Tag Archives: Donald Tusk

Poland – The shadow of the Smolensk air crash over Polish politics

The crash of the presidential aircraft in Smolensk on 10 April 2010, killing not only president Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice – PiS) and his wife but also 94 other high-ranking politicians and military officials as well as the crew, is arguably the most significant moment in Polish politics during the last 25 years. PiS, controlling presidency and government since 2015, has recently ramped up its efforts to promote their questionable version of the events. Seven years on, the crash thus still casts its shadow over Polish politics and pose interesting questions regarding the developments in government and presidency.

President Duda lays wreaths at the Smolensk memorial and victims’ graves – 10 April 2017 | photo via prezydent.pl

The news of the crash in Smolensk (Russia), from where the president and other passengers were meant to drive to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD in 1943, put Poland in a state of shock – surpassing even the mourning in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Contrary to the passing of the ‘Polish Pope’, however, the event divided Polish society more strongly any other issue in modern Polish history. Criticism was mainly levelled at the Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk (Civic Platform – PO) and their handling of the investigation. In particular, the conservative and traditionally russophobe part of the electorate (which moreover strongly identified with the views of PiS), were discontent with the fact that Russia was handling the primary investigation, although this was dictated by international law. This was amplified by problems reported with the identification of victims (leading to exhumations even years later) and their transport to Poland. Already then PiS politicians including Jaroslaw Kaczynski – party leader and identical twin brother of the president – openly accused Donald Tusk and his government of conspiring with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to kill the president.

After Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost the subsequent presidential election against the government candidate and parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, controversy centred on the various reports on the crash. Prosecutors concluded that the plane had descended despite adverse weather conditions and too early, colliding with a tree and breaking up. An impromptu parliamentary commission led by PiS politician Antoni Macierewicz on the other hand produced a report that claimed that the plane had been brought down by explosions, basing its conclusion on statements by several self-proclaimed experts and containing several contradictions and inconsistencies. Throughout the years following the crash, PiS also supported vigils, a grass roots movements and other initiatives such as the yearly ‘Smolensk Conference’ (whose website has a section dedicated to exposing alleged misinformation and cover-ups by the Tusk government).

The issue of Smolensk remains highly divisive, yet PiS has interpreted its victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections – preceded by the election of its candidate Andrzej Duda as president only months earlier – as a mandate to not only execute a number of highly controversial and arguably unconstitutional measures, but also to considerably increase its efforts to push their own version of the events nationally and internationally. Although formally these are promoted by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and members of her government as well as president Duda, it is clear that they are coordinated by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (who does not hold any government office himself and is not even leader of the parliamentary party). At first, the new government disabled the official website about the investigation. Later, it started to promote the widely criticised film ‘Smolensk’ which is based on the discredited explosion/assassination theory; as even diplomatic posts were used to promote it internationally, some cinemas rented for the purpose of viewings cancelled the booking as the film was seen as government propaganda. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself has stated that the film showed ‘the truth’. In November 2016, the government opened a new investigation which included the exhumation of the president and several other victims against protests by the majority of relatives. Two weeks ago, the Polish prosecution – which like the state media has been restructured to reflect the views of the ruling party – announced they would charge two Russian air traffic controllers with deliberately causing the crash.

The activities of the Polish government regarding the Smolensk air crash are part of a wider strategy and legitimising narrative to consolidate power. Nevertheless, they have never been able to shake the appearance of a personal Vendetta by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Therefore, and given that a majority of the Polish population is now in favour of laying the matter to rest (only ~25% consistently report to rather trust any of the conspiracy theories), it is puzzling why the government would still pursue it. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s personal interest is surely a driving factor, yet he is also well aware that he cannot win elections with the topic (admittedly, the government has a introduced and put more effort into a number of other policies more clearly directed at gaining popular support). However, it may well be that the recent shift from the explosion-theory to accusing Russian air traffic controllers is part of a larger plan to rather mobilise anti-Russian sentiment in the Polish population (which is more promising). Another interesting point is the fact that Andrzej Duda as president, albeit supporting the PiS narrative, has not taken a more prominent role. At first glance, this may appear as a strategy to appeal to a wider electorate in the next presidential election than just PiS’ core electorate. Yet as he has so far never openly criticised the government or any of its policies, this seems unlikely. Rather, the Polish presidency under Duda (and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as the grey eminence) eerily beings to resemble developments observed in Hungary, i.e. towards a presidency as mere lapdog of the ruling party rather than an effective check-and-balance. While the once again poses the question, what use the institution then fulfils for the party in power, it is a parallel in two increasingly illiberal democracies that requires further investigation.

