December 22, 2016 / 3:40 PM / 8 months ago

Poland's Kaczynski calls EU democracy inquiry "an absolute comedy"

Jaroslaw Kaczynski poses after an interview with Reuters in party headquarters in Warsaw, Poland December 19, 2016. Picture taken on December 19, 2016.Kacper Pempel

WARSAW (Reuters) - The head of Poland's ruling party mocked an EU inquiry into the state of Polish democracy as "an absolute comedy" and brushed off accusations his country was veering into authoritarianism.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, seen as the country's most powerful figure despite holding no government post, denied that curbs on the media and changes to the constitutional court were putting democracy at risk in the EU's biggest former communist state.

"Let them launch it," he told Reuters of the European Commission's decision this year to open an inquiry into the rule of law in Poland. The EU executive on Wednesday gave Warsaw two months to respond but signalled no potential consequences.

In theory Poland could be stripped of its EU voting rights if all other 27 member states saw fit, but that seems unlikely as Hungary, which also has a right-wing government that bristles against interference by Brussels, has said it would veto such a move.

"It's an absolute comedy, because there is nothing going on in Poland that contravenes the rule of law," Kaczynski said in an interview conducted on Monday embargoed for publication until Wednesday.

His Law and Justice (PiS) party is engaged in a standoff with opposition parties that have been occupying parliament's debating chamber for days in a protest about restrictions on media access, a protest he called illegal. [nL5N1EG2OP]

Of the reforms to the constitutional court, which critics say will compromise the judiciary's independence, Kaczynski said they were needed to ensure there are no legal blocks on government policies aimed at creating a fairer economy.

Questions over his party's efforts to exert more control over the economy and state institutions led Standard and Poor's to downgrade Poland's credit rating in January and have hit investor sentiment.

But Kaczynski said he would be willing to see some slowdown in economic growth if that was the price of pushing through his vision of Poland.

"We can pay ... the price, because previous economic policy had cost us tens of billions of zlotys a year," he said.

"In short, we are seeing a revolt against the fact that we are simply taking away the money that the elites had looted and divided up somehow," he said.

"It's a revolt, and in the long term it is worth it, even if the current pace of economic growth declines. We are talking about 1 percent."

"SERIOUS AUTHORITY"

Poland was the only European Union member state to avoid recession after the 2008 global economic crisis, but many Poles feel angry over stagnating living standards nearly three decades after the collapse of communism.

Economic growth has slowed, however, from some 3.9 percent in 2015 to 2.5 percent on an annual basis in the third quarter of 2016 as public and private investment shrunk, with many economists pointing to, in part, policy uncertainty.

Kaczynski blames the previous, centrist government for allowing corporations to abuse VAT rules, for example, while neglecting poorer Poles, whose support gave his party victory last year.

"We are questioning the entire (economic) mechanism and want to end it," he said.

"People only have one life ... They are being told that you have to be very poor so that the Polish economy can develop, because 'we need to be very rich so we can invest'. The state has to take care of the entire society."

Unlike his late twin brother, Lech, who was president when he was killed in a plane crash in 2010, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has usually preferred a backseat role in politics as the way to promote his Catholic and nationalist agenda.

"Sometimes my role is compared to that of the first secretary during communist times," Kaczynski said, referring to a post that typically wielded more influence than the prime minister under Poland's pre-1989 communist rule.

"Well, the first secretary had a huge building, with hundreds of workers ... I wouldn't be able to manage (that) even if I was incomparably smarter than I am now and had the mind of Einstein," he said.

Despite a spell as prime minister in 2006-7 when his brother was president, Kaczynski picked relatively low-profile party loyalists Beata Szydlo and Andrzej Duda for the jobs of prime minister and president last year, a move analysts say was partly due to concerns his divisive image could hurt the PiS.

"In the political sphere, you can say I have serious authority," he said. "But in reality, the majority of decisions ... are taken without my will and without my consciousness."

Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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