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7 key faces to watch in the Polish election – POLITICO

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Poland’s October 15 general election looks a lot like a feud between two grizzled political veterans.

Two men — Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, and Donald Tusk, head of the opposition Civic Platform party — have dominated Polish politics for two decades.

But this year they’ll have to deal with other players if they want to rule. POLITICO’s Poll of Polls shows that no party has enough support to win an outright majority in parliament, meaning they’ll need the support of smaller groups like the centrist Third Way or the far-right Confederation — as well as the loyalty of their own party members, which isn’t always a given.

Here are seven faces who matter in Polish politics:

Jarosław Kaczyński: The Puppet Master

Leszek Szymanski/EFE via EPA

The 70-year-old leader of PiS is also Poland’s de facto ruler.

A minor figure in the anti-communist movement of the 1980s, Kaczyński climbed the political ladder as an MP in the 1990s before founding PiS in 2001 with his twin brother, Lech, who was elected president and died in 2010 when his government plane crashed in Smolensk, Russia.

Kaczyński rules PiS with an iron hand — every big decision goes through his office in a battered building near central Warsaw. It’s also the pilgrimage site for prime ministers and even President Andrzej Duda to show fealty to the man who really runs Poland.

He has long held a grudge over Poland’s post-1989 transformation following the end of communism, and his long-running agenda is to dramatically reshape the country’s courts, media and other institutions while creating new elites dependent on his party’s favor.

If PiS hangs on to power, expect more of the same from the cat-loving bachelor whose pet hate is Donald Tusk.

Donald Tusk: The Battered Savior

Omar Marques/Getty Images

A centrist liberal with a pro-European agenda, the 66-year-old Tusk co-founded Civic Platform in 2001, months before the Kaczyński brothers launched PiS.

He became prime minister in 2007 after Civic Platform dethroned a short-lived PiS government. He dominated Polish politics before decamping to Brussels to become European Council president in 2014. Without his charisma and political savvy, the party he left behind collapsed, opening the way for PiS to win power in 2015.

With Civic Platform plummeting in the polls, Tusk returned to Poland in 2021 to try to restore his party to its former glory and … save the EU.

Like Kaczyński, he’s also got a large hostile electorate who detests him — but his presence has reinvigorated the opposition. No other politician could summon the massive march through Warsaw on October 1.

Kaczyński sees him as the greatest threat to his grip on power, which is why the government and the state-controlled media have unleashed streams of vitriol against Tusk. The main accusation is that he’s not a loyal Pole, but rather is working with Berlin, faceless Eurocrats in Brussels and even the Kremlin to destroy Poland’s independence.

Mateusz Morawiecki: The Banker

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Kaczyński’s current choice for prime minister, the 55-year-old Morawiecki started out in the financial sector, making millions in banking before joining … Tusk’s cabinet as an economic adviser in 2010.

He later switched to PiS and became prime minister in 2017, as a younger and more dynamic alternative to the outgoing Beata Szydło. With a strong command of English (a rarity in PiS’s ranks) and a background in finance and EU law (he co-authored the first Polish-language textbook on the subject), the party hoped he would tone down the conflict with Brussels and patch up its image abroad.

Instead, under Morawiecki’s leadership, Poland has seen a dramatic decline in the rule of law, culminating in its ongoing legal battle with the EU, and a slide toward authoritarianism.

Morawiecki’s background makes him a bit of an outsider in PiS — where long-term loyalty to Kaczyński is the main currency — and there are frequent rumors that he will be defenestrated by someone closer to the boss. Expect that gossip to resurface if PiS wins the election.

Rafał Trzaskowski: The Princeling

Piotr Nowak/EFE via EPA

The 51-year-old mayor of Warsaw, Trzaskowski has long been touted as the future of the Civic Platform and — should Tusk ever retire — its next leader. Eloquent, charismatic and a champion of European values, he’s built a coalition with other eastern EU capitals to challenge the autocratic trends of their national governments.

Popular among Civic Platform’s younger voters, Trzaskowski came within inches of defeating incumbent PiS-backed President Duda in the 2020 presidential election. He doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Tusk, but could be a possible mediator between Civic Platform and the smaller opposition groups needed to form a parliamentary majority.

For now, he has ruled out fighting Tusk for the job of prime minister if Civic Platform wins the election.

Zbigniew Ziobro: The Sheriff

Omar Marques/Getty Images

Ziobro, 53, is one of the few politicians in the country who has crossed Kaczyński and survived politically. He was once seen as Kaczyński’s successor, but the two fell out and Ziobro quit PiS to form his own far-right party, United Poland.

Kaczyński hasn’t forgiven him and readmitted him to PiS, but the Law and Justice leader fears rivals on the political right, so has allowed Ziobro and other United Poland candidates onto PiS’s electoral lists.

As justice minister, Ziobro has been in charge of Kaczyński’s most important political effort: the overhaul of what the government describes as the corrupt and inept judiciary. That’s seen by the EU as an attempt to exert political control over the courts — making Ziobro a bad boy for the European Commission.

But Ziobro’s power — he’s both justice minister and chief prosecutor in one — and his control of investigators who could bring down political rivals, makes him a key face in any new PiS-led government.

Sławomir Mentzen: The Disruptor

Albert Zawada/EFE via EPA

At 36, Mentzen has already shown his ability to upend political calculations.

A tax consultant, entrepreneur (he has his own brand of beer) and self-described libertarian, Mentzen leads Confederation — a grouping of smaller far-right outfits seen as potential kingmakers in the post-election scramble for power. Although the party’s leadership detests the welfare state created by PiS, there is talk of Mentzen entering a coalition with Kaczyński in return for a lucrative position in the government.

The party, however, carries a lot of baggage. During the 2019 election to the European Parliament, Mentzen laid out a five-point program: “We don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the European Union.”

Szymon Hołownia: The Spoiler

Artur Reszko/EFE via EPA

Mentzen may have his own brand of beer, but the 47-year-old Hołownia has gone further, naming an entire party after himself.

Promising to break the 20-year Tusk-Kaczyński duopoly, the former TV presenter launched the centrist Szymon Hołownia’s Poland 2050 movement on the back of his 2020 presidential bid, where he finished third behind Duda and Trzaskowski.

Wooed by Tusk to join his catch-all political alliance, the Civic Coalition, Hołownia instead opted for an unlikely political marriage with the agrarian Polish People’s Party. Dubbed The Third Way, the two parties have struggled to find a coherent message, and Hołownia’s personal grievances with Tusk haven’t helped their chances.

The Third Way needs to get at least 8 percent of the vote to secure seats in parliament; lower than that and those votes end up helping the largest parties — and would be key to PiS taking enough seats to rule alone.

POLAND NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

 

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

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