Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No peeing in Warsaw

The fortunately long since departed Communist-era was a time of idiotic rules totally detached from reality, making Poles quite proficient in cheating on these rules. Like the one that you could not buy alcohol before 1 P.M. It seems that the system can change but some things do not. Polish state railways PKP, to be precise. Apparently, the railways decided all trains will lock their bathrooms when they travel through Warsaw...

Why, you might ask, would anyone do that? Oh, it's quite simple. Warsaw's train stations are being renovated, but the train cars are not. In these old cars when you want to pee, well, let's just say the stuff doesn't stay on the train for more than a few seconds. Nobody really cared too much until that, er, stuff started dropping beside the renovated rail stations. So, PKP decided to solve the problem by locking the toilets.

Now, it seems that just to be on the safe side PKP decided the best course of action would be to make all toilets usable on a need-to-pee basis across Poland and not only in Warsaw. I wonder when Poles will get the message and figure out that windows are closer and cannot be locked....

Friday, November 25, 2011

First Ireland, now Hungary

I don't really like advice. People like to hear it. But no one ever follows it. Seems like a waste of time. But I do like exceptions, and so here's a piece of advice for Poland's politicians: don't promise to make Poland into anything except Poland.

In case you're slightly confused (I hope so, so you'll be reading on), I'm speaking of Polish politicians' tendency to say 'we promise to make Poland into Country X.'

Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform (PO) were first bitten by this disease. Tusk and his gang spent the entire 2007 election campaign promising to make Poland into Ireland. With the Celtic miracle seemingly unstoppable, with Poles already making up seemingly half of the population there, it did not seem a stretch that Poland could repeat the move and turn into the Eagle economy.

Then came the crisis, the banking busts, the government socialization of banking sector idiocy and now the Irish have turned into the Poles they previously welcomed: they're both migrating in search of work elsewhere. I guess Tusk just got it wrong. Poland didn't become Ireland. Ireland became Poland, and then went even worse.

Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski spent the election evening of Oct 9 promising to make Poland into Hungary. After what was his sixth straight election loss, Kaczynski had to rally the troops somehow. So he and his followers started selling the idea that Poles will somehow be so sick of a PO battered by the coming crisis that they will elect PiS in droves, as happened in Hungary in the 2010 elections.

Kaczynski probably spends his nights tossing and turning dreaming of repeating the well-to-the-right-wing party Fidesz's winning of a two-thirds constitutional majority in the elections. Fidesz could, and then did, change the constitution at will and at any whim. Safely in basket-case territory, the Hungarian authorities now have no credibility and the country's debt ratings are being downgraded and the forint is falling off a cliff.

I hope Kaczynski also got it wrong. I also really sincerely hope Poland doesn't become Hungary. I know my property investments don't need any more hammering.

On a bright note, our fearless European leaders no doubt have the situation in hand and will soon save the day . . . what's that? They're the problem. Oh no….

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What not to say...

Friendly neighbourhood visit from coal miners - Warsaw, 2003
Prime Minister Donald Tusk's reform plan presented this past Friday sure ruffled a few feathers. We are not surprised at all that miners, judges and prosecutors are threatening all hell will break loose if their privileges get cut. Legal lobbies already claim the move to drop preferential pensions for judges and prosecutors will "threaten judges freedom from bias" while judges and prosecutors themselves are thinking about striking.

Given that, according to the World Bank's Doing Business in 2012 report, it takes 830 (!!!) days on average in Poland to enforce a contract in court, I would say a strike in judicial system is a rather empty threat. It would take three years for people to notice any difference...

Miners have outright threatened the prime minister, saying, through their labour union representatives, that either the government stops dabbling in their retirement affairs or they will storm. How that usually ends one can see in the picture above left.

Such complaints were to be expected, but surprisingly the most controversy, especially in parliament and on the financial market, was related to the announcement of a new copper and silver mining tax, aka the "KGHM tax." 

Since the PM spoke Friday at noon, the markets were told "the good news" live, and quite surprisingly, not every investor listened to the speech and not all of them had enough time to short the stock before it collapsed. Either that, or they have a longer investment horizon like say, pension funds, and were not happy about the news. At all.

Clearly lots of MPs were also long KGHM that Friday because it took them a surprisingly short time to connect the new tax proposal with KGHM's performance before, clearly, the most market savvy Janusz Palikot came out and asked the prime minister who exactly knew about the new tax beforehand and were they involved in insider trading?

