Poland's biggest opposition party Law and Justice (PiS) started this week with its most visible effort yet to convince Poles that it is interested in the bread-and-butter issues they face in their everyday lives and not only in implementing a “moral revolution,” as it has promised to do in the past.
On Monday, PiS organized a debate on the economy to which it had invited virtually every big-name economist in Poland.
And although most of the biggest stars like former National Bank of Poland (NBP) head Leszek Balcerowicz and current NBP boss Marek Belka declined the invitation, the debate was attended by some notable economists such as Stanisław Gomułka, former deputy minister of finance and current chief economist of the Business Centre Club, presidential economic adviser Jerzy Osiatyński and Adam Glapiński, Monetary Policy Council (RPP) member.
The event, therefore, was no fiasco.
In fact, it was a huge PR success for PiS. Even though no earth-shattering conclusions were reached during the debate, the party, for one day at least, seemed to be genuinely interested in what most Poles had on their minds in the here and now – namely the country's slowing economy.
PiS itself made it very clear that the PR aspect of the whole operation was what really counted with the party writing on its website that “the economists' debate on PiS's economic proposals was an important event about which there was much noise, that alone speaks of it as a doubtless success.”
No longer the Smolensk party
PiS was at one time dubbed the “Smolensk party” for its endless flogging of the circumstances surrounding the 2010 plane crash which killed Lech Kaczyński (the twin brother of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński) and 95 others.
At one point Jarosław Kaczyński openly suggested his brother could have been murdered on the Kremlin's orders and probably with the knowledge of Poland's current government headed by his political nemesis, Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
But Mr Kaczyński knows today that he can't win an election with that kind of rhetoric and so is trying to reinvent his party's image. And with the Polish economy slowing down visibly, the best way to do this as well as score points off Mr Tusk's government is to suggest that things could be better if PiS's economic policies were implemented.
A few weeks ago, PiS released its economic program for Poland, proposing, among other things, a 10-year program to create 1.2 million jobs, a unification of the PIT and CIT tax codes, zł.300 vouchers for poorer families to spend on sending their children to pre-school, undoing the recently-passed pension reform which raised the retirement age to 67 for both men and women, and increasing tax rebates for families with more than one child.
Or Smolensk-here we go again?
The problem is that this isn't the first time PiS has tried to change its image only for Mr Kaczyński or one of his party colleagues to make one faux pas that enabled its opponents to caricature it as completely out of touch with what the average Pole is interested in.
And it seems that might already be happening again. This week it was revealed that a second autopsy had confirmed that Solidarity legend Anna Walentynowicz, who died in the Smolensk catastrophe, had been buried in the wrong grave in 2010.
Mr Kaczynski called the revelations a “gigantic scandal” and said “those who are responsible for the catastrophe should leave politics and remain in life-long infamy.”
He also said he expected the resignation of Ewa Kopacz, the current speaker of parliament, who was minister of health at the time and who assured Poles that she personally witnessed Polish doctors examining all the Polish bodies.
Ms Kopacz has now said she wasn't present beside “all the coffins.” It is right to point out the discrepancy between what Ms Kopacz said on this matter two years ago and what the facts suggest today, but does it have to be the PiS leader himself who gets involved in such a highly-emotive matter?
He could easily have gotten one of his subordinates to speak on this matter with himself focusing on economic issues.
'Wake up Poland'
Also, this Saturday, Mr Kaczyński and his party will take part in a demonstration under the slogan “Wake up Poland,” in defense of what it sees as discriminatory acts by the state against the ultra-conservative Catholic TV station Trwam, which provides important support for PiS among that segment of the population.
The “Wake up Poland” slogan has been compared by some to a slogan of the same title “Deutschland, Erwache!”, which was used by the Nazis.
The comparison is no doubt a stretch but it helps feed the narrative that PiS is a nationalistic, populist party. One video-image of Mr Kaczyński marching alongside people holding up such slogans will erase any gains the party might have made this week in the eyes of public opinion.
And that would be bad for Poland.
The country needs an opposition that will present credible competition to the ruling Civic Platform (PO) and its over-confident leader Prime Minister Donald Tusk who once said in an interview that he has “no one to lose an election to.”
Businessmen need competition to keep them sharp. So do politicians. Pepsi's existence means Coca-Cola has to constantly improve to hold on to its customers.
Poland needs a Pepsi in its politics and PiS is the only opposition party big enough to audition for that role. But they won't get it if Poles continue viewing them as a party whose politics is far too bitter for their taste.