The former child film stars and identical twins who have been governing Poland for the past two years, Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have been the butt of many jokes. Some play predictably off their diminutiveness. Others, more bizarrely, involve potatoes. One Berlin newspaper last year splashed a photo of a spud on its front page alongside one of Lech, the Polish President, and inquired: "Which one is coming to visit?" A Polish satirist recently lamented the shortage of humorists to cope with the volume of material that the twins are generating: "Life just surpasses my capabilities," said cartoonist Szczepan Sadurski.
But a government in full-blown crisis is no laughing matter. And that is where the world's first serving identical twin heads of a national government now find themselves. On Aug. 13, Jaroslaw, the Prime Minister, announced that there will be early elections this autumn probably on Oct. 21 or Nov. 18. The announcement followed a summer of political turmoil that culminated in August in the sacking of four Cabinet ministers and the effective dissolution of the three-party governing coalition. The Prime Minister characterized that move as an improvement "both morally and intellectually."
That may be, but the reshuffle might not help his government hold onto power. The most recent opinion polls suggest that the opposition Civic Platform, a center-right grouping ostensibly more friendly toward Europe and business interests, would take first place in an election with more than 30% of the vote, vs. 17-24% for the Kaczynskis' conservative Law and Justice Party, which has dropped 10 points in 12 months. Many in Europe have greeted that prospect with relief, but it would be foolish to count the twins out. And even if the Civic Platform wins, it may not produce as drastic a change as some hope. The roots of the crisis go back to the founding of the government. In 2006, unable to secure the votes to rule alone or to hammer out a coalition with other mainstream parties, Jaroslaw invited two fringe political groupings the nationalist Self-Defense Party, or Samoobrona, and the ultra-Catholic League of Polish Families to join the government in exchange for Cabinet posts. Samoobrona leader Andrzej Lepper, a pig farmer who has been convicted of slander and assault, became Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister, while League of Polish Families leader Roman Giertych, the former head of an ultraright nationalist youth group with a reputation for anti-Semitism and homophobia, was anointed Education Minister.
Prime Minister Jaroslaw said he thought the responsibility of governing would help the two political parties mature; instead they taught him a lesson in the perils of coalition building. Within months Lepper was publicly calling Jaroslaw a "boor." (Kaczynski responded that Lepper was a "brawler.") Lepper subsequently weathered charges of trading jobs for sex, but was eventually sacked in July of this year over allegations of corruption. (Lepper denies all charges against him.) The Interior Minister, a Kaczynski ally, then lost his job in the face of allegations that he had hindered a corruption investigation into Lepper's Agriculture Ministry. On Aug. 13, Jaroslaw fired the remaining four ministers from the two parties.
What happens next is less clear. More than 20% of the electorate say they are undecided about whom to vote for, and disillusionment with Poland's political circus is so rampant that voter turnout is expected to be less than 50%, making the shape of the next government hard to predict. If the opposition Civic Platform wins, it will probably need a coalition partner. But given the souring of relations between the parties, no one knows which party that will be. Analysts like Piotr Kaczynski (no relation) at the independent Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw say that Jaroslaw is unlikely to stay on as Prime Minister whatever happens, although his party will probably remain the biggest opposition grouping. Meanwhile brother Lech, who occupies a directly elected post, will remain President with influence over foreign policy until at least 2010.
A new government led by the Civic Platform is unlikely to be the tonic that the Kaczynskis' critics expect. Founded in 2001 by ex-Solidarity trade-union dissidents and academics, the party's leaders may be more sophisticated than their Law and Justice rivals, but their basic principles are similar. (The Kaczynskis were also Solidarity members.) The Law and Justice Party, for example, has been criticized for its vigorous pursuit of the policy of "lustration," which requires officials and professionals who had dealings with the former communist secret police to confess their collaboration or lose their jobs. But the Civic Platform has proposed even more drastic measures to investigate who may or may not have collaborated in the past. (In practice, neither effort is likely to bear fruit following a recent high-court order that struck down the latest lustration law).