* Sources close to gov’t say several candidates approached
* Finance Minister has been a government heavyweight
* He has lost PM’s confidence: government insiders
* PM’s office says reshuffle planned for November
By Karolina Slowikowska
WARSAW, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Allies of Poland’s prime minister have approached at least three people to ask them if they want to be finance minister, a new sign that incumbent Jacek Rostowski’s days in the job may be numbered, sources with knowledge of the search said.
Rostowski is Poland’s longest-serving finance minister since the fall of Communism in 1989. His policies kept the country out of recession after global markets crashed in 2008, and he has won praise since then for a fiscally prudent approach.
But government insiders say he lost the confidence of Prime Minister Donald Tusk when he underestimated the depth of a downturn at the turn of this year, forcing a re-writing of the budget and, to fill holes in public finances, sweeping changes to the pension system that have alarmed markets.
Talk that Rostowski would lose his job was dampened in August after Tusk dismissed it as “gossip.” The accounts of a search for a replacement show that the prime minister’s office is actively preparing for his departure.
“I was asked (by the PM’s office) to feel around for someone that would suit the job. I have already talked to two people. But there is still time,” a member of parliament with Tusk’s Civic Platform told Reuters.
“It would also be good to get someone at least closer to the party, the current government is mostly made up of outsiders, the party is not very happy with this.”
Two other sources close to the government, also said there was a search underway.
Asked if it was looking for a new finance minister, the prime minister’s office reiterated in a statement sent to Reuters that there would be a review of ministries’ performance in November.
“There will also be a presentation then of the ministries’ plans for the remaining part of the term, including possible personnel decisions,” the statement said.
The finance ministry, when asked about the search for a new finance minister, declined to comment.
The sources said the search had so far been inconclusive, an indication of the difficulty of finding someone of Rostowski’s stature in the world of finance, who can also appeal to voters. Polls show they are increasingly unhappy with the government.
Rostowski, born in London into a family of Polish emigres, was an academic in Britain who was drafted in to Tusk’s government. He carved out a role as one of the cabinet’s heavyweights and was promoted to deputy prime minister.
Government insiders say the relationship soured after Rostowski told Tusk the public finances would ride out a slowdown that began last year. Tusk was unhappy when it turned out revenues were well below projections, the insiders said.
Rostowski pushed through a plan to transfer to the state some of the assets in private pension funds, helping to plug budget shortfalls and reduce debt. Tusk felt Rostowski’s abrasive style had not helped to win support for the scheme with sceptical voters and markets, several of the sources said.
Even though the economy is now recovering gradually, Tusk, who in the past has been deferential to Rostowski, has begun challenging the finance minister in cabinet meetings, according to several people with knowledge of the exchanges.
One source, who is close to the government and is familiar with the situation, said the two men had an “unpleasant conversation,” in August, during which Rostowski made a threat, not carried through, to resign.
“Relations have been even cooler since then. Rostowski is giving the PM a headache,” the source said.
All the sources who spoke to Reuters said the initiative for seeking a replacement had come from the prime minister’s office.
“There is no doubt the search is on. Things are moving along, feelers are out,” said a third source, who is close to the government.
Two sources, one a senior government official, said that European Union budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski was one of those who had been approached. Lewandowski, a Pole and a close ally of Tusk, said he did not want the job, the sources said.
Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, Tusk’s chief economic advisor, and Dariusz Rosati, head of the public finance committee in parliament, have also been named in the local media as possible successors to Rostowski. (Reporting by Karolina Slowikowska; editing by Patrick Graham)