The Joke Is On Poland

For a European politician, Andrzej Lepper always cut an unlikely figure. Over the years, the Polish deputy prime minister has been convicted of slander and assault. Allegations of an attempted rape of a prostitute (which he refuses to comment on) and taking part in a sex-for-jobs scam (which he denies) have been widely reported in the press. Then two weeks ago Lepper, leader of the populist Self Defence Party, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, was forced from his job over allegations of bribery (which Lepper also denied): a black mark for a government supposed to be leading a moral revolution.

So what's new? True, the latest rumpus threatens to bring down the government, but in recent years Polish politics has regularly provided a troubling show of turbulence. Under the rule of identical twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski—president and prime minister, respectively, and founders of the Law and Justice party—the country has assumed an outsize importance in the affairs of the European Union. Up to 2 million of its young have headed West to take jobs elsewhere in the bloc, while leaders have alienated their EU counterparts with a macho disregard for diplomatic niceties, reviving decades-old grievances and blocking the tidy compromises the Union requires to function.

Such behavior is winning Poland few friends at a time when the EU is still struggling to work through the implications of its grand 2004 expansion and devise a common foreign policy to meet the challenges of a newly assertive Russia (the president ruffled feathers in Europe and Russia last week by signaling approval of a U.S. missile base in Poland during a visit to Washington). While some Poles feel a visceral link to their leaders' prejudices, their fellow Europeans don't. As Marcin Zaborowski of the Institute for Security Studies in Paris ruefully observes: "Even the EU has its own Texas—and that's Poland."

Now there are signs that even the Poles' own tolerance for their wayward leaders may finally be waning. Surveys suggest that support for their party is running at just 17 percent, down 10 points over the past year (one poll pegged the prime minister as the worst since the collapse of communism). If the coalition does indeed crumble and early elections are called, the Kaczynskis might face a struggle to retain their natural supporters. Underpaid state employees (along with others who gained little from globalization and the transition to democracy) form an obvious constituency. Yet the party's leadership is now locked in conflict with the country's doctors and nurses, currently on strike over pay and conditions. At the same time, the twins have clashed with hard-liners in the Roman Catholic Church (another former support base). One of the country's leading clerics, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, earlier this month described the president's wife as a "witch" who deserved to "euthanize" herself for her failure to support tougher restrictions on abortion.

Mainstream critics allege more-serious offenses by the twins that seem utterly out of place in a modern European state. On the list: cramming the civil service with cronies, overriding the Constitution and botching moves to strip jobs from those linked with the Soviet-era regime.

No surprise, then, that smart young metropolitan Poles are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the twins' pronouncements and private eccentricities (the 58-year-old P.M. still lives with Mom). Political disenchantment has been one key reason for mass emigration, causing a labor shortage that threatens even the government's commitment to hosting the 2012 European football championships. Even the Kaczynskis have suffered: the president himself has had problems finding a decorator to paint his Warsaw flat.

Beyond the border, friends are scarcer still. According to Eurobarometer, Poles continually rank as the EU's keenest supporters, and the flow of funds from Brussels is one reason for an economic boom that's seen unemployment—once close to one in five—fall by four points over the past year. But the twins have made little effort to win allies among their benefactors. Last month's tricky negotiations over a new constitutional treaty almost broke down over Warsaw's insistence that Poland's position in the Union would be undervalued. Jaroslaw Kaczynski even used an argument related to the Second World War, which reportedly infuriated German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He suggested that if Poland had not had to live through the years of the Second World War today we would be looking at a country of 66 million instead of 38 million. And last year the government called off an official visit to Berlin after a German daily compared the president to a potato. No wonder diplomats blush for their country—by one reckoning, more than a third of Polish embassies now lack an ambassador.

Most worrisome is the way in which the twins' intransigent attitudes may doom the attempt to form a common European approach toward Russia. At the fractious EU-Russia summit in Samara earlier this summer, the EU rallied behind Poland in its fight against a meat-export embargo imposed by Moscow. But the subsequent spat over voting rights in Brussels suggests Poland has learned little about gratitude. "The Poles seem to have drawn the wrong lesson [from Samara]: that the harder they play the game, the more they will gain," says Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform in London. "It's hard to see now how other member states would not be worried about going into battle alongside them."

That said, all the mishaps won't necessarily translate into an electoral drubbing. Indeed, recent polls suggested that a small majority of voters would still like to see Law and Justice as members of any future coalition. The government has cosseted the pensioners who make up 25 percent of the population of 38 million, and events outside Poland have conspired to fortify some old fears the party can play on. Doesn't the German decision to collaborate with Russia on building a pipeline under the Baltic—bypassing Poland—illustrate the risk of encirclement by hostile powers?

Widespread voter indifference underscores opposition worries. Turnout in the last elections, in 2005, fell to just 41 percent. Many of those who might vote against Law and Justice—and the new generation of politicians who might stand against it—have already left the country. As for those who've stayed behind, they seem unable and unlikely to redeem Poland's name in Europe.