Poland’s Prime Minister Is a Technocrat Banker and a Far-Right Populist at the Same Time
Mateusz Morawiecki used to run an international bank. Now he leads an illiberal government.
At first glance, Mateusz Morawiecki, the 49-year-old millionaire ex-banker who is Poland’s new prime minister, might seem an odd choice to head a government that has embraced economic populism, encouraged xenophobic nationalism, and engaged in aggressive conflict with Brussels over its trampling on democratic institutions ever since it came to power two years ago. Morawiecki, who replaced Beata Szydlo as the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s designated prime minister, is multilingual, holds an impressive string of credentials from Polish, German, and American universities, and ran Spanish bank Santander’s Poland operations for several years. New to politics, he only joined the nationalist PiS in 2016 after being appointed deputy prime minister in charge of finance and economic development the previous year.
He would seem to be an archetypal technocrat, but make no mistake; Morawiecki is a true believer in PiS’s illiberal revolution, which seeks to entrench the party by stacking state institutions with loyalists and changing electoral laws. If Morawiecki seems an unlikely PiS partisan, that’s in part because the party’s ideology, and that of its revolution, has been misunderstood. PiS has long combined nationalist, welfarist, and socially conservative policies and rhetoric. What these political philosophies have in common is a commitment to asserting the Polish state as one of the country’s most powerful economic and social players.
But that objective itself must be accounted for. What explains the motivation to reassert state control in a former communist country that knows first-hand the dangers of an all-powerful state? And why does someone like Morawiecki — whose career until now seems to have been based on a recognition of the virtues of the free market — find that goal sympathetic?
Morawiecki’s own statements about the free market offer an answer. In 2016, he said, “Today we see more and more that the invisible hand of the market has weakened us [Poland] through these many, many years.…We should treat the state as the highest good.” He has described economic liberals’ recurring claim that “capital has no nationality” as a “false philosophy,” saying, “of course capital has a nationality.” By this he means that it is a fallacy to assume that when a big German or French firm in Poland makes major financial decisions, it does not take the economic interests of its home country into consideration but focuses solely on hard figures.
Drawing on his own experience for credibility, Morawiecki argues that economic incentives don’t weaken national loyalties elsewhere in the world nearly as much as liberals suggest, so it would be foolish for the Polish government to act otherwise. Well aware that Poland still needs significant foreign investment, Morawiecki is careful never to condemn foreign capital per se; on the contrary, he openly welcomes it. However, it’s clear that he believes economic liberalism has served as a clever smokescreen for rich Western corporations and their mother nations to dominate developing economies. As Morawiecki claims, thanks to post-communist Poland being overly adherent to the doctrine of economic liberalism, today “to a huge extent, we are dependent on foreigners.”
It is this feeling of dependence, of being subject to the will of others, that is the underlying emotion driving many of PiS’s policies and its often antagonistic, resentful rhetoric toward Western Europe. Considering Poland’s ruling party is currently supported by 41 percent of Poles, compared to the 18 percent who back its closest rival, the economically liberal Civic Platform, it would seem PiS has tapped into a national sense of resentment and desire to resist this perceived domination by the West. Of course, there are several other reasons PiS is popular with Poles today, not least of all its unprecedentedly generous social spending. But the socio-psychological resentment integral to Morawiecki’s worldview should not be underestimated.
Morawiecki therefore considers it his mission to strengthen the position of the Polish state overall, including vis-à-vis foreign corporations operating in Poland, which PiS feels have often been treated too well. He emphasizes with some pride that the finance ministry he has been running since 2015, and will continue to run while prime minister, succeeded in recovering some 30 billion zlotys (more than $8 billion) from tax-avoiding companies over the last year. Apart from the fact the extra cash has been very useful in helping fund PiS’s generous social programs, it also served to send a signal to the business world: No more disregarding the Polish state — you play by our rules now.
When it comes to PiS’s weakening of the judiciary’s independence, Morawiecki, who was a pro-democracy activist during his student days in communist Poland, says there are too many old communists still serving as judges: “When I look at the Supreme Court, I see many of the same judges who jailed my activist friends in the 1980s … I think most people would admit it’s time for those people to leave.” Additionally, he claims Poland’s courts are “wastefully expensive and ineffective” and thus require “deep reforms.”
