Bugging Scandal Rocks Government
August 1, 2014
The coalition government of the Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) has been rocked by the biggest crisis of its seven years in power after a news magazine released recordings of senior officials cynically discussing controversial deals in foul language.
The scandal broke out June 15 when the Wprost weekly news magazine published excerpts of two conversations secretly recorded at the Sowa & Przyjaciele (Sowa & Friends) restaurant in Warsaw.
In a recording from July 2013, Interior Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz is heard talking to central bank chief Marek Belka about what could be done to prevent the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party from winning parliamentary elections. Belka said the central bank could start buying Treasury bonds to help the government deal with the budget deficit, but in return, he demanded changes to the law on the central bank and wanted the then finance minister Jacek Rostowski to be dismissed.
In a recording from February this year, former transportation minister Sławomir Nowak talked to ex-deputy finance minister Andrzej Parafianowicz about problems with the taxman’s probe into his wife’s finances. Parafianowicz bragged about “blocking” the inspection.
PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński called on Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Cabinet to resign over the recordings. But Tusk refused to resign or dismiss Sienkiewicz. He added Belka and Sienkiewicz had not broken any law, while as far as Nowak was concerned, there was “no room [for him] in the [Civic] Platform anymore.” Nowak declared he would withdraw from politics completely and leave the PO.
Transcripts of further recordings published by Wprost included a conversation between Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski and Rostowski recorded in spring this year. The weekly quoted Sikorski as saying: “The Polish-U.S. alliance is worthless... It is downright harmful because it creates a false sense of security.”
In the meantime, the prosecutor’s office started an investigation into the leaked recordings, indicating that the officials had been recorded by waiters at the VIP rooms of several expensive restaurants in Warsaw.
The waiters apparently wanted to make a profit out of blackmailing politicians and selling the compromising recordings to the media.
The ongoing investigation has so far shown that the group allegedly eavesdropped on a total of 62 Polish politicians and businessmen. They are said to have talked about alleged corruption in several ministries and shady activities by certain prominent politicians.
On June 24, the Internal Security Agency (ABW) detained Marek Falenta, a businessman active in the coal sector, on suspicion of tasking the manager of Sowa & Przyjaciele with recording the meetings. Falenta denied having anything to do with the eavesdropping scandal. Later he said he was going to sell millions of shares he held in listed companies and discontinue his business operations. The court decided to release Falenta on bail and prohibited him from leaving Poland. The investigation continues.
The eavesdropping scandal prompted the opposition PiS party to motion for a so-called constructive vote of no-confidence against the government and called for Tusk’s Cabinet to be replaced with a “technical” interim government with Prof. Piotr Gliński as prime minister. This was the second time PiS tried to install Gliński after a failed attempt in March. The vote took place July 11 after a heated debate and an informal policy speech given by Gliński. PiS lost, with 155 deputies voting for the motion and 263 against with 60 abstentions. Nine deputies did not take part in the vote. The no-confidence motion was backed by the entire PiS caucus, the right-wing Solidarna Polska party and several independent deputies. The government coalition voted against it, while the left-wing opposition parties Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and Twój Ruch (TR) abstained, which in practice added to the nay votes.
PiS also motioned for Sienkiewicz to be dismissed, but the interior minister managed to retain his post when 235 deputies voted against dismissing him. A total of 213 deputies, including the entire right-wing opposition and the SLD and TR, voted against Sienkiewicz and only one deputy, the PSL’s Waldemar Pawlak, abstained.
Though the government coalition, which has a majority in parliament, did not have trouble overturning the two PiS motions, the vote exposed some clear differences between the PO and its junior coalition partner. Some friction also occurred within the PSL due to a power struggle between PSL leader and Deputy Prime Minister Janusz Piechociński and Pawlak, who was recently replaced by Piechociński as party chief. Pawlak, who in the 1990s was prime minister in two left-wing governments, wanted the Sienkiewicz vote to be postponed until the end of the summer vacations, but his party did not back him on that. Later, despite party discipline, he ostentatiously abstained from voting on the PiS motion.
The government coalition’s complicated situation is not being made any easier by suggestions that after the recent elections to the European Parliament, Polish officials could take senior EU posts. Tusk has been tipped by some as the next president of the European Council and Radosław Sikorski as a possible replacement for Catherine Ashton as the EU’s foreign minister.
Still, many Polish politicians, and not only those in the opposition, are highly skeptical, arguing that Sikorski is seen as overly anti-Russian and Tusk lacks the support of Britain and France. But if either of them, or both, went to Brussels, Polish politics could undergo a major reshuffle. This especially concerns a possible successor to Tusk, who is Poland’s longest-serving prime minister since the fall of communism in 1989.
Many of those critical of the PO are even saying that if Tusk left domestic politics, the PO would disintegrate and lose power still before next year’s parliamentary elections. Seeing how decisions concerning EU posts will not be made until a summit Aug. 31, any scenario is still possible.
Meanwhile, the eavesdropping scandal has caused a further decline in the PO’s ratings. In recent polls, the party is 7-9 percentage points behind PiS and while 27 percent of respondents said they would vote for the PO, around 35 percent were for PiS. In the same polls, the coalition’s PSL has failed to score the 5 percent it would need to make it to parliament. Other than the PO and PiS, the only other successful parties are the SLD and, only slightly over the 5-percent threshold, the New Right Congress, the radical, Euroskeptic party led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke. That party became the biggest surprise of the recent elections when it took four seats in the European Parliament.