Polish voters witnessed a true political rollercoaster at the tail end of last week. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo successfully defended herself against a vote of censure in the Polish Parliament, only to be removed from office by the political committee of her Law and Justice (PiS) party just a couple of hours later. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski named Mateusz Morawiecki, the powerful minister of development and hitherto Deputy PM, as the upcoming head of government to be sworn in on Monday, and to be approved by Parliament one day later.
Social media was immediately flooded with jokes by PiS’s opponents saying that Szydlo was such a good leader that she had to go. But many felt confused. After all, Morawiecki is an ex-banker and former economic advisor to Donald Tusk, current President of the European Council and Kaczynski’s arch-enemy. He is ambitious and competent, and may turn out to be more independent from Kaczynski than his predecessor.
Bewilderment has been even greater among PiS’s supporters, many of whom consider Morawiecki as a foreign element within their ranks, a representative of a financial and cosmopolitan elite. Hardcore PiS supporters have taken note of the humiliating style in which Szydlo, ‘their’ PM, was thrown out of the saddle, and will be keeping a close eye on any other changes in the government.
Why was the reshuffle necessary? The official version says that Szydlo has successfully completed her mission of implementing the first stage of (mostly political and social) changes in Poland, while different competences (mostly economic ones) will be needed in the second stage of this process. Morawiecki’s promotion is framed as proof that emphasis will now be placed on the country’s development challenges.
But other interpretations abound. Some point to the party’s efforts to attract support from the political centre ahead of 2019 parliamentary elections. In this sense, a modern and energetic PM could become a conservative version of the liberal Donald Tusk, whose popularity among voters stemmed largely from his youthfulness and easygoing attitude. That could help PiS win support among those Poles who remain indifferent to the party’s controversial judicial reforms.
Others see Morawiecki as Kaczynski’s counterweight to government hardliners, such as Zbigniew Ziobro (minister of justice) and Antoni Macierewicz (minister of defence) who have been growing in power recently. It may also be a reaction to Szydlo’s huge popularity among PiS voters (in early November, a survey showed that 87% of the party’s voters were happy with Szydlo remaining a PM, and only 9% believed that Kaczynski would outperform her on that position). The incoming PM has a strong personality but is new to the party (joined PiS in 2016) and does not have his own faction yet. He could therefore help Kaczynski to counter the likes of Ziobro and Macierewicz without the risk of becoming too powerful himself.
However, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Morawiecki’s role will largely be to refurbish Poland’s image abroad, and ideally to amplify its voice in the key debates on Brexit, Eurozone reform, and the next EU budget. Apparently, the swap was so hasty largely because Kaczynski wanted Morawiecki in place for this week’s European Council meeting.
That suggests a superficial facelift rather than a significant shift in Warsaw’s European policy. But much will depend on whether further changes are made as promised in January, with the positions of Jan Szyszko, minister of environment, and Witold Waszczykowski, minister of foreign affairs, seemingly vulnerable.
The former is currently on a collision course with Brussels due to a massive tree cutting programme in the protected Bialowieza forest, while the latter has damaged Poland’s relations with all of its neighbours except Belarus. However, Szyszko enjoys strong backing from the influential far-right priest, Tadeusz Rydzyk, whose media conglomerate concentrates many of PiS’s most loyal supporters. Waszczykowski’s political position is much weaker but there is no guarantee that his successor would be any better.
Encouragingly, Morawiecki is getting on well with Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s pragmatic Europe Minister. There’s a question mark over Morawiecki’s successor in the ‘superministry’ of development which, during his tenure, regrouped the competencies of earlier ministries of economy, finance, and regional development. Finally, Szydlo is supposed to remain in the cabinet as the vice-premier covering social policy. Managing this medley will be a huge challenge for the new PM but, if played well, may render PiS’s government more stable and resilient.
Easy come, easy go
Morawjecki’s diplomatic manners and economic competence may succeed in mitigating some of Poland’s problems with the EU. He surely deserves a credit of trust, especially if we recall that just a couple of weeks ago there were talks about Szydlo being replaced by Kaczynski himself. A more friendly and constructive Poland is exactly what Brussels and others have been calling for.
As such he may be able to persuade the European Commission to rethink its recent idea of suing the country for its refusal to accept refugees. He should be able to rebuild some bridges with Berlin, Paris and other partners in the EU. And he will be listened to in European economic discussions. This may turn out be his most important mission: making sure that Eurozone reform does not go too far, and that Poland still receives generous European funds which are so vital for the country’s development.
Nevertheless there are clear limits to what Morawiecki can do. We should not expect his government to accept the EU view that the rule of law in Poland has been in any way broken or endangered. On the contrary, two further controversial proposals for judiciary reform were accepted by the parliamentary commission at the same time as Morawiecki’s nomination, a coincidence which does not seem accidental. Do not hope for Warsaw’s quick conversion on refugee issue either: it is worth recalling Morawiecki’s shameful interview with Fox News in September.
Ultimately Kaczynski put him in power, and whatever Morawiecki’s popularity at home or abroad, he might remove him just as easily, as Szydlo’s case demonstrates. That will be particularly true if Morawiecki’s European mission does not bear tangible fruit. If Poland is offered significantly less money in the next budget, if Macron’s new Eurozone institutions become a reality, or if the Commission eventually takes Poland to court on the refugee case, Morawiecki’s position will be weakened.
Next year Poland will celebrate the 100th anniversary of independence. Among the PiS’s hardcore supporters there is a widespread belief that Kaczynski should become the country’s official leader on that occasion, a temptation that he might find hard to resist. If he indeed crosses that Rubicon, then Morawiecki’s premiership may turn out to be little more than a brief interlude in Poland’s ongoing shift away from Europe. It’s now up to Morawiecki’s political skill to prove otherwise.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.