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Europe

The most powerful man in Poland

Jaroslaw Kaczynski pulls the political strings behind the scenes in Poland. How has a man who holds no formal office achieved such power?

Poland is always good for an unexpected twist - or three, as in the case of the Kaczynski brothers. Ten years ago, twins Lech and Jaroslaw served simultaneously as president and prime minister, respectively. Four years later, Lech Kaczynski and 95 others died when the presidential plane crashed en route to Russia.

A further five years later, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the founder and leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, known as PiS, managed to become the most powerful man in his country without even running for prime minister. He left that job to Beata Szydlo, who at the time was a relatively unknown but loyal party soldier. At a party conference in July, he was confirmed as leader with 99 percent of the vote. He laughingly commented on the few dissenting votes, saying: "That proves that we also have a kind of democracy in the party."

Warschau Polen Beata Szydlo Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Parlamentssitzung (Imago/Forum)

Prime Minister Szydlo and her boss Kaczynski

Today, he is the true power behind the Polish government. No important decisions are made without first consulting him. In 2015, he ensured that in every position where "hawks" and "doves" were competing for office, the "hawks" were elected.

Raw charisma

How did Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the man so often declared dead politically, achieve this position? He's not a skilled orator, he doesn't trade in flattery, and he prefers to keep others at arm's length. According to reports, Kaczynski, a bachelor, leads a reclusive life. But his toughness and raw charisma have impressed colleagues and voters.

When Kaczynski lost his brother and most important confidant in the plane crash, not to mention many other party allies, many of his colleagues cried. But not Kaczynski, at least, not in public. He showed himself to be cool and collected, traveling immediately to the site of the crash. When Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to offer his condolences, Kaczynski refused to speak with him. Later, one of his fellow politicians said how helpful it was to have such a "strong leader" at a time when all of Poland was in shock.

Will Kaczynski become government leader?

A strong party leader, Kaczynski knows all too well that while he is able to mobilize his nationalist, conservative, and mainly Catholic base, he is often met with distrust by the rest of the population. That is why he began promoting the more moderate Szydlo, who managed to win last year's parliamentary election. Five months before that, Kaczynski's chosen candidate Andrzej Duda won the presidential election. Today, Polish media continue to speculate about how much autonomy Duda actually has, and how long Szydlo is likely to remain in office. According to the party leader, she has to "prove herself."

"For Kaczynski, the internal government disputes are too chaotic, and he's starting to think seriously about whether he should be the government leader," said a high-ranking PiS politician.

Loyalty over talent

Poland has changed considerably this year. At a demonstration, Kaczynski encouraged crowds to echo his cry of "communists and thieves" as he likes to refer to his opponents. He believes that a plague of post-communists and liberals is threatening to take over the country. In order to fight them, the government has entered a permanent state of conflict with the constitutional court, whose independence it does not respect. As a result, the EU Commission has launched an investigation to evaluate the state of democracy in Poland.

The government has also been attempting to bring public broadcasters onto its "new course." It has been propagating the need to "exchange our elites" and prizes loyalty more than talent, which is why people faithful to the party but lacking in qualifications have been put into positions of power.

Warsaw is also embarking on a new course in foreign policy.

Polen Jahrestag der Flugzeugkatastrophe bei Smolensk (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kaminski)

The Smolensk air disaster was a key moment for Jaroslaw Kaczynski

Kaczynski, who has barely set foot abroad in the last 30 years, is a known eurosceptic. "The question must be asked, whether the EU with its terrible bureaucracy can survive in its current form. I don't think so," he said recently. He reportedly continues to support the EU, but mainly in the form of greater cooperation with Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Critics ask why Warsaw continues to snub major partners in Europe, such as Germany and France. One of Poland's main partners is the United States, but the current government does not look favorably on getting lessons in democracy from Washington, either.

'Poland has risen again'

Under Kaczynski's supervision, the government is following a new economic and social policy. A huge investment program is meant to help Poland overcome its reputation as the "workbench of the West." The new child allowance of around 120 euros ($130) a month, which is high for Polish standards, and a housing program are meant to support poorer families. But Kaczynski wants more: cultural hegemony. He wants to stop the West from influencing traditional Polish values, and for Poles to have more national pride.

The PiS, like its leader, does not shy away from conflict. The ongoing row over the country's abortion laws, as well as increasing cronyism, are just two issues where the PiS is vulnerable. Both issues could create more discontent among Poles than either the party or its leader expect.