Poland – The new cabinet of Ewa Kopacz and the limits of presidential influence over government formation

Yesterday, the Polish Sejm (lower chamber of parliament) passed a vote of confidence in the new government of Ewa Kopacz by 259 to 189 votes (7 abstentions). Kopacz, the second woman to head a Polish cabinet, had been nominated by president Komorowski on 15 September after her predecessor Donald Tusk resigned in early September to take up the position of European Council president. The new cabinet includes a few surprise nominations in key ministries which – in one way or another – show the extend of president Komorowski’s influence over cabinet formation.

New Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz with her cabinet | photo via wikimedia commons

When president Lech Wałęsa appointed Hanna Suchocka as Poland’s first female Prime Minister in 1992, the new head of government reportedly had no influence over the composition of her cabinet. Rather, this was negotiated between leaders of the coalition parties and the president himself and it was evident that Suchocka (although deputy head of the Sejm’s legislative committee at the time) had been chosen for her lack of genuine political leverage. Ewa Kopacz’s nomination as Prime Minister thus stands in contrast to Poland’s first experience with a female Prime Minister. Kopacz was not only minister for health in Donald Tusk’s first government (2007-2011) and subsequently served as speaker of the Sejm, but has also been deputy chairperson of the Civic Platform (PO) since 2010 and first deputy since 2013. Rather than a stopgap, Kopacz comes to her position with more political power and experience than some of her male predecessors. The majority of ministers from the Tusk government will continue to lead their respective portfolio in Kopacz’s new cabinet. Notable changes, however, have been made in the ministries for foreign affairs, interior, and justice and give an indication of the power balance between president Komorowski and the new Prime Minister.

According to media reports, the departure of foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski and justice minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz can largely be attributed to pressure from president Komorowski. Both Sikorski and Sienkiewicz were implicated in a wiretapping scandal earlier this summer and the president had subsequently repeatedly expressed his disapproval towards their continued cabinet membership. Yet Komorowski’s pressure to remove both men from their posts is also evidence of the increasing hostility between the factions in the PO that formed around the triumvirate Tusk-Sikorski-Sienkiewicz and the president and his advisors. Their removal from the new cabinet (although Sikorski has now succeeded Kopacz as speaker of the Sejm) thus weakens the influence not only of said rival group but also that of ex-PM Donald Tusk. The dismissal of interior minister Marek Bernacki – a long-time ally of Komorowski – on the other hand appears to be Kopacz’s attempt to weaken the president’s influence over government policy.

The new appointments, too, bear marks of both Ewa Kopacz and the president. The new foreign secretary Gregorz Schetyna – although chairman of the Sejm’s foreign policy committee sine late 2011 – lacks significant foreign policy experience, yet is one of the most significant intra-party rivals of both Tusk and Komorowski. The new justice minister Cezary Grabarczyk is politically closer to the president and known as leader of a faction of regional party leaders who tended to support Donald Tusk but due to his post as deputy speaker under Ewa Kopacz also close to the new Prime Minister. Nevertheless, the fact that he has – despite pressure from Tusk and Komorowski – not been made deputy prime minister shows that Kopacz is wary of his potential influence. Last, the appointment of Teresa Piotrowska as the new interior minister is another point on Kopacz’s side of the scoreboard. Piotrowska, who first entered parliament together with Kopacz, is a close friend and political ally of the new Prime Minister, yet her nomination has widely been panned and criticised due to her announcement not to take on the oversight of the country’s special services.

Ewa Kopacz has thus managed to claim her appointees for two of the so-called ‘force ministries’ (foreign affairs, interior, defence – often staffed with presidential nominees due to political practice developed under Poland’s ‘Small Constitution’ 1993-1997), yet her success is mitigated by the lack of her chosen ministers’ qualifications. Nevertheless, she could still tip the balance of power between her and the president in her favour and thus credibly demonstrate her ambition to be an independent political actor. Yet this might prove to be only a temporary victory. She will only be able realise her political ambitions if the PO also elects her as a party leader, although these might not take place until after the next parliamentary election in autumn 2015.

