When Wprost, a Polish weekly, published snippets of a private conversation between the interior minister and governor of the central bank discussing colleagues, it was widely expected that heads would roll. Yet in his official statement on June 16 Prime Minister Donald Tusk did not dismiss Sienkiewicz, attempting instead to lower the political temperature by focusing on the illegal nature of the recordings. More secret tape recordings are sure to follow, which will make this strategy hard to continue as pressure grows on the government.
Speaking over a meal at a popular restaurant in Warsaw in July 2013, Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and Marek Belka appeared to be negotiating the fate of Jacek Rostowski, the finance minister who was replaced a few months later, among other things.
The wiretapping scandal comes at a delicate time for Tusk’s centre-right Civic Platform government and has potentially far-reaching political consequences. Three weeks ago, in the elections to the European Parliament on May 25, Civic Platform managed to finish a modest 0.35 percentage points ahead of the conservative Law and Justice, the biggest opposition party. But election season is only just beginning, with local elections this autumn followed by presidential and parliamentary ones next year, in which a third Civic Platform government is by no means assured. If the next polls show a drop in its ratings, the governing party could face “its biggest crisis in years,” says Wojciech Szacki, a political analyst at Polityka Insight, a think-tank in Warsaw.
The Law and Justice party has been quick to pounce, submitting a motion on a no-confidence vote in Sienkiewicz and calling for the entire cabinet to resign. “Every day that the government remains in place poses a threat to the state’s security,” declared Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s leader.
Other opposition politicians want a parliamentary inquiry set up or for the prosecutor to investigate whether Tusk and the officials caught on the tapes committed any crimes.
Yet speaking at his press conference on the afternoon of June 16, Tusk tried to play down the conversation itself. His criticism focused on Sienkiewicz’s crude language in the recording, rather than its controversial content concerning the former finance minister Rostowski and other matters. At the same time, he said that he would not dismiss Sienkiewicz, whom he views as a competent minister and hopes will get involved in explaining the wiretapping affair. According to Szacki, Tusk decided to keep Sienkiewicz – his trusted adviser – reasoning that his fall would only raise the incident’s profile.
Amid speculation about whether Belka will keep his job, Tusk said that it was not up to him to decide on the fate of the head of the central bank. Besides, the two officials had been “discussing how to help, rather than harm, the Polish state.” Speaking on a news programme on the evening of June 16, Belka himself said that he was not considering resigning. He has since emphasised the private nature of his conversation with Sienkiewicz, which was “not meant for public consumption.”
Tusk also tried to shift the focus onto the nature of the recording itself. “For the first time since 1989, we are dealing with wiretapping from the outside,” he said, speaking of the “destabilisation of the Polish state” through an illegal, well-organised procedure. The situation is especially worrying given the unstable situation to Poland’s east, he added. The focus will be on explaining the affair, rather than making political decisions based on the existing information, he emphasised.
“This is not a case of one minister’s head,” insisted Sienkiewicz, appearing on a prominent television show that same evening. Instead, he views it as an operation extending over several years, targeting key Polish politicians.
More to come
The origin of the recordings released by Wprost weekly remains unknown, though it is the subject of widespread speculation, with the alleged culprits ranging from political enemies at home to foreign secret services.
Some opposition politicians have blamed the two for getting caught. “If someone is stupid and conducts conversations of this weight in these sorts of places, they can always be eavesdropped on,” said Zbigniew Ziobro, leader of Solidarna Polska, a small right-wing party, disparagingly, arguing the recorded officials should resign.
Meanwhile, Wprost says it has other recordings. It has already published exerts of a conversation featuring Slawomir Nowak, a former transport minister in Tusk’s government, who has since announced that he is leaving Civic Platform. "For now the only aspect of these tapes involving Tusk personally is the suggestion that he was aware of the impending collapse of the ‘Amber Gold’ Ponzi scheme, which ruined several thousands of savers, but failed to act because his son was employed by a subsidiary company of Amber Gold, the OLT Express airline. However, it is possible that further tapes will be published, and may involve the government as well as other PO officials," says Otilia Dhand, vice president of Teneo Intelligence.
The threat of further revelations is casting its shadow even as Tusk tries to soothe the atmosphere of political scandal in the capital. “The prime minister clearly wants the storm to pass – especially since it’s not clear what other recordings will be released,” said Szacki, commenting on Tusk’s decision not to dismiss Sienkiewicz.
But though Tusk has spared his interior minister for now, public pressure will increase in the coming days and he might be forced to dismiss Sienkiewicz to limit the damage, says Dhand. And the affair could yet take its toll on the ruling Civic Platform’s standing in the polls as it heads towards a series of tight electoral contests against the Law and Justice party. "If the opposition keeps the scandal alive through the investigative committee, this could nevertheless lead to renewed tensions within the ruling party and affect government stability. If Tusk manages to weather the scandal, it could still weigh in on the PO public ratings and damage the premier’s re-election prospects in 2015," says Dhand.
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