Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Jaroslaw Kaczynski had the reputation of being a Polish political genius, a man able to see several steps ahead and to catch his foes on the hop - but that was when he was prime minister, heading an unwieldy coalition of nationalists and populists as well as his own conservative Law and Justice party. Since losing parliamentary elections in October, Kaczynski's previously sure touch has deserted him as both he and his party have blundered from crisis to crisis, unable to function effectively as Poland's largest opposition party.
According to a poll released at the end of April by the CBOS Institute, the new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is Poland's most trusted politician, enjoying the confidence of 66% of the respondents. Tusk is followed by former president Lech Walesa with 51%, then Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski with 50%. At the other end of the scale is Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, the founder and director of the Catholic Radio Maryja, who is the least-trusted public figure, followed by former leftist PM Leszek Miller and former prime minister and then Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
"They've completely lost their way," says Pawel Zalewski, a former deputy leader of Law and Justice (PiS) who now sits as an independent MP after being shoved aside for calling for more debate within the party. "I don't think it's healthy because the country needs a functioning opposition party."
Zalewski isn't the only PiS MP to be shown the door for daring to question Kaczynski's leadership. Kazimierz Ujazdowski, culture minister under Kaczynski, has also been pushed out, as has Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, a former PiS prime minister who had once been such a stalwart party member that he stepped aside to make room for Kaczynski to head the government.
Ludwik Dorn, formerly so close to the Kaczynski brothers (Lech is president) that he was known as the "third twin," has stepped down from positions of authority within the party and has been reduced to venting on his blog about the party's lack of direction.
As party barons have been sidelined, Kaczynski has surrounded himself with loyalists who have proven unable to deter him from a series of increasingly costly mistakes.
His biggest recent error was to unexpectedly oppose the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty reforming the functioning of the EU. He wanted to prevent the current Civic Platform government from withdrawing from provisions in the treaty that favour Poland, including the ability of a smaller group of countries to block certain EU initiatives and Poland's opt out of the treaty's charter of fundamental rights. But Kaczynski's sudden turnaround on a treaty he had helped negotiate last year with his twin brother Lech, Poland's president, found little understanding with voters and threatened to split his party between Eurosceptics and EU enthusiasts.
In the end, the government threatened to hold a referendum, which it would have easily won in a country that overwhelmingly favours membership in the EU. Kaczynski was forced to back down. But in the parliamentary vote to ratify the treaty he lost control of his party, with only 89 of the party's 157 MPs heeding his call to back the treaty after the right-wing and ultra-Catholic Radio Maryja radio station came out against it.
Although Kaczynski declared afterwards that "nothing has happened," Ludwik Dorn wrote on his blog that the party leader "committed a grave error beginning a contest about the conditions for ratifying the Lisbon treaty."
The government of PM Tusk has also launched a series of attacks against the legacy of various PiS ministers, concentrating in particular on Wojciech Jasinski, the former treasury ministry who stuffed the ranks of state-controlled companies with party loyalists, and Zbigniew Ziobro, the former justice minister, who had acted as Kaczynski's sword in pursuing politically convenient prosecutions.
Efforts to rebuild PiS's popularity have ended in embarrassing failures. An attempt by the party's young Turks to appear hip had them creating an advert poking fun at the government by depicting ministers as characters from the sci-fi movie Matrix, not realizing that Tusk and his deputies had been portrayed as the film's heroes.
When Kaczynski tried to appeal to the young by being interviewed by an online news site, he talked about why he didn't favour internet voting: "I'm not enthusiastic that a young person sitting in front of a computer, looking at pornographic films and sipping from a bottle of beer can vote whenever he feels like it."
Those sorts of comments haven't helped PiS recover from the steep dive it went into after the election, when it wot 32% support compared with 42% for Civic Platform. A recent poll showed Tusk's party with 53% support, while PiS was far behind with only 20%.
So far Tusk's approach of being non-controversial and avoiding the fights and arguments that characterised Kaczynski's year in office are paying enormous dividends in terms of public support, which for now is not endangered by PiS' bumbling attempts to return to favour.
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