WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz purged three ministers from her government and the speaker of parliament on Wednesday to try to reverse a slide in her party's popularity before a parliamentary election in four months' time.
Kopacz said she needed to restore voter trust in her centre-right Civic Platform, which has been in government since 2007 but now faces defeat in the parliamentary election at the hands of a resurgent conservative opposition.
Public confidence has been dented by the leak of audiotapes in which senior officials including ministers could be heard in pricy Warsaw restaurants cracking off-color jokes, ordering expensive wine and making indiscreet comments about colleagues and foreign leaders.
The secretly recorded tapes first emerged last year but the issue resurfaced this week when confidential files compiled by prosecutors investigating the bugging of the conversations were leaked onto social media.
Kopacz said she wanted to repair the damage caused by the affair and her government's handling of the aftermath. "Today, on behalf of Civic Platform, I sincerely apologize," she said in a televised address.
The purge was the first sign of a fightback by the prime minister after the shock defeat of President Bronislaw Komorowski, a party ally of Kopacz, in a presidential election last month.
Since then, opinion polls have shown Civic Platform trailing well behind Law and Justice, the conservative opposition.
"Kopacz is saving what she still can from the government, and from Civic Platform as a party ahead of the elections," said Rafal Chwedoruk, a political scientist at Warsaw University.
"Civic Platform at the moment is at a crossroads: either the chaos will be contained, or, in a short while, politicians will gradually begin to jump ship."
The most high-profile casualty on Wednesday was Radoslaw Sikorski, the speaker of parliament and a former foreign minister who last year was being tipped as a possible next head of NATO or the European Union's chief diplomat.
Sikorski had been recorded in the tapes saying British Prime Minister David Cameron was either incompetent or reckless, and calling Poland's relationship with the United States worthless.
Capping a dramatic fall from grace, Sikorski, who is married to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum, said his focus now would be to lead the election campaign in his home region of Bydgoszcz, in northwest Poland.
Wlodzimierz Karpinski, the treasury minister in charge of managing the state's holdings in public companies, Health Minister Bartosz Arlukowicz and Sports Minister Andrzej Biernat were also stepping down, Kopacz said.
Jacek Rostowski, a former finance minister who has been serving as chief adviser to Kopacz and was heard in the audio recordings, is quitting too, the premier said. She also said the country needed a new prosecutor-general.
In the eight years since Civic Platform came to power, Poland, the biggest economy in central Europe, has experienced unprecedented period of prosperity and political stability, helped by billions of euros in EU aid money.
But there are problems which go deeper than distaste over politicians' behavior in restaurants. Many voters say Poland's vaunted "economic miracle" has delivered unequal benefits, with a minority growing rich while ordinary people struggle to make ends meet.
Additional reporting by Wiktor Szary; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Marcin Goettig and Mark Heinrich