Why Poland’s crisis may come down to a president and a puppet master

“The Chairman’s Ear,” a popular online satirical video series in Poland about the country’s ruling party, leaves little doubt over who wields the power in Polish political life.

The titular chairman, operating out of his sparsely decorated office, holds no elected mandate. But he is at the eye of a sphere of bureaucrats and politicians, either buffoonish or easily cowed by the imperturbable puppetmaster. And through clever manipulation and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) threats, he pushes those with real power to do what he wants – and to pamper his beloved cat, Mruczuś.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum – and always just outside the chairman’s door – sits the sheepish Polish president. Episode after episode, he eagerly waits to get into the chairman’s office to speak with the true kingmaker in Polish politics. But he is always stymied by the chairman’s staff – who not only don’t see the president as important enough to let into the inner sanctum, but don’t even show him the respect of remembering his name correctly.

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For many Poles, it’s funny because it mimics their political reality.

The chairman is an obvious stand-in for the leader of the ruling, ultraconservative Law & Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. He has not held government office since 2007 and polarizes the Polish public, but enjoys nearly complete control of PiS.

The impotent president is a proxy for President Andrzej Duda, formerly of PiS and still allied with the party. The 45-year-old Mr. Duda won the presidency in 2015. It was widely believed at the time that he was handpicked for branding purposes – a young, modern face who would attract voters beyond hardcore supporters but still allow Mr. Kaczynski to pull the strings. It worked. The party is the only in post-communist Poland to have won enough seats to govern without a coalition.

But that once predictable mode of operation began to fray in recent weeks, as PiS under Kaczynski tried to fundamentally reshape the independence of the country’s judiciary. What should have been clean sailing for a trio of PiS bills to reform the system ran aground, as Duda – defying his “Chairman’s Ear” caricature – signed vetoes thwarting two of the three laws.

Now, some in Poland are wondering if the president may turn out to be more than just a rubber stamp – and whether he may prove a moderating force against the hardline “chairman” who has been…

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