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Ewa Kopacz’s cabinet consists of 19 members (PM + 17 ministers with portfolio + head of cabinet office), 11of which previously served in the same position under Donald Tusk (the ministries headed by the Civic Platform’s coalition partner, PSL, remained unaffected). There are four non-partisan members in the cabinet, all of which are have clear political links to the Civic Platform. The division of portfolios between PO and PSL remained unaffected and the PSL remains being slightly overrepresented in the cabinet.

seat and portfolio allocation Kopacz1

Composition of Kopacz I
Prime Minister: Ewa Kopacz (PO, female, 58)
Minister for Defence & deputy PM: Tomasz Siemoniak (PO, male, 47)*
Minister for Economy & deputy PM: Janusz Piechociński (PSL, male, 54)*
Minister for Health: Bartosz Arłukowicz (PO, male , 43)*
Minister for Sport and Tourism: Andrzej Biernat (PO, male, 54)*
Minister for Administration and Digitalisation: Andrzej Halicki (PO, male, 53)
Minister for the Treasury: Włodzimierz Karpiński (PO, male, 53)*
Minister for Justice: Cezary Grabarczyk (PO, male, 54)
Minister for the Environment: Maciej Grabowski (non-partisan [PO], male, 55)*
Minister for Education: Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska (non-partisan [PO], female, 50)*
Minister for Science and Higher education: Lena Kolarska-Bobińska (PO, female, 66)*
Minister for Labour and Social Policy: Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz (PSL, male, 33)*
Minister for Culture and National Heritage: Małgorzata Omilanowska (non-partisan [PO], female, 44)
Minister for the Interior: Teresa Piotrowska (PO, female, 59)
Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development: Marek Sawicki (PSL, male, 56)*
Minister for Foreign Affairs: Grzegorz Schetyna (PO, male, 49)
Minister for Finances: Mateusz Szczurek (non-partisan [PO], male, 39)*
Minister for Infrastructure and Development: Maria Wasiak (non-partisan [PO], female, 54)
Minister without portfolio/Head of the Cabinet’s Office: Jacek Cichocki (non-partisan [PO], male, 43)*

* member of previous government with same portfolio (Tomasz Siemoniak was promoted to deputy PM).

Poland – President appoints new ministers following cabinet re-shuffle

After Prime Minister Tusk’s official announcement of a large-scale government reshuffle last week, most of the new members will be appointed by president Bronisław Komorowski today (others will be appointed on 3 December). The changes only relate to ministries headed by Tusk’s own ‘Civic Platform’ (PO), not to the ‘Polish Peasants’ Party’ (PSL) with whom he has been in a coalition since November 2007. The president, who is also a PO member, did not voice any concerns, although he formally possesses some influence on the dismissal and appointment of cabinet members. The changes – which are meant to get the increasingly unpopular government second wind – are as follows:

Ministry of Finance
Mateusz Szczurek (39, male, formerly head analyst at ING Poland) replaces Jacek Rostowski (62, male; finance minister since November 2007, deputy prime minister since February 2013)

Ministry of Regional Development & Ministry of Infrastructure
Both ministries are combined under the leadership of Elżbieta Bieńkowska (49, female) who was until now regional development minister. The last Minister of Infrastructure, Sławomir Nowak (39, male, minister of infrastructure since November 2011) resigned on 15 November this year. Bieńkowska was also made one of the deputy prime ministers.

Ministry of Administration and digitisation
Rafał Trzaskowski (41, male, currently Member of the European Parliament) replaces Michał Boni (59, male, non-partisan, administration minister since November 2011).

Ministry of Science and Higher Education
Lena Kolarska-Bobińska (63, female, currently Member of the European Parliament) replaces Barbara Kudrycka (63, female, science and education minister since November 2007).

Ministry of National Education
Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska (49, female, PO member since June 2011, previously member of ‘Law and Justice’ [currently in opposition] and founder of its splinter party ‘Poland First’) replaces Krystyna Szumilas (63, female, minister of education since November 2011).

Ministry of the Environment
Maciej Grabowski (54, male, under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Finance since 2008) replaces Marcin Korolec (44, male, minister of the environment since November 2011).

Ministry of Sport and Tourism
Andrzej Biernat (53, male) replaces Joanna Mucha (43, female, sports & tourism minister since November 2011).

For a full list of cabinet members, see the website of the Prime Minister’s Chancellery.