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  • Grzegorz Makowski
28.02.2020

Poland’s hidden corruption

When corruption is ingrained in the political system and concentrated among the political elites, it becomes less noticeable to citizens. But this does not mean that there is no negative impact on their lives. The consequences are limited access to independent judges and media, as well as inequalities in the availability of specific resources – civil service positions, state grants or subsidies.


The results of surveys on the perceived scale of corruption show that the percentage of people who see it as a serious problem has been steadily falling for years – also since the beginning of the rule of the Law and Justice party (PiS) in 2015. The improved perception is in stark contrast to the fecklessness of the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) and the numerous scandals, affairs and other dealings taking place on the fringes of the law, or squarely on the wrong side of it, which weigh heavy on the ruling right-wing camp. The first step to understanding this discrepancy is realisation that corruption is not just about crime.

The hidden problem of corruption

Corruption is more than it seems, because it is more than a crime, which can easily be seen with the naked eye, as there are arrests, charges, guilty verdicts, and evidence. Corruption is particularism – dividing up public resources (money, jobs, entitlements etc.) in such a way as to favour a certain group, such as the political camp that happens to be in power.

Such corruption is not necessarily criminal as such. It might even be “legal”. The groups wishing to implement their own interests form a legal and institutional framework guaranteeing them a safe, privileged position. For example, the amendment to the civil service law in 2016 resulted in the removal of all barriers to putting party figures in the top positions in ministries. As a result, the ruling party has complete freedom in filling more than three thousand key administrative posts.

It is also in the interest of such groups for their actions to be non-transparent, as invisible to public opinion as possible. This is the case with the lists of support for the judges of the partisan National Council of the Judiciary. For months, despite legally binding court rulings, there was refusal to disclose them. Why? To disguise the fact that the new members were supported by a narrow group of people directly dependent on the ruling party.

This reduced the risk of being held to task for abuse of power, negligence or errors – in keeping with Robert Klitgaard’s classic definition of corruption: “corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability”.

If it is ingrained in the system and concentrated in the political, administrative or business elites, corruption will be harder for the average citizen to notice, especially when the economic situation is good and social programmes are developing. When they are focused on short-term improvement to their quality of life, citizens become less sensitive to corruption being played out somewhere in the towers of power.

The average Pole today is also more tolerant of corruption because he or she encounters it less often in person. It is not so widespread, and does not reach the most basic public decisions (for example, dealing with administrative matters), as was the case 15 or even 10 years ago.

The corruption we face today is “distant” from the average citizen. Yet its consequences – a less efficient state, growing networks of informal connections and clientelism, a worsening image of the country in the international arena – will sooner or later be felt by everyone.

For example, when “ordinary” people begin to lose cases adjudicated on by partisan judges or if they fail to get work in a state or local-government institution just because they do not share the views of the ruling party. Or if they live in an administrative district where the mayor has no connections with the ruling party. The district in question might not get a subsidy from the government’s Municipal Roads Fund, making residents’ lives difficult and putting off investors.

Professor Paweł Swianiewicz recently showed how real a risk this is in a report on the influence of party politics on distribution of specific subsidies, using the example of the Municipal Roads Fund. Grand corruption often goes unnoticed as it develops. But it always has the consequences of profound political crises and degeneration of public life and the economy.

The ruling right-wing camp have created fertile ground for it to flourish, doing away with the system of mutual checks between the executive, legislative and judicial branches and abandoning the standard of rule of law. This situation causes particularism, as it gives the ruling party and the associated circles extreme privilege.

It also leads to inequalities, not only in respect of the law, but also in access to specific public resources – for example, civil service positions, state grants and subsidies, or the advertising budgets available to state companies. This has an impact on the media when they are critical of the government.

Return to the rule of law

To deal with the corruption nestled deep in the structures of the state and public life, solutions tackling the problem at the systemic level must be proposed. It is essential to restore the balance between the executive and the legislative powers. Parliament, and especially the opposition, must be allowed to exercise scrutiny over the government and other organs of the executive branch.

It is crucial to create conditions in which the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office are not directly dependent on political considerations. The independence of judges and autonomy of the prosecutor’s office are not only a fundamental standard of the rule of law. They are also the main condition for the legislative and executive powers to be held accountable, especially when their representatives are in conflict with the law and suspected of corrupt practices.

An important element of systemic prevention of grand corruption is the creation of a central administration structure in which officials are genuinely guided by the interest of citizens when carrying out their public service, rather than the ad hoc interests of the ruling party. Without this, public administration will turn into a nomenklatura.

Also important is the creation of various “technical” solutions such as digitalising and streamlining the financial disclosure system, passing a law protecting whistle-blowers who give information about abuses of the system in the workplace, and producing legislation to hold entire companies or institutions to account for corruption.

There are numerous specific solutions that Poland is lacking and that would make a big difference to the state’s ability to prevent corruption. But without restoring the basic systemic framework for fighting corruption at the highest levels of government, such “precision instruments” responsible for the specific problems and dangers of corruption will be as good as useless.

The original version of this article can be found here. Translated by Ben Koschalka.

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