October brought Prime Minster Donald Tusk’s cabinet its first major scandal, “Blackjack-gate.” It started when the government, menaced by a growing budget deficit and rising debt, wanted to levy a tax on casinos to help fund preparations for the 2012 European Football Championships, which Poland will be hosting with Ukraine. The proposed tax would yield revenues in excess of PLN 500 million. Unsurprisingly, the gambling industry objected and began lobbying government officials to lower the tax. These negotiations came to light when the Rzeczpospolita daily published excerpts from wiretap recordings of telephone conversations between Ryszard Sobiesak, owner of the Casino Poland chain, and Zbigniew Chlebowski, leader of the Civic Platform (PO) caucus in Poland’s parliament, the Sejm. The recordings also showed that Chlebowski frequently conversed with gambling investor Jan Kosek. When the news broke, PM Tusk made sweeping changes to his cabinet with a zeal that is rarely seen in Polish politics. Chlebowski stepped down as caucus leader, followed by Sports Minister Miroslaw Drzewiecki, Justice Minister Andrzej Czuma, Deputy Minister of the Economy Adam Szejnfeld and Interior Minister Grzegorz Schetyna. Central Anti-Corruption Bureau chief Mariusz Kaminski was also let go.
Analysis and forecast: decreasing risk
The speed with which Tusk handled the matter came as no surprise. His PO party scored a convincing win in the 2007 parliamentary elections on a platform that stressed transparent governance. Tusk also learnt from the mistakes of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD): The SLD ceased to be an influential political entity after corruption scandals marred its government between 2001 and 2005. Next year’s presidential election was all the more reason for Tusk to nip the scandal in the bud. At first, the PM even floated the idea of letting Sejm Marshal Bronislaw Komorowski run in his place, suggesting he thought Blackjack-gate would have a lasting impact on his poll numbers.
Tusk’s poll ratings did slip, but he quickly rebounded and retained the status of presidential frontrunner. Voters lauded his strong and decisive reaction. The good will apparently also rubbed off on the PO, whose popularity shot up to 50% in December. The post-scandal period initially saw a surge in popularity for former leftist Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, but his momentum soon petered out.
The dismissal of anti-corruption chief Mariusz Kaminski was not directly linked to Blackjack-gate, but it also cannot be separated from the case. Kaminski, who was appointed by Tusk’s predecessor, former PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has a reputation for sparking embarrassing controversies. Although he was officially fired in relation to accusations that he had overstepped his authority in a 2007 case, his departure can be seen as a “preventive measure” that removes a potential threat to the PO winning the presidency.