Poland’s Teflon Populists Can Survive a Tape Scandal

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- An election is due in Poland this year and, like four years ago, clandestine recordings are taking center stage. But if a scandal about tapes played a big part in bringing down the liberal Civic Platform government in 2015, it will be harder to displace the nationalist Law and Justice Party by similar means in 2019.

On Tuesday, the daily Gazeta Wyborcza published a recording in which Law and Justice party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski apparently discusses a high-profile construction project in Warsaw. The information came to the newspaper by way of Austrian Gerald Birgfellner, a relative of Kaczynski, who started work on the twin 190-meter towers on the site of the political party’s former headquarters – but wasn’t paid after the project stalled.

In the tapes, Kaczynski appears to tell the businessman that a construction permit will only be made available if his grouping wins the Warsaw mayoral election. The PiS candidate lost, and Birgfellner wasn’t paid. The developer’s lawyer, who has strong ties to the opposition Civic Platform, has complained to the prosecutor’s office. The newspaper also reported that sate-run Bank Pekao SA was to provide a 300 million-euro loan ($343 million) for the project.

Many Polish commentators, especially pro-government ones, rushed to dismiss Gazeta Wyborcza’s scoop as a dud. Kaczynski himself hasn't responded so far, but PiS spokeswoman Beata Mazurek tried to preempt the story in a Monday night tweet, saying the newspaper was poised to publish “pseudo revelations” developing “the same rumors and speculations we have heard for years.”

The dismissals are disingenuous, though. It is undeniably damaging to PiS to have Kaczynski say that the party would use its political power to push through an enormous construction project involving his family and some of his closest associates. The involvement of a state-owned bank also looks unfortunate in this context. (Pekao has said it lends money according to banking law and its own internal procedures.)

Kaczynski has always tried to portray himself as an ascetic – uninterested in luxury and self-enrichment. He wears bad suits, and his official property declaration for 2017 showed he had only 19,000 zloty ($5,000) in savings. “You don’t go into politics for money,” he has often repeated. Yet this contrasts sharply with his familiarity with the details of the tower project and the ease with which he conducts business negotiations.

“Populism always ends this way, in an oligarchy,” former Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted about the scoop. 

Sikorski, of course, had to resign as speaker of the parliament in 2015 as part of a purge of senior liberal figures involved in the tape scandal the previous year. If anything, those revelations, which weakened the Civic Platform and helped PiS win power, were less explosive than the Kaczynski revelations. Waiters at an upscale restaurant had recorded the politicians’ profane and cynical conversations. In one, the supposedly independent central bank chief discussed changing monetary policy to help the party stay in power. In another, Sikorski described Poland’s alliance with the U.S., still a mainstay of the country’s foreign policy, as “worthless.” But they contained nothing legally actionable, no smoking gun.

PiS benefited from those tapes because, like other populist parties, it campaigned against an entrenched elite. Poles didn’t like the crudeness of the backroom conversations or the distance between what politicians said privately and publicly. But will the PiS’s opponents gain anything by revealing Kaczynski’s apparently out-of-character business dealings?

My guess is that it will be harder for them, and not because the revelations are a dud. For all PiS’s anti-corruption rhetoric, Poland has fallen to 36th place in in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index from 29th in 2015. There have been notable corruption scandals, too; six suspects, including a close associate of a former PiS defense minister, were arrested this week in a scandal involving Poland’s biggest defense company.

But voters don’t seem to blame this on the PiS. Recent polls give the party a clear lead, though not a big enough one to win an outright majority in the fall, when elections are due.

In his 2016 book, “What Is Populism,” political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller wrote that populist governments have a kind of license to practice “state colonization, mass clientele-ism and discriminatory legalism”.

“Revelations about what can only be called corruption simply do not seem to damage the reputation of populist leaders as much as one would expect,” Mueller wrote. “Clearly, the perception among supporters of populists is that corruption and cronyism are not genuine problems as long as they look like measures pursued for the sake of a moral, hardworking ‘us’ and not for the immoral or even foreign ‘them.’”

This phenomenon is manifest in the attitudes of people who support all modern populist leaders, from Donald Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban. There’s no reason why Kaczynski should be any different. Liberals will need more potent weapons to have any effect – and for now, it will be hard to find them, all the more so given Poland’s economic growth and PiS’s generous social programs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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