Donald Tusk of course quickly rejected any such accusations, but already people are going through transaction records looking at large short bets against KGHM made before the speech.

So let this be a lesson. If you are a "pro-market" prime minister and want to make an impression on the market, do so after the session's end or the impression will be quite different from that expected.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Who's to blame for PiS's sixth straight election loss?

Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski's answer to the question of who is to blame for his party's sixth straight election loss is . . . not him. Surprise, surprise.

Kaczynski's answer -- which has taken on extra importance since a group of PiS MPs has since quit the party or been kicked out to form a rival party -- spreads across 11 whole pages sent to PiS believers over the weekend. What's that old saw about liars feeling the need to over-explain themselves?

Kaczynski, anyway, blames that bugbear of the right: the liberal media. The "media" completely blew out of proportion anti-PiS stories and worked as the de facto third arm of the election-winning Civic Platform (PO), which has now won six straight elections.

A major culprit is also Zbigniew Ziobro and Jacek Kurski, the two de facto leaders of the latest splinter group from PiS. Ziobro, Kurski and others demanded change in PiS in order to make the party electable. Problem is, questioning Kaczynski is not allowed and they were turfed. Now that I know they were to blame for the election loss, I can understand why they had to be kicked out.

Kaczynski also mentions that the right-wing of the political scene is beset by similar problems as in the 1990s, when right-of-centre parties splintered and re-splintered as no one could work with each other. Kaczynski blamed unrealistic ambition for the splits and said this was returning.

Ahhh, I get it. The "unrealistic ambition" of leaders who don't know that they can't win elections and then just weaken everyone else is why PiS can't win an election.

Hmmmm, I wonder where the "unrealistic ambition" really lies these days.

PiS couldn't have lost because Kaczynski is the least trusted politician in Poland with the biggest negative electorate. No, no, no. It also wasn't because Kaczynski accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of de facto being a spy, reminding everyone how brash, divisive and alienating he can be. It likewise wasn't because no one believes that PiS won't manipulate all organs of power to achieving their spurious goals if they win and then proceed to make a hash of it.

And it definitely wasn't because the PiS leader is scared of any resistance -- whether internally or from PO leader Donald Tusk, who Kaczynski refused to debate in the recent election campaign -- and doesn't know when he's become the problem. No one but Kaczynski can control PiS anymore but PiS with Kaczynski can't win elections. A funny quandary.

Friday, November 18, 2011

When the PM speaks...

There is a communist-era joke in Poland that goes something like this: "The Party never lies. When the Party speaks about taking something, it takes it. When the Party speaks about giving something, it speaks." Prime Minister Donald Tusk presented his economic plan for the upcoming future on Friday, but it remains to be seen whether this old saying will be proven true again.

Some already have named it "the most important speech since 1989." With all due respect, but does everything in Poland have to either be grandiose or total crap? Who cares if it was the best, worst, shortest or longest speech. This is not a figure-skating contest where you get points for "style."

The PM's line is that there is a crisis in the European Union (no shit Sherlock) and that in order to protect Poland painful steps are needed. This is a strange thing for the PM to say since only a few months ago he was waving Poland's GDP growth figure in Brussels to show off how resilient Poland is...but I digress.

So let's make a "joke forecast" here and assume that the old sayings do have the "power" to create reality. Based on the joke here is what the "old-new" government will actually achieve during this term:

Tax and fee hikes:
Let's not beat around the bush, if you "unify tax breaks" that means raising taxes, and this is high on the government's agenda. This means:
1. An increase in the disability tax on labour by 2 percentage points, let's think about who will cover the cost amid a crisis and rising unemployment?
2. Scrapping a tax break for the first kid for high-earners, as part of the pro-family policy of course.
3. Expanding capital gains tax to eliminate "tax-free" financial products.
4. Hiking tax on copper and silver deposits -- if you have any doubts about the potential impact, copper miner KGHM's shares fell 13 percent on the news.
5. Shale gas industry tax -- we don't even have shale gas yet and we are already taxing it.
6. Limiting the tax deduction for people producing copyrights (already mentioned on this blog).
7. Scrapping internet tax break.
8. Introducing healthcare fees for wealthier farmers.

Scrapping benefits:
Benefits for small, unpopular or, dare I say, non-core electorate groups will be scrapped, meaning prosecutors, judges and some coal miners can say farewell to their early pension benefits.

