Feb 7, 2016 6:30 PM

Divisive Polish party leader Kaczynski pulls the strings

The Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) When Hungary's prime minister had a secret five-hour meeting in a secluded mountain resort with the most powerful person in Poland, he didn't convene with his counterpart or the Polish president.

Instead he spoke with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland's ruling party, a man who has no official government position.

The mysterious meeting recently in a guest house on Poland's southern border enhanced the perception that Kaczynski, rather than Prime Minister Beata Szydlo or President Andrzej Duda, is the main decision-maker in Poland today, and that, like Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, he might steer his nation down an anti-democratic path.

The 67-year-old Law and Justice party leader, whose identical twin brother Polish President Lech Kaczynski died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia, has been in the Polish public eye since childhood. He and Lech first won fame as child actors in the 1960s. During the 1980s, they embarked on their political careers by joining Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa's anti-communist Solidarity movement.

But observers say Jaroslaw Kaczynski changed dramatically after the death of his twin.

"He hardened. He is a lonely man and this is very visible in the way he does politics. He wants to rule with a strong hand and it's clear that all the power comes from his office," says Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, who was prime minister in a Law and Justice government in 2005-2006.

Last year Kaczynski led his conservative party to two electoral victories, so it now controls both the presidency and the Cabinet and has a majority in Parliament. In Poland's 26 years of democracy, no other party has ever enjoyed so much power.

As the new government took office, it moved swiftly to consolidate that power, passing laws that gave the ruling party some influence in the Constitutional Tribunal and direct control over public media. It also strengthened the state's surveillance powers.

The European Union is alarmed, and recently opened a preliminary inquiry into whether the government is guilty of a "systemic threat to the rule of law." Liberal Poles are also furious at the changes, and have turned out for large street protests over the past two months.

Kaczynski is viewed as the mastermind of these changes.

"He has built himself into this head of state without any real position and this is very comfortable for him. He has no direct responsibility and is free to change the pawns on his chess board," Marcinkiewicz told The Associated Press.

Marcinkiewicz has his own experience taking directions from Kaczynski, who eventually took the prime minister's job from him in 2006. He says Kaczynski now gives instructions to the government on a daily basis.

Kaczynski mixes social welfare ideas with support for national and Catholic traditions and opposition to gay marriage and abortion. His party swept to power denouncing the inequalities of the previous government's liberal market policies, striking a chord with voters by promising to help those left out of Poland's economic success.

"He is an honest man who surely is not after private gains, but who really thinks about the kind of life people have," says one supporter, 42-year-old cook Agata Remisz.

Still, many are wary of the government's tactics.

Walesa, who fell out with the Kaczynski brothers in 1991, has denounced the Law and Justice-led government as a threat to democracy.

"Kaczynski is definitely a great intellect and his diagnosis of the situation in Poland is right, but the cure he applies is very disputable," the former president told the AP.

Never married, Kaczynski lives alone in a modest house in Warsaw, where he lived with his mother until her death in 2013. Since Lech's death, he only wears black in public and has said he will be in mourning for the rest of his life.

He rarely gives interviews and prefers adulatory Catholic outlets. According to a recent book, "Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Secrets" by journalist Michal Krzymowski, he only reluctantly watches TV news.

The same book describes how he took great pains to spare his ill mother the shock of his brother's death. For almost two months he told her the president was making a lengthy return from a visit to America by ship because of volcanic ash that had grounded many planes. He even had a fake copy of a newspaper printed with that story for her to read. Eventually, when his mother was better, he told her the truth.

In foreign relations, Kaczynski is distrustful of Russia, which he sees as a constant threat to Poland. He also cultivates resentment against Germany for its brutal World War II occupation of Poland.

The party also sows divisions inside Poland. The first government sought to purge communist-era collaborators, a key Kaczynski policy, but many said its methods were too vengeful.

During the 2015 election campaign, Kaczynski took an anti-migrant stance, saying they could carry threatening "parasites." He also denounced his pro-EU opponents as the "worst sort of Poles," ones that follow foreign values.

Marcinkiewicz believes Kaczynski's distrust of foreigners may come from his aversion to flying, which he had even before his brother died in the plane crash. Kaczynski has rejected the findings of Polish and Russian investigations that say the crash was an accident resulting from a string of human errors and has ordered repeat investigations, seen by some as an obsession.

Still, Marcinkiewicz says the party leader is a great interlocutor on many subjects.

Kaczynski is "an outstanding person, a sad person, a very friendly person ... (and) probably the only one who has a plan for Poland," Marcinkiewicz said. "But that plan is very conservative and I don't think it goes along with the plan that most Poles have."


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