Chairman Kaczynski: Holding Court for Poland’s Leaders

Polish politics have been—to put it mildly—rather contentious as of late. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) was swept into power in 2015 ending eight years of political domination by the classic liberal-oriented Civic Platform Party, and PiS has since governed with a determination to remake the country in its own conservative-populist image.

Not unexpectedly the center-left European Union administrative bodies in Brussels and various rights watchdog groups have expressed concerns over PiS’ various moves, including efforts seen to consolidate power on the Constitutional Court and clamp down on the media.

But beyond Poland’s energetic policy divides and disputes, there lurks an intriguing informal political structure in which the country’s real power lies not with the country’s President and Prime Minister, but with Jarosław Kaczynski, the Chairman of PiS—and the twin brother of former President Lech Kaczynski who—with his wife, and dozens of officials—were tragically killed when the president’s plane crashed on the way to a ceremony honoring thousands of Polish army officers who were murdered by the Soviets in World War II. Though deceased, the former president’s world view is very much alive in his brother, Jarosław, a mere MP, but also the chairman of the country’s ruling political party. Indeed, so powerful is the party chairman that he has indeed inspired an amusing satire that questions just who governs Poland.

The Chairman’s Ear (Ucho Prezesa) is the brainchild of Robert Gorski, the leader of the Warsaw comedy troupe Cabaret of Moral Anxiety (Kabaretu Moralnego Niepokoju). Originally available only on YouTube, its first four episodes were such a hit that the video on demand company Showmax picked it up, and began to provide partial financing. It is still a low-budget operation with only two sets—the chairman’s office and the outer reception area—to be used as the backdrop for the first season’s sixteen episodes that run nine to nineteen minutes each.

The satire is thinly veiled: the characters bear the same first names of their targets, but only sometimes look like them. At the center is the chairman, or Jarosław Kaczynski—a fussy fellow who shows little interest in women but is preoccupied with his cat. He has neither interest in nor comprehension of modern technology, and his every whim is attended to by his sycophantic, shiny suit-wearing right hand man—a caricature of Poland’s Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak. For the chairman, Poland is the center of everything; his office globe has only a large Poland on it.

While the chairman comes in for plenty of ridicule, it is President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydło who are the target of some of the sharpest criticism. In one amusing scene, the president and prime minister sit outside the chairman’s office and reminisce about the days of the campaign when they were important and lauded. Now they can only sit outside his office and await his instructions.

Indeed, the president is always waiting outside the chairman’s office and is forever unable to get an audience with him. The office receptionist can never remember his name and half of the visitors who pass through the reception area don’t recognize him.

Prime Minister Szydło’s character makes far fewer appearances, but is depicted as a woman completely lacking a spine and incapable of executing the duties of her office without assistance from the chairman. The Marshal of the Sejm is likewise represented as a sniveling underling unable to do much of anything without the advice of the chairman. On the other hand, Defense Minister and Deputy Leader of PiS Antoni Macierewicz is shown to be nigh near untouchable. Even the chairman is afraid of him.

One can certainly argue with the characterizations in the popular show, but The Chairman’s Ear has quickly become what many believe accurately portrays the machinery of contemporary Polish politics and its relationships domestically and within the European arena. The writers’ portrayal of the animosity between Chairman Kaczynski and Poland’s former Prime Minister Donald Tusk—now the President of the European Council—was particularly adroit at illuminating the intertwined tensions between the two as it spilled over into public view in the spring of 2017. The skits quickly addressed issues as they emerged, poking fun at PiS’ proclivity for getting into traffic accidents; the foreign minister’s seeming obsession with diminishing his predecessor Radek Sikorski; and, the excessive trust that Defense Minister Macierewicz placed in an underqualified but powerful assistant.

For a non-Polish audience that doesn’t follow the ins and outs of the country’s politics, most of the jokes and satire will escape them. Yet even without specialized knowledge, The Chairman’s Ear is a well told story that highlights the all too frequent absurdity of political relationships.

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