This is the list of things the government will talk, and only talk, about implementing for next four years:

- Healthcare system reform, unless "reform" means higher fees of course.
- Extension of retirement age to 67 for both men and women.
- Extension of retirement age for soldiers and policemen -- at the same time the government plans to improve Poland's defensive potential, so I guess this will not be built around people.
- Including farmers in the universal social security framework.
- Leaner and "client oriented" administration focused on performance.
- Less bureaucracy in construction permits.
- Opening up half of professions locked in by regulations, which means scrapping institutions like lawyers associations, etc.
- Fewer legal acts produced by the government but producing better quality legislation.
- Speeding up the judicial process in Poland. How? By cutting judges' benefits?

I agree with Scott. Should the government implement all of the above, especially the pension system unification and the inclusion of farmers into the universal social security system, Poland's public finances and, in general Poland, would be much better of. At least I would know that the tax hikes the government slapped on me were not in vain. But I guess we will see in next 13 months. If by then the government does not have the reforms ready and in parliament, it means we were duped...again.

Sorry, I'm on the phone

Prime Minister Donald Tusk gave his long-awaited presentation on Friday of the "new-old" government's reform plan. The devil will clearly be in the execution since there were in fact quite a lot of details for such a speech, a surprising amount. We'll see. If Tusk and his new government -- the youngest since 1989, as he likes to point out -- can put it in place, Poland will be in far better fiscal position than most other European countries, though that is not saying much these days.

Most observers and political players were all ears when Tusk started his speech today at noon. One was not: Jaroslaw Kaczynski did the Polish political equivalent of "sorry, can't pay attention, I'm on the phone."

Yep, Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who could bore the rust off a bumper with a political speech, waltzed into the lower house late and talking on the phone, and showily so. He proceeded to talk for a number of seconds before actually listening to Tusk.

Who do you think he was calling? A great guess would be his mom (EDIT: Probably to talk about a funeral for his beloved cat Alik, which died recently).

One thing I'm sure of is that it was not a job interview. For, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has a monopoly on being Poland's opposition leader, something it seems he will remain for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

No eagles here

Poland's football association PZPN rarely shows any sign of considered long-term thinking. I was thus extremely surprised that for once someone there actually thought about the upcoming European football championships Poland co-hosts with Ukraine next June in a realistic way.

The association, clearly after a deep analysis of the national team's past performance and in a rare moment of sobriety, decided to remove Poland's national symbol -- a white eagle -- from players' shirts.

So far this year the national team coached by Franciszek Smuda has won 6 games, tied 3 and lost 3, but let's be frank most of the opponents were not the best. If we take a look at Poland's potential opponents in the tournament, the record is much clearer. Since 2009, when Smuda took over, team has failed to win a single game against any opponent that qualified for the Euro 2012. It managed to tie only two and lost a total of four.

Unfortunately the media, other fans and even players themselves do not agree with me that it is good the eagle is gone. Fans are protesting against the move online and in real life by boycotting the latest friendly match. The media has hit out in the usual frenzy. Politicians want legal changes that would force the eagle back onto the shirts...but why??!! After all, it would only turn red with shame during the tournament itself...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

War!

Prime Minister Donald Tusk is deciding whether to liquidate a tax break that allows journalists and any profession with copyrights of their intellectual material to pay tax on only half their reported income, according to the daily Rzeczpospolita. If Tusk does decide to do so in the Friday presentation of his "new-old" government's policy, it will be as good as a declaration of war on journalists, artists and scientists.

Tusk might not care one iota whether journalists will be hurt. Many of them -- including we here -- have bitched and moaned for months and months about the lack of "real" fiscal reform. And, in terms of solidarity, why shouldn't an artist or a journalist also feel a little bit of fiscal pain. They are not usually starving

Tusk, if he does decide to remove the tax break, will clearly play up the fact that his government has taken a real step by sticking it to a bunch of whining journos.

But one thing I would counsel Tusk in is that removing the tax break might hit journalists, but it will also hurt those like university professors. Making it harder for university profs is not exactly in line with the government's oft-stated goal of boosting education.

Polish artists and musicians are far more the starving kind than the Hollywood sort, so hurting them to some degree hurts the very resurgence of a moderate tolerant Polish identity.

Moreover, journalists, university professors, artists, musicians and the like all back Tusk's Civic Platform (PO) in droves. They help raise the public profile and to some degree give free positive PR to the party, particularly in relation to the heaps of negative PR afforded Tusk's main rival, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Law and Justice (PiS).

Considering the savings of getting rid of the tax break are akin to a rounding error in terms of the public finance problem itself, they would produce limited gain for state finances.

