June 11, 2015 / 4:31 PM / in 2 years

Polish government purge may be too late to avert election defeat

Poland's Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister Chancellery in Warsaw, Poland June 10, 2015.Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta

WARSAW (Reuters) - Supporters of Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz praised her mettle on Thursday after she purged senior figures from her government, but she may have acted too late to stop her party losing power in a parliamentary election later this year.

Kopacz said the purge was prompted by new leaks relating to the secret recording of senior officials drinking expensive wine in Warsaw restaurants, making profane remarks about colleagues and hatching political schemes.

Yet the secret "waiter-gate" tapes had emerged almost exactly 12 months ago, under Kopacz's predecessor Donald Tusk, and the damage to voter confidence in their governing Civic Platform party had already been done.

"Ewa Kopacz has done what Donald Tusk should have done a year ago," said a senior Civic Platform politician who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The latest set of leaks do not appear to have contained anything substantially new or damaging for the government, but what has changed since last year is that the governing party is trailing in the opinion polls and has only four months to turn its fortunes around before the election.

"It could be argued that the reaction to the scandal came too late," RBS wrote in a research note.

It said the ruling party's problems were bad for market sentiment, because the opposition Law and Justice party which is now favorite to form the next government is viewed by many investors as less business-friendly.

Kopacz, at a hastily-convened press conference late on Wednesday, announced the resignations of three ministers, three deputy ministers, and the speaker of parliament. She also said a new prosecutor-general was needed, and demoted the official who oversees Poland's intelligence services.

Several of the officials who were removed had featured in the secret tapes, and Kopacz said they needed to leave office to restore voters' trust in her party.

DRIVEN BY FEAR?

Kopacz said she had a "difficult conversation" with Radoslaw Sikorski, the speaker of parliament and highest profile casualty of the purge, before he agreed to step down.

A government spokeswoman said it had taken Kopacz about half a day to decide on the clear-out in her administration. In a sign of the hurried circumstances, there were no replacements ready for the fired officials. They are to be named next week.

"Such a sharp reaction may well show determination" from Kopacz's party, said Nomura analyst Peter Montalto.

"But also fear at its current polling position and the need to claw back additional support from weary traditional supporters of the party."

An opinion poll by TNS Polska on Wednesday, conducted before the purge was announced, gave Civic Platform 24 percent support, a long way adrift of the conservative opposition Law and Justice, which had 32 percent.

Former prime minister Tusk, now president of the European Union's highest decision-making body the European Council, said his hand-picked successor Kopacz had done the right thing.

"She really is a tough, powerful and resilient politician," he said on the sidelines of a summit in Brussels.

The government does have some tools in its armory to win over voters. It has promised an increase in the minimum wage, and is expected to make a raft of voter-friendly spending commitments at is party convention later this month.

However, none of the spending increases will take effect until next year, after the fate of the government will have been decided in the election.

Additional reporting by Jakub Iglewski and Marcin Goettig; Editing by Peter Graff

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