Polish media spent much of last week speculating on whether Justice Minister Jarosław Gowin was finally going to get the boot from his boss Prime Minister Donald Tusk. It seemed likely. After all, why would the PM's spokesperson Paweł Graś tweet last week that Donald Tusk would decide on the future of his justice minister this Monday if there was no intention of relieving Mr Gowin of his duties?
The tweet got the media into a frenzy and most politicos pronounced Mr Gowin a goner. Social liberals cheered at the thought of finally seeing the back of the ultra-conservative minister. However, on Monday, Mr Tusk announced that he had resolved his differences with Jarosław Gowin, and that the justice minister would keep his job.
A wolf attempting to bleat?
“I accepted with relief the readiness of Minister Gowin for further cooperation, because in old age the heart softens and I don't want to exaggerate with all this,” said the prime minister while making the announcement. “Human impulses are possible in politics as well.”
That might have been moving were it not for the fact that Donald Tusk has exhibited precious few signs of any softening of the heart in the recent past and has publicly humiliated his party colleagues, ministers and whoever else dared incur his wrath. The prime minister clearly enjoys using his power to belittle people, much as he did with his sarcastic statements about how merciful he had been towards Mr Gowin.
A Gowin win?
The question now is for how long Mr Gowin will keep his job and how Poland's political dynamics have been affected. Mr Tusk was upset with the conservative politician because in January he publicly criticized a legislative effort to sanction civil unions that the PM supported.
But that was not the first time Mr Gowin had striven to prove his conservative credentials.
The justice minister is often described as the leader of an ultra-conservative faction in the ruling Civic Platform. There are roughly 45 Civic Platform MPs who fall into the “ultra-conservative” category – but not all of them consider Mr Gowin their leader. Still, speculation had it that were Mr Gowin to be fired, a couple of MPs could quit the party, possibly costing Mr Tusk his parliamentary majority.
Irrespective of how many foot-soldiers he actually has, Mr Gowin has become a symbolic figure on the Polish political scene for admirers and detractors alike. He has continuously been at the forefront of moves to block socially progressive reforms in parliament, including those supported by his party's leadership. He presents himself as the guardian of conservative principles in the ruling party and spends more time talking about social issues in the media than justice-related matters.
Removing Mr Gowin from his ministerial post would certainly have been problematic for the prime minister, and the fact that he has kept his job despite stepping on Donald Tusk's toes is clearly a political victory for Mr Gowin and his supporters.
The genius of Civic Platform is that it is an unusually eclectic party, consisting of politicians decidedly to the left of the center, centrists and ultra-conservatives like Mr Gowin. Everyone can find a politician they identify with in Civic Platform.
That's one of the reasons the party has won roughly 40 percent of the vote in the last two parliamentary elections. Getting rid of Mr Gowin would no doubt be sold by his supporters as a swerve to the left by Donald Tusk – and that could alienate significant chunks of conservative voters from the PM's party.
The prime minister would like to pass some progressive legislation on issues like civil unions and state funding for the in vitro procedure. Mr Gowin, on the other hand, opposes these moves on account of his conservative Catholic views. Many liberal supporters of Civic Platform had hoped Mr Gowin would get the boot precisely because they rightly see him as one of the biggest obstacles to these and other progressive causes.
For now at least, Mr Gowin will keep his job. But the tensions between him and the prime minister will not abate for long. The justice minister knows Mr Tusk wants to get rid of him, it's just a matter of the right timing for the PM.
Jarosław Gowin will therefore likely try to use his remaining time as minister to further strengthen his own political position so as to be ready when the bullets come flying.
For now, there will be quiet in the ruling party – until the next big social issue appears on the public agenda.