If Tusk does decide to remove this tax break, it will be very much like declaring war on himself, hurting his voters and not doing one bit to help public finances.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hools Independence Day

Another November 11, another Hools Independence Day in Warsaw. The president might speak, the prime minister will smile during Poland's Independence Day celebrations, but make no mistake, the main course of celebrations is always elsewhere in the traditional battle between left and right wing radical hools that traditionally takes place in downtown Warsaw.

Today was slightly different since the two groups didn't clash because they were split up by police forces, which immediately resulted in...good ole fighting with the police. The usual accessories were used, starting with bricks, sticks and flares on the hools side and water cannons, pepper spray, truncheons and shields on the police side. Soon the battlefield, sorry I meant the city centre, was billowing with smoke.

The grand finale came at around 17:00 local time when a TV station's broadcasting truck and a passenger car with its logo were set on fire, clearly someone got either cold or pissed off at the reporters...who fortunately were not in the van.

Both the leftists and the rightists will announce victory. The left has already announced it by saying "we stopped the fascists!" With a little help from the police, of course. And the other hools did manage to take a detour, but these of course are details. That 150 people were arrested, 21 (including cops) are in hospitals and damages are probably extensive, who cares. After all that is meaningless when you talk about stopping fascism.

The right wing hooligans got what they wanted too, with a little help they did make it to their destination. As planned they managed to kick some butt on the way, destroy a few things and steal media headlines probably for few days. AND they got mentioned on Poland X.

So, clearly the spirit of revolution is still strong among young Poles, but did anyone tell them we have a democratic and free country?!

Oh, and a final note, the really funny thing about this whole mess is that both of these "demonstrations" were perfectly legal. The city mayor's office approved the two demonstrations aimed at battling each other to take in the same place at the same time. Wow, somebody really knew what he or she was doing signing these approvals...

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Battlefield 3 blows away Polish blockbuster

Rather than watching a "blockbuster" recreation of Poles fight for freedom filmed in 3D with supposedly high-end visual effects, a plethora of Polish movie stars and a script revolving around one of the nation's key historic moments, Poles prefer to just go out and shoot people on their own, virtually of course.

It turns out sales of the recently released third iteration of the well-known first person shooter Battlefield reached 7.2 million zlotys in the first three days of the game's launch on Oct 27. That easily beat "Battle of Warsaw 1920," which earned 4.7 million zlotys. In the battle of the "battles," it seems Battlefield 3 wins.

Battlefield did just beat out Poland's latest attempt at an historical action movie blockbuster, it came close to bringing in enough revenue to compare well with the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean and the last episode of Harry Potter's adventures.

For those of you who are not gamers or don't have gaming kids, an FPS is a game in which from a first-person perspective you have the rare opportunity to shoot, stab, bomb, run over other players when playing online or computer-generated opponents when offline in single player mode.

And now I have to run... there are some people that really need to be shot. Hooah!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Early Christmas present

Hit the road Zbiggy
Zbigniew Ziobro is no more of Law and Justice (PiS), the conservative-nationalist opposition party run with an unforgiving fist by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Ziobro and two now ex-leading PiS members were turfed from the party on Friday evening for having the temerity to question the party's strategy after it lost its sixth straight election on October 9. How dare they?

Jaroslaw Kaczynski knows best, clearly. After Karol Karski, the PiS disciplinarian, did an investigation worthy of the name 'Stalinist show trial,' he got Adam Hofman, Kaczynski's poodle, to announce that Ziobro, Tadeusz Cymanski and Jacek Kurski were out for allegedly hurting PiS publicly. Hmmm, wouldn't six straight election defeats comprise hurting PiS publicly as well?

Kaczynski clearly prefers Hofman and Karski to the other three rebels, believing they will be far more valuable to PiS. Well, a politician is only as good as his latest vote count. Let's see, Ziobro - 335,933, Karski - 2,730. Ziobro, for all his many failings has in fact proven popular with voters whereas Karski didn't even make parliament and thus his political career is totally in the hands of . . . Kaczynski.

These most recent ejections are only the latest. In fact, for better or worse, PiS could be so much stronger if it still included all the politicians that were once in the party but were kicked out after clashes with Kaczynski: Radoslaw Sikorski, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, Marek Jurek, Ludwik Dorn, Pawel Ponclyjusz, Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, Elzbieta Jakubiak, Marek Migalski and now Ziobro, Cymanski and Kurski. These individuals account for hundreds of thousands of votes.

