Sweeping government reshuffle
In the second half of 2017, debates and rumors about a government reshuffle grew. Ultimately, the changes turned out to be more sweeping than expected. The replacement of Beata Szydło as prime minister by Minister of Finance Mateusz Morawiecki in December 2017 was followed by the replacement of a number of controversial ministers in January 2018, including Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, Health Minister Konstanty Radziwiłł and Environment Minister Jan Szyszko.
Controversial ministers replaced
These changes were widely interpreted as an attempt to placate the public and the European Union. A major figure of the PiS’s radical right, Macierewicz was well-known for his conspiracy theories about the Smolensk plane crash and the general betrayal of Poland by the center-left. Meanwhile, Waszczykowski had irritated his EU colleagues with his slur against cyclists and vegetarians; Radziwiłł had alienated doctors and medical staff, and had failed to deal with the massive unrest and strikes in the health sector in 2017; Szyszko had attracted widespread criticism over his moves to allow logging in the Białowieża primeval forest. It remains to be seen though whether or not these changes in personnel will be followed by changes in “substance,” not only “style.” In the case of judicial reform, arguably the most controversial field, the PiS governments have so far refrained from making any substantial concessions, and the fact that Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro kept his office does not point to any changes here.
President gains strength, shows independence
The government reshuffle can also be seen as a further strengthening of President Duda, who clashed several times with Macierewicz, for example, over the appointment of generals, and has started to build a reputation as a moderating force. Originally perceived as a mere puppet of Kaczyński, Duda surprised many observers by vetoing key elements of the government’s reform of the judiciary. While his own proposals included only cosmetic changes and were not in line with the constitution, the vetoes helped him become perceived as an actor in his own right and a man of the center. This raises the question of how far Duda’s emancipation will go and to what extent he might succeed in reducing the political polarization in Poland.
Technocratic drift may help with structural reforms
Furthermore, the government reshuffle has made the cabinet less ideological and more technocratic. This might help the government to address the policy challenges ahead. The structural reforms on the agenda, such as the reform of the health system and the energy sector, are complicated issues and the economic and fiscal costs of the government’s generous social measures will be gradually felt. From the point of view of the PiS, however, the more technocratic orientation of the new cabinet also creates the risk that its hardcore members might no longer feel represented by the government.