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Can this new scandal really weaken PiS in Poland?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Poland – Since February 26, the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza has been making numerous revelations about the CEO of the Polish oil company PKN Orlen. Orlen, a former state company, remains 27% state-owned, and the government of Mateusz Morawiecki therefore had a decisive influence on the appointment of a former mayor of a municipality with a population of less than 5,000, and a member of the governing Law and Justice party (PiS), to head one of the country’s most important companies. Daniel Obajtek had a meteoric career after PiS came to power in the fall of 2015.

In November of that year, he became head of the Agency for the Restructuring and Modernization of Agriculture (ARiMR). In July 2016, he became chairman of the supervisory board of Polish oil company Lotos’ biofuels subsidiary, before being appointed head of Polish energy group Energa S.A. in March 2017, and finally of PKN Orlen, Poland’s oil market behemoth, in February 2018. Under the leadership of Obajtek, Orlen has acquired Energa and is about to do the same with its Polish competitor Lotos. But the Polish oil company is not content with consolidating the energy market, as it has also acquired the Ruch press distribution and sales network, and announced in early December the purchase of the Polska Press group from its German owner. The takeover, which will make it possible to “repolonize” the Polish regional press, has caused some of the opposition to cry foul and sparked a great deal of criticism abroad, as some see it as an attempt to put the newspapers concerned (20 regional newspapers out of 24, as well as specialized publications and websites) in the service of PiS.

See: “Are media freedom and pluralism really under threat in Poland?

The deal in fact fulfills PiS’ promise that it would partly “repolonize” the Polish media market, where foreign, and especially German, groups have a strong presence. That leads commentators to say that Orlen’s CEO has the full confidence of PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, and that after five and a half years of PiS governments he enjoys more power and influence than a government minister. So much so that in January and February it was rumored that the CEO of PKN Orlen might soon replace Mateusz Morawiecki as head of the Polish government, even though Obajtek himself firmly denied the existence of such a plan.

But on February 26, the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, a medium that is very much opposed to PiS, published a series of recordings dating from 2009 from which it emerged that Daniel Obajtek, while he was mayor of Pcim, was at the same time managing a private company, which is prohibited by law and which he had denied under oath in the context of an investigation in which he had been implicated. Since then, Gazeta Wyborcza has been publishing new information almost daily about Obajtek’s past, about his allegedly compromising relations, including with mafia members, and about his assets, some of which the newspaper says he hid, as they exceed what his official income would normally have allowed him to acquire.

Do we finally have THE Scandal, with a capital S, the one that will make it possible to get rid of PiS, as happened before to the post-communist SLD and to Tusk’s liberal PO?

For the time being, it is doubtful.

First of all, apart from the recordings published on February 26 which indeed show, in all probability, that Daniel Obajtek was breaking the law by running a private company on the sly when he was mayor of his town, the revelations by Gazeta Wyborcza are mostly information from prosecutor’s office investigations which were not successful for various reasons or in which Daniel Obajtek, once a suspect, was cleared, even though the newspaper argues that this was because of the protection he allegedly enjoyed from 2015. Orlen’s CEO, in response to the allegations about his assets, not only pointed out that he had been audited twice by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (the CBA, which confirmed the information) without any irregularities being found, the last time he was audited covering the period from 2013 to 2018, but in mid-March he asked for his assets to be audited again by the CBA to prove that he has nothing to hide. This audit is now under way.

The prosecutor’s office criticized Gazeta Wyborcza for presenting as real allegations that had been rejected by a court for lack of sufficient evidence. Without always making this clear to its readers, Gazeta Wyborcza also based some of its accusations against Obajtek on statements made by convicted persons who may have had an interest in lying and whose allegations were not accepted as reliable by the prosecution. In the article “How PiS cleared Obajtek”, Gazeta Wyborcza further claimed that Supreme Court cassation rulings from 2015 were politically motivated, even though this was several months before PiS won the parliamentary elections and more than two years before PiS reformed the Supreme Court. In a statement, the Supreme Court pointed out several false claims made by the newspaper.

This is not the first time that Gazeta Wyborcza has focused on a case that is supposed to compromise the PiS governments and has then been quickly shown not to be fully honest and reliable in its articles. If the attacks had come from another media outlet, perhaps they would have had a greater impact. Similarly, when the Civic Platform (PO) announces the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate Obajtek, it is woefully lacking in credibility, given the far more serious scandals in which it was involved during the Donald Tusk governments.