Ziobro is to ambition like crack to a plumber, so he should be expected to set up a new party, likely with a considerable chunk of one-time PiS members. In the event, just on Monday evening, Ziobro allies announced the formation of a new parliamentary group. It apparently will be a separate vehicle as long as PiS continues to exclude Ziobro and friends.


This is likely merely a holding strategy until a new party can be formed. It if gets the backing of priest-cum-media mogul Tadeusz Rydzyk, who runs the powerful (at least for the over-65 crowd) radio outlet Radio Maryja, it could be dangerous, at least to Kaczynski and the PiS holdouts.

Then, Ziobro's new party and PiS will race to be the most patriotic, the most holy, the most intolerant, the most Polish, all the while shedding moderate voters. . . Donald Tusk got an early Christmas present.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Poo in the bathtub

Clearly, the Palikot Movement is doing everything it can to grab media attention before the new parliament even starts working and, just like this headline, its strategy is the more controversy, the better.

The party is pushing for the removal of the cross from the lower house of parliament's chamber, a move openly or quietly opposed by every other party.

It has also managed to grab headlines after a row with the rival leftist party Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) over... rooms in the parliament building. In an eyebrow raising quarrel, the two parties fought over the location of their offices. To some surprise, Palikot's party won and the old-timers from the SLD had to vacate their rooms and literally make room for the young bloods. A sign of times, it seems.

On Friday, the Palikot Movement put forward yet another (un)realistic demand: that Waldemar Pawlak, the head of the junior ruling Polish Peasants' Party (PSL) and the outgoing deputy prime minister, resign from his position and make way for other "professionals" in the party. The reason? The Economy Ministry Pawlak also runs is late on some EU-related legislation.

If all ministers resigned because legislation was late, we would be changing governments every three months. Not to mention the fact that the PSL simply has no other "professionals" that can step up and replace Pawlak easily.

As we have indicated, these are going to be interesting (in a scary-grotesque-perfect-for blogging way) times in Polish politics, but I want to know what ever happened to Palikot the Statesman, the guy who offered to be a serious coalition partner for Prime Minister Donald Tusk? Not that we mind; we prefer Palikot the King of Dildos anyway.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Should I stay or should I go

The Law and Justice (PiS) tussle between leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the upstart Zbigniew Ziobro continues with neither of the hard-right big wigs yet saying wujek. Ziobro, or "Zizou" as he is apparently called by friends, thus remains inside PiS with the big question stated in the title up there.

Zizou, who is only 41, is politically ambitious. The former justice minister and current Euro-MP was once seen as the heir apparent to Kaczynski. A future stint as PM or even as president beckoned. But his position as the PiS crown prince is no more. Kaczynski said recently that Janusz Kurtyka, the former head of the national remembrance institute who died in the Smolensk plane crash in April 2010, would have taken over PiS, not Ziobro.

This is probably one main reason why Ziobro launched his recent rebellion and seems intent on carrying it through this time. Ziobro did launch previous revolts but always kow-towed to Kaczynski. It was almost as if Ziobro was testing Kaczynski's weaknesses.

Launching his own party would put Ziobro firmly in the centre. He is said to be supported by a platoon of current PiS members numbering 30 or 40. This would leave him in better situation than other previous PiS rebels that clashed with Kaczynski, launched their own parties amid much fanfare and proceeded to get hammered during elections before effective political banishment. Strong backing at the start could be key.

But the Palikot Movement (RP) shows that you can do very well at the ballot box as long as you come up with ideas that gain resonance. Ex-Civic Platform (PO) deputy leader Janusz Palikot's movement stressed its anti-clericalism and presented itself as an attractive cocktail of leftist social policy and liberal economics, catering to urbanites across Poland.

Ziobro and allies do not have any such idea. The rebellion is a power play par excellence sparked by electoral dismay and political ambition. As such, its future could very well be cast in doubt. Hard right supporters will look to see who has the best chance of doing well and then will likely vote for them.

Unless Ziobro can overtake Kaczynski, this would appear to be PiS. Father Rydzyk, the radical Catholic media mogul who plays a big role on the right, could provide a much needed boost for a potential Ziobro-led party. But despite Rydzyk and Ziobro being far closer than Rydzyk and Kaczynski, Rydzyk will want results, not intentions.

Ziobro can go. It looks increasingly like he will go. But there are big questions whether he should go. Another way of looking at it is that for PiS haters, a Ziobro splinter party is good news indeed.