Priests, patronage and power: Poland’s Tusk goes after his political enemies

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WARSAW — Poland’s once all-powerful Law and Justice (PiS) party is under siege.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his ministers are pressing their campaign to hold PiS accountable for what they claim were corrupt practices during the populist party’s eight years in power that ended in December.

Several PiS MPs and members of its junior far-right coalition partner, Sovereign Poland, are facing possible trials and prison sentences, potentially weakening them ahead of next year’s pivotal 2025 presidential election.

The presidential contest is PiS’s best hope to prevent Tusk from consolidating power. A PiS president could, as incumbent Andrzej Duda has done, complicate Tusk’s agenda given that the prime minister lacks a large-enough parliamentary majority to override presidential vetoes.

Tusk has received some flak for his relentless focus on PiS with detractors arguing that this comes at the expense of ambitious state projects and other issues like doubling tax-free income.

But he is showing no sign of retreating from his election campaign pledge to prosecute any crimes by the past administration — something that’s been a rarity in Poland.

Last month, Tusk condemned his predecessors as: “Thieves, scoundrels, people without conscience, who robbed Poland for so many years,” adding: “This is one of the four commitments I made, and it was ‘we will hold evil to account.’ Do you want it faster? It will be faster.”

Pointing fingers

The list of alleged wrongdoing is long.

The new government is accusing the old one of wasting vast amounts of money on a greenfield project to build a huge new airport in central Poland, mismanagement at PKN-Orlen, the state-controlled refiner, and other government-controlled companies, abuse of the public media by turning them into propaganda outlets for PiS, buying spyware to track political opponents, stuffing the senior ranks of the administration and state companies with loyalists, and using government money as a political slush fund.

“These cases are very numerous, and they require extraordinary determination on the part of prosecutors, but also great attention to detail, ” Justice Minister and Chief Prosecutor Adam Bodnar said over the weekend, adding: “Accounting for the abuses of the previous government cannot be a propaganda mechanism, it must be proper legal work.”

The opposition insists that Tusk and his administration have launched a witch hunt against them.

“We appeal to all people of good will to get involved in the defense of these persecuted people, who are being brutalized on the orders of Tusk and Bodnar,” Michał Woś, an MP with Sovereign Poland, said in a Tuesday press conference.

The Justice Fund scandal could implicate top figures of the PiS government, including former Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro. | Omar Marques/Getty Images

Woś was stripped of his parliamentary immunity last month on allegations he was involved in the purchase of Pegasus spyware the government says was improperly bought and then used to snoop on opposition politicians.

This week, the Tusk-led parliamentary majority is expected to lift the immunity of Marcin Romanowski, another Sovereign Poland MP and a former deputy justice minister. The allegation is that he was involved in the alleged misuse of the Justice Fund, a special pool of money under the control of the justice minister which was meant to help crime victims but which prosecutors say was used for political purposes.

Tusk said this week that more than 112 million złoty (€26 million) was stolen from the fund.

According to the prosecution, the scale of misuse could be much larger, potentially up to 400 million złoty.

Political blowback

The Justice Fund scandal could implicate top figures of the PiS government, including former Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the leader of Sovereign Poland, and PiS Chair Jarosław Kaczyński.

The Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported last week that Kaczyński sent a letter to Ziobro shortly before the 2019 parliamentary election warning him to refrain from using the fund for political purposes as it could rebound against both parties. That missive was apparently ignored during a campaign that the two-party coalition ended up winning.

Ziobro, who has been undergoing cancer treatment and has all but withdrawn from public life, told the news website Interia that he “did not remember receiving the letter.” 

“As I understand it, in the content of the letter, Jarosław Kaczyński relied on media reports. He indicated that if these reports were true, he expected certain actions,” Ziobro said.

Kaczyński said he didn’t remember the letter but that it was possible it had been sent, something he said would have been a way of notifying Ziobro — who also served as prosecutor general — to take a look at any potential problems with the Justice Fund money.

“I addressed the letter to the most appropriate person in this matter,” Kaczyński told a press briefing. 

He added: “We didn’t bend any law, it wasn’t our grouping, it was settled and the case has been … judged.”

Given that PiS and Sovereign Poland shared joint campaign financing in 2019 and 2023, illegal financing could lead to electoral authorities revoking their state subsidy of more than 25 million złoty a year. Both parties could also be ordered to repay any funds received during the 2019-2023 term.

PiS summoned its supporters to protest outside parliament. | Wojtek Radwanski/Getty Images

That would cripple their ability to campaign effectively in upcoming elections.

PiS and its allies are closing ranks over the allegations of impropriety and have seized on the temporary arrest of Michał Olszewski, a Roman Catholic priest, to paint the government as revenge-minded fanatics.

Olszewski was arrested on allegations that the foundation he was running won a 100 million złoty subsidy from the Justice Fund, and then some of that money later evaporated.

His backers allege that he was mistreated and tortured in prison, a charge the Justice Ministry strongly denies.

“We are shocked by the information we received regarding the circumstances of the arrest and detention of Father Michael Olszewski, who is currently in temporary custody,” said PiS MP Michał Wójcik. Other MPs accused the new government of conducting “political trials” against its enemies.

Judicial reforms

Another major effort of the Tusk government is to undo PiS’s judiciary reforms — something that brought Warsaw into conflict with the European Commission, which said Poland was backsliding on the bloc’s democratic principles by undermining judicial independence.

Bodnar is working to restore the independence and impartiality of the courts.

Last week, prosecutors, counterintelligence agents and police raided the office of the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), a judge-appointing body, to seize documents related to disciplinary proceedings filed against judges who had opposed PiS’s judiciary reforms.

That raid was denounced by pro-PiS media as an attack by the “coalition of revenge” aimed at hurting its political rivals.

Bodnar has also set up a special counsel to review the involvement of judges in the PiS-influenced judiciary council.

Meanwhile, PiS summoned its supporters to protest outside parliament on Tuesday evening.

“The violation of the rule of law is unfortunately a daily occurrence today,” the party said.

That’s the same accusation that PiS faced during its eight years in power.

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