Secret Taping Scandal Returns to Haunt Poland as Premier Hits Back

(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s ruling party suggested Germany is behind a political provocation just weeks before local elections after a report published by a leading Polish website, owned by Axel-Springer SE, linked the prime minister to a secret recording scandal.

The development shows that Poland’s nationalists are again ramping up anti-German rhetoric ahead of elections, seeking to exploit long-running historical grievances and showing their resolve to stand up to the European Union’s powerhouse.

The Law & Justice party, which is battling accusations that it’s undermining democracy with its power grab of the courts and media, said it was no coincidence that the revelations appeared after opposition leader Grzegorz Schetyna met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow Christian Democrat, in Berlin last week.

“Oddly enough, this surfaces in German media right after Schetyna returns from Germany,” ruling party spokeswoman Beata Mazurek told reporters in Warsaw. “A man who is one of the faces of Law & Justice’s election campaign is being attacked.”

After examining 40 volumes of court documents regarding the 2014 publication of tapes of private dinner conversations between politicians and businessmen, website Onet.pl said on Monday that it found statements by restaurant waiters who secretly taped Premier Mateusz Morawiecki, at the time the chief executive officer of Bank Santander SA’s Polish unit.

One waiter, identified only as Lukasz N., said he remembers the former banker was recorded discussing potential real-estate investments to be made by him and an associate, which would be formally fronted by “other people,” Onet.pl reported. It cited transcripts of testimony made in court and to prosecutors but said it didn’t have access to recordings.

‘Someone’s Toes’

The leaked tapes hammered the popularity of the then Civic-Platform led government and helped drive it from power in 2015. Morawiecki is the face of Law & Justice ahead of Oct. 21 local elections as it tries to translate a lead in opinion polls to cementing its rule in the country of 38 million.

The ballot pits the government, which has ramped up social spending and nationalist rhetoric and clashed with the EU over values, against an opposition that says the ruling party is ruining the nearly three-decade-old democracy and isolating Poland in the 28-nation bloc.

“It’s obvious we stepped on someone’s toes,” Morawieckitold Polsat News in a televised interview late on Monday. Morawiecki said he didn’t recall “any such issues” as raised by Onet.pl, an outlet he called “part of the foreign media.”

Law & Justice has repeatedly incited anti-German sentiment, including in past years through its calls for hundreds of billions of euros in reparations from Berlin for losses suffered during World War II. In 2005, the party falsely insinuated that the grandfather of its biggest political foe, the current EU Council President and former Polish Premier Donald Tusk, “volunteered” to serve in the Nazi army.

Poland’s edition of Newsweek, which is also controlled by Swiss-German joint venture Ringier Axel Springer Polska, reported in 2016 that Morawiecki was among the people who were secretly taped but until this week there was no indication of any potentially incriminating comments from him. Law & Justice has repeatedly used the scandal as evidence of what it calls its predecessors’ elitist lifestyles, saying they pursued a self-serving approach to power and suffered a disconnect from ordinary Poles.

Not much is known about who initiated the taping operation, however. An investigation by weekly Polityka last month placed the blame on Russian agents seeking to destabilize the EU’s biggest ex-communist member.

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