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POLAND: Reprivatisation investigation undermines PO

The Polish government has long engaged in reprivatisation programmes. Such schemes aim to compensate those whose property was seized while Poland was under socialist rule. However, investigations by certain media outlets, NGOs, and social movements revealed serious irregularities in reprivatisation cases undertaken in Warsaw. The city gave away numerous plots of land in the past years, even though the rightful owners had already been compensated through past bilateral treaties. In some cases, properties were reprivatized when the rightful owners would be over 120 years old. It is estimated that up to 40,000 people, often elderly, were evicted because of reprivatisations in Warsaw alone, many of which were conducted incorrectly.

In May, a law came into force that allowed a new powerful commission to be set up to probe the controversial cases in Warsaw. Since the beginning of June, the commission has investigated several properties and repealed city hall decisions in regard to six high-value properties in Warsaw.

Much of the ensuing controversy has focused on Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, the mayor of Warsaw, and deputy leader of the once-ruling PO party. She has worked hard to deflect any accusation of corruption or mismanagement, blaming civil servants and the Ministry of Finance for a lack of oversight. Gronkiewicz-Waltz has repeatedly failed to appear before the commission, despite being summoned numerous times to attend hearings concerning a total of six properties. The commission has already imposed several non-attendance fines on the mayor, amounting to PLN 37,000 in total. Initially, Gronkiewicz-Waltz stated that the body is unconstitutional and appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court arguing that there is a conflict of competence between the committee and the city hall. Yesterday, the Court dismissed the mayor’s appeal which will increase pressure for her to appear before the commission. Still, she has stated that she does not plan to attend the hearings.

The committee is currently chaired by MP and Deputy Minister of Justice Patryk Jaki. While top PiS officials were initially sceptical as to the functioning of the committee, Jaki’s tenacity during televised sessions has proved to be beneficial to the ruling party. Concurrently, his position in the party was reinforced, and he became one of the most recognisable younger politicians from the ruling camp. PiS has long painted the opposition PO as a movement that engages in financial mismanagement bordering on corruption. Long committee sessions showing the lack of procedural clarity in a PO-run city hall and cases relating to the problems of common people have proven a gold mine for PiS’ narrative against PO.

Sources of the “Rzeczpospolita” daily argue that PO’s leadership is aware that Gronkiewicz-Waltz and the reprivatisation case is a burden for the party. The paper suggests that the mayor will lose her position as deputy party chief in December, but that she will not resign from her mayoral post. Some PO parliamentarians have already subtly spoken out against Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s conduct. With the perspective of local elections approaching in November 2018, PO is in a tough spot in Warsaw. The party held the capital since 2006, and big cities is where they have a natural advantage over PiS. Due to the reprivatisation case, however, PO will lose a lot of votes. These may go to the liberal Nowoczesna party or the leaders of NGOs and social movements who have uncovered much of the case – they are considering running as a “citizen alternative”. With a fragmented opposition electorate, PiS’ chances of taking Warsaw are growing. Still, much depends on the candidates themselves. They are expected to announce their bid in the coming weeks and months.