For the past five years, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the founder of Poland’s dominant Law and Justice party, has been the central European nation’s de facto leader, pulling the strings from a nondescript office in downtown Warsaw, despite having no official role in government.
But on Wednesday, he returned to front-line politics, taking up the post of deputy prime minister in a cabinet reshuffle designed to stifle a power struggle in the ruling coalition. Here’s a summary of what’s at stake:
Why is Mr Kaczynski back in government?
Since sweeping to power in 2015, the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice has ruled in coalition with two smaller parties: the moderate Agreement of Jaroslaw Gowin, and the arch-conservative United Poland of Zbigniew Ziobro, the hardline justice minister.
In recent weeks that arrangement has been brought close to breaking point by the escalation of a long-running power struggle between prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Mr Ziobro, both of whom are potential successors to the 71-year-old Mr Kaczynski as leader of the right.
Insiders say that one element of Mr Kaczynski’s return is to rein in Mr Ziobro, whose party triggered the crisis by refusing to back two bills put forward by Law and Justice on fur farming and other animal rights issues, and immunity for officials who broke the law in their attempts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think that [relations between Ziobro and Morawiecki] could get much worse,” said one senior figure from the ruling camp. “This fight’s got nothing to do with [the immunity law] or the fur trade or anything like that. It’s just another battle in the war [to succeed Kaczynski].”
Will the reshuffle end the power struggle?
In the short term, the cabinet reshuffle has avoided the collapse of the coalition and early elections, which Law and Justice officials mooted after Mr Ziobro’s party refused to back their bills last month. But few observers think that it has resolved the clash between Mr Morawiecki and Mr Ziobro.
Mr Kaczynski’s return is uncomfortable for both men in different ways. It puts Mr Morawiecki in the awkward position of having a formal deputy who is his de facto boss. The fact that Mr Kaczynski will oversee the defence, interior and justice ministries is a clear attempt to clip Mr Ziobro’s wings.
But the fact that Mr Kaczynski did not eject United Poland from the ruling camp means that the coalition will continue to be marked by the ideological split between its more moderate and hardline wings, as well as the personal rivalry between Mr Ziobro and Mr Morawiecki.
“[Mr Kaczynski’s return] will calm things down for now. But the price of keeping Ziobro inside the tent is that, sooner or later, these problems are going emerge again,” said Ben Stanley, associate professor at SWPS University in Warsaw.
What does this mean for Law and Justice’s policies?
Beyond Mr Kaczynski’s return to frontline politics, the most striking aspect of Wednesday’s reshuffle was the appointment of Przemyslaw Czarnek, a lecturer at a Catholic university, who said earlier this year that LGBT people were “not equal to normal people”, as science and education minister.
Mr Czarnek’s appointment has been widely interpreted as a sign that the ruling camp, which has made a strident defence of traditional Catholic values as part of its platform, is likely to continue with its drive to embed its deeply conservative values in all aspects of public life.
“The intention is to use the reforming of academia as a way for Law and Justice to extend the reach of its culture war. We’ve seen something similar in Hungary with [prime minister Viktor] Orban going after, for example, gender studies,” said Mr Stanley.
As Mr Morawiecki unveiled the new government on Wednesday, he said nothing concrete about policy. But senior Law and Justice figures have previously made clear that the initiatives that have formed the core of the party’s political platform, such as a contested judicial overhaul that has sparked fierce criticism from Brussels, will also be continued.
How will reshuffle affect Poland’s relations with EU?
Since Law and Justice came to power, Poland’s relations with Brussels have been frayed by clashes on everything from the judicial overhaul to migrant relocation and the environment. The ruling camp’s anti-LGBT rhetoric has also drawn international criticism and prompted 50 ambassadors and representatives to Warsaw to sign an open letter in defence of LGBT rights last week.
Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the UK’s University of Sussex, thought the ruling camp was gearing up a period of choppier relations with Brussels and pointed out that the government now had a “more political” foreign minister, following the replacement of the “technocratic” Jacek Czaputowicz with Zbigniew Rau, which took place a few weeks before the reshuffle.
“As far as Law and Justice were concerned, Czaputowicz was insufficiently robust in terms of defending Poland. He wasn’t enough of a fighter,” said Mr Szczebiak. “Someone like Rau is there because [Law and Justice believes] that there is a period of turbulence likely to come up in the international arena and you need political fighters, not technocrats.”