Morawiecki’s appointment is a strategic intervention by PiS’s dominant leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who pulls the strings in the ruling party and is personally behind the new prime minister’s rapid ascendance. In the short term, he is counting on Morawiecki to improve Warsaw’s currently dreadful relations with Brussels, which has taken Poland’s government to the European Court of Justice over its refusal to accept relocated migrants and has repeatedly criticized it for its persistent attempts to politicize the judiciary. There has even been talk among European Union officials of cutting European funding for Poland in response to its antidemocratic practices. Poland is the largest beneficiary of EU funds, which constitute a vital part of the country’s budget. Were these to be withheld or even delayed significantly, it would cause serious disruption to Poland’s spending plans. PiS spokesperson Beata Mazurek signaled the new prime minister’s priorities when she said he would focus on “international and economic” issues.
Fundamentally, Polish government policy is unlikely to change much; don’t expect Warsaw to suddenly accept relocated migrants or back down from its attempts to politicize the judiciary and generally increase state power. However, there will likely be a few small concessions to win some goodwill. For instance, in his first major speech to parliament as prime minister-designate this week, Morawiecki said Poland would respect the July ruling of the European Court of Justice imposing a temporary ban on logging in its Bialowieza Forest, a ruling it had previously ignored. Importantly for PiS, Morawiecki’s experience as a banker has schooled him in the language of Western European elites who favor diplomatese and nonaggressive rhetoric in public exchanges, a rule former Prime Minister Szydlo serially flouted.
Kaczynski is hoping Morawiecki will turn out to be a Polish-style Viktor Orban, the suave Hungarian prime minister who schmoozes his way through the corridors of Brussels, saying whatever Western European elites want to hear in a given moment, only to promptly resume his self-styled “illiberal” revolution once back home in Budapest. Some pundits who back PiS have complained Warsaw comes under far heavier fire from Brussels than Budapest even though both governments essentially pursue similar policies precisely because Orban knows how to sweet-talk Brussels elites. In the long term, if Morawiecki indeed proves adept at international maneuverings while maintaining PiS’s popularity at home and leading it to victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections, then the 68-year-old Kaczynski will have found his successor and could gradually start planning the handover of the party he built while himself taking a less active role in politics.
Morawiecki shares Kaczynski’s view that Western Europe has lost its sense of identity, shedding its Christian roots for a fanatical secularism and obsessive multiculturalism that has left the continent disoriented and weakened. In his first TV interview after being designated Prime Minister, Morawiecki said Poland wants to “transform [the EU], to re-Christianize it. This is my dream.” This statement exemplifies the considerable megalomania and sense of moral superiority PiS politicians feel toward Western Europe; not only do they feel they know what is best for Poland, they also presume to know what is best for other European countries.
This megalomania is reflected in the popular narrative within Polish conservative circles that Poland has a historical mission to save Europe from Islamization just as it did in the famous 1683 Battle of Vienna, when forces led by Polish King John III Sobieski defeated the advancing Ottoman army, an event that historians consider the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Some Polish conservatives are convinced Western Europe today is simply too naive and “politically correct” to realize how significant a threat the present-day Ottoman army (Europe’s Muslim migrants and citizens) present. It is up to Poles to remind Western Europe of its Christian roots and who the common enemy is. Of course, when PiS politicians generally speak of Europe’s “Christian values,” they are less concerned with people obeying the Ten Commandments in their daily lives than in Christianity as a tribal identifier distinguishing Europeans from Muslims and good social conservatives from bad secular liberals. Understanding this worldview is important to understanding what makes PiS politicians like Morawiecki tick.
Poland’s new prime minister has shown himself to be a capable financial manager, implementing his party’s generous social spending initiatives while keeping the country’s budget in safe territory. So far, the government’s generous spending has fuelled consumption, and economic growth has accelerated. Poland’s economy is expected to grow by an impressive 4.2 percent this year and 3.8 percent in 2018. What remains to be seen now is the kind of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki will be and whether Poland’s EU partners will be so relieved at having a less aggressive head of government in Warsaw that they will simply start closing their eyes to PiS’s illiberal revolution.
Perhaps the conclusion will eventually be that Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary simply belong to a different political cultural and ethical world than Western Europe, and there is little Brussels can do about that other than continuing cooperation where possible and focusing on strengthening ties between eurozone members, thus leading to the very two-speed Europe Morawiecki said needs to be avoided during his first prime ministerial speech to parliament. Sadly, this may end up being the case if Warsaw gives no tangible reason for Poland’s Western European peers to act otherwise. It is doubtful a few smiles and flattering words will be enough to repair Poland’s badly damaged image in Europe.