was detained as part of a joint police-Interpol action against a child pornography ring. Piotr Tymochowicz, one of the best known media advisors and PR specialists in the country, is one of the 38 persons already detained in what is expected to be an expanding net of arrests. Lepper has struck back, asserting that he is completely innocent of wrong doing in all regards, and that the series of scandals is designed to defame him. Read the full story...