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POLAND: Kaczyński Tape Scandal: Initial Overview

The „Gazeta Wyborcza” daily has published an article on the involvement of Jarosław Kaczyński in the construction of two 190-metre-tall skyscrapers in Warsaw – referred to as the K-Towers. The article is based on a script and a recording of a conversation (also published) held in July 2018 between, amongst others, Jarosław Kaczyński and an Austrian businessman Gerald Birgfellner who is also Kaczyński’s distant relative. The investment was supposed to be carried out by the Srebrna company, which belongs to the Lech Kaczyński Institute, that is run by Jarosław Kaczyński’s close associates and connected with the PiS leader himself. The investment was supposed to be financed by the state-owned Bank Pekao.

Kaczyński, in the recording, admits that he decided to postpone the investment due to unfavourable political circumstances – the Civic Platform ruling in Warsaw and the candidacy of Jan Śpiewak, responsible for uncovering the reprivatisation scandal in the Capital. Furthermore, Kaczyński discusses the possibility of covering Birgfellner’s costs by prompting a law suit to create a payment obligation – costs of the investment were covered by the Austrian businessman, but were commissioned by Srebrna and Kaczyński, however without any official contract. Furthemore, Kaczyński discusses potential costs and returns from the investment, including PLN 1.3 billion for the entire investment and 81 million of annual profits.

In the initial hours and days of this scandal there are some key takeaways. Firstly, the tapes and articles published today are not likely to be the last revelations in this case. The conversations published today come from one out of sixteen meetings, which reportedly took place between Kaczyński and Birgfellner. With European elections in the Spring and a parliamentary race in the Autumn, PiS may be put on the defensive, having to deal with a constant flow of accusations. If new tapes are published every few weeks or each month leading up to the elections, PiS will be unable to seize the political narrative as it did in the 2015 campaign. Here, it is important to remember that the previous PO-PSL was put in a similar situation ahead of the 2015 elections, where recordings of key officials where periodically released and ultimately undermined the public’s trust in the government.

Secondly, this is the first case where Kaczyński’s inner working methods are brought to the public eye in such form. Throughout PiS’ time in government and crises surrounding the party, Kaczyński’s image as an as ascetic statesman who is uninterested in personal gain and business reassured voters that, at its core, the party is honest. Now, the opposition will be equipped with materials that will allow them to portray Kaczyński as a shrewd and ruthless businessman. With ongoing talks about wage increases for teachers, the police force, or nurses, Kaczyński’s private business talks including figures in billion PLN figures have a chance to alienate a part of the electorate.

While it is not certain whether the public will react strongly, specific quotes from Kaczyński will be used all throughout 2019 in political discussions. The key argument used against Kaczyński will be that he seeks to win elections because of his own private interests. The PiS party leader is also going to face increased criticism concerning his vast concentration of power, without a formal government position. Initial reactions from commentators point to his sway on state-owned companies where he is able to influence appointments to key positions and now, as is argued by “Wyborcza”, use his influence to provide funding for private ventures.

It is certain that the PiS leadership is treating the matter seriously. Yesterday, all party representatives cancelled their morning media appointments for today. Initial comments from analysts also suggest that the case will have serious implications for internal tensions within PiS. On the outside, all top government figures will stand behind Kaczyński. Within, the case will put internal conflicts between factions, ministers, and top figures in a new context where Kaczyński is weakened.