Poland’s ruling rightwing populist party Law and Justice (PiS) party decided to dismissed Prime Minister Beata Szydlo on December 7 and will replace her with the current deputy premier and Finance Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
The move clearly displayed who is really pulling the strings inside the PiS, where government leadership has diverged from party decision-making. The party’s chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski – officially just an MP – has decided to reassert control.
The PM’s dismissal came just hours after PiS defeated with ease the non-confidence vote against the Szydlo government put forward by the opposition. Following the vote, Kaczynski climbed up to the government’s benches to offer Szydlo a kiss on the hand and cheek and a bouquet of flowers.
That was Szydlo’s last highlight of the day and indeed of her two-year tenure at the helm of the government. Rumours of the change have been circulating in Warsaw for weeks, with Morawiecki’s name popping up as the likely new PM in the past few days.
As deputy PM and finance minister, Morawiecki, a 49-year old former banker, has been the face of PiS’ economic policy. Under Morawiecki, the Polish government boasts fast economic growth, record-low unemployment, a solid fiscal position and – unlike preceding cabinets, PiS rarely fails to mention – an unprecedented turn towards inclusiveness in social policy.
Whether that will change is an open question. Morawiecki has an aura of a technocratic financier that contrasts with the soft appeal of Szydlo.
While the business-like image has fitted Morawiecki well in his work as finance minister – he also is the minister of development – he will now have to offer a little more accessibility in order not to alienate PiS’ core electorate of poorer Poles.
PiS has courted this demographic from the start with a narrative that the previous government neglected those left behind by nearly three decades of transformation, while taking care only of the wealthy. Morawiecki epitomizes the latter; building trust with the former appears one of the main challenges ahead of the new PM.
However, Kaczynski’s picking of the former CEO of BZ WBK bank to lead the government halfway through the term at the onset of election marathon years of 2018-2020 might suggest some changes are underway.
Morawiecki's taking over may be PiS’ attempt to gain better traction abroad. Under Szydlo – who does not speak foreign languages, while Morawiecki has good command of English and German – the government has been under fire from the EU nearly from the first day in office.
The main concern remains PiS’ reform of the judiciary, which Brussels deems is in breach of rule of law, which Poland pledged to observe when it joined the EU. While Morawiecki will not stop the reform from going through – a crucial vote is planned for December 8 – he may be tasked with easing the EU’s fury over changes, which establish full political control over Polish courts.
Morawiecki also appears better suited to represent Poland in negotiating the EU’s next budget and the funds Poland will receive after 2020. The negotiations will be tight because of the fallout of Brexit, but also because of Poland’s conflicts with the EU that go well beyond the judiciary reforms, encompassing issues such as relocation of refugees or logging in the biodiversity gem, the Bialowieza Forest.
Any shifts in Poland’s course will be clearer once Morawiecki delivers his programme in the parliament, currently expected in January, although the new PM will himself be sworn in next week.
It is not clear how many, if any, changes in the government line-up Morawiecki will carry out, or whether he is going to hold on to his current vast portfolio. Szydlo is speculated to become one of the deputy PMs, possibly responsible for social policy. Other speculation – such as of Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski also slated to go – is not substantiated at the moment.
If Kaczynski does not change his mind again, Morawiecki – who lacks experience in the day-to-day political grind in which Kaczynski excels – will be one of the ruling party’s leaders at a crucial time when PiS will be seeking to consolidate and prolong its power in Poland. There are local elections in the autumn of 2018, followed by general vote in 2019 and the presidential contest in 2020. At the moment, PiS is unchallenged in the polls, leading at close to 40% ahead of the previous ruling party, the slightly more liberal Civic Platform at around 20% and another liberal party, Nowoczesna, which is at 10%.