WARSAW — Poland may be going through some of the toughest economic times since capitalism replaced communism 19 years ago, but hanging over the government’s ability to respond to the crisis is an ongoing fight for power between the country’s president and prime minister.
The fight extends from foreign policy to a tiff over who uses the government plane. Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, and president Lech Kaczynski have known each other for decades, both cutting their teeth in the Solidarity labor union which was formed in Gdansk, Tusk’s hometown and Kaczynski's longtime residence. Both also played a leading role in the peaceful takeover of power from the communists in 1989.
Although the two politicians share common roots, they have become bitter foes.
The antagonism dates to 2005, when Kaczynski narrowly defeated Tusk during the presidential election campaign. In parliamentary elections that same year, Kaczynski’s right-wing Law and Justice party also bested Tusk’s more centrist Civic Platform. Instead of forming a promised coalition government that was supposed to purge the country of the corruption that had run wild during the previous left-wing government, the two parties began a fight that has lasted until now.
The extent of the antipathy became clear when Tusk won early elections in 2007, replacing Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw as prime minister. The president went into a weeks-long snit, disappearing from public view, and reportedly threatened Tusk with the use of his veto power to destabilize the new government.
Since then, Kaczynski has made good on his warning, rejecting much of the legislation put forward by the Civic Platform government. The president has used his veto power 15 times; trying to block everything from an attempt to reform Poland’s enormously inefficient pension system to a bill restructuring state television and legislation that would rezone agricultural land within Polish cities into building land.
“If problems arise with the speed of our actions, that is mostly because of the antagonism of the opposition and the president to the reforms being proposed by the government,” Tusk said in a recent interview. “Today, the most important political instrument in the hands of the opposition is the presidential veto.”
The conflict between the two spreads far beyond domestic legislation. Because the Polish constitution is fuzzy over the division of power in foreign affairs, Kaczynski has been trying to run his own foreign policy, often without consulting the government. Of particular interest are the former Soviet republics to the east of Poland, especially Georgia and Ukraine. During the August war between Russia and Georgia, Kaczynski jetted off to Tbilisi in a show of support for the embattled Georgia leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, despite the Polish government’s efforts to keep a low profile during the crisis.
Relations have also been fraught over who should represent Poland at European Union meetings. Traditionally, that role has fallen to the prime minister, but Kaczynski insisted on going to a recent summit and the two men descended into an embarrassing tiff over who would get to fly Poland’s only government plane to Brussels.
But with the economic crisis starting to hit Poland, the sour relations between the two are more than comic relief — they are beginning to harm the country.
One of Tusk's key policy ideas is to try to get Poland to adopt the euro by 2012, hoping that the prospect of admission into the common currency would stabilize Poland’s sagging zloty and reassure investors spooked at the prospect of putting money into emerging markets.
Kaczynski said that the 2012 date is “completely unrealistic,” and Law and Justice is insisting that the country hold a referendum before agreeing to adopt the euro. As a result, many economists feel that the government will not meet the 2012 target.
“Joining the euro would give Poland a lot of additional stability,” said Juliet Sampson, HSBC’s chief economist for emerging Europe.