Mateusz Morawiecki: an unconventional ‘Polish Dreamer’

Mateusz Morawiecki, the son of an anti-communist dissident who became a successful banker and later Poland's finance minister, made a name for himself by taking on tax evasion and bolstering the welfare state.

Those moves have paved his way for his right wing Law and Justice (PiS) party to propose him as prime minister on Thursday, replacing Beata Szydlo as the government focuses on the economy in the second half of its four-year term.

At 49, the youthful-looking Morawiecki is lauded by many for giving poorer Poles a hand up, but critics accuse him of wasting a golden opportunity offered by a strong economy to consolidate public finances.

He has a cosmopolitan pedigree while strongly asserting his patriotism, and makes no secret of his desire to banish all traces of Poland's communist past from public life.

Last month Morawiecki revealed that for the "last 40 years" he had been "dreaming" about demolishing the Palace of Culture and Science, a gargantuan 230-metre (750-foot) socialist-realist tower built in heart of Warsaw during the 1950s, on orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Morawiecki's views gel with the "de-communisation" drive that has helped Poland's governing Law and Justice (PiS) push through several contested measures, including justice reforms which the EU has called a "systemic threat" to the rule of law.

He also led an aggressive crackdown on tax evasion, comparing it to one of his favourite Clint Eastwood Westerns.

"For me, it's like the mission in "Unforgiven"... We're going to ruthlessly pursue criminals and mafias (specialising in) VAT fraud," he told the Gazeta Polska magazine.

- 'Total pro' -

In 2015, Morawiecki gave up his lucrative post as chairman of Bank Zachodni WBK, part of Spain's Santander Group, to join the newly elected PiS-majority government as deputy prime minister and development minister.

He had joined the bank in 1998 after studying history, business administration, European law and economic integration, and management in Poland, Germany, Switzerland and the US.

One of Morawiecki's former senior staff members at Bank Zachodni WBK, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, described him as a "total pro" who had appeared apolitical during his banking career.

Despite his private-sector credentials, Morawiecki has shown a penchant for building up state assets, particularly in the banking sector.

"The weakness of the last quarter century has been to downplay the state's role in the modern economy", which is "a sin and an absolute mistake", he argued at a recent debate on Poland's development since the 1989 demise of communism.

While the mass privatisation drive that drew strong foreign investment during the early days of Polish capitalism helped to revive a failed economy, Morawiecki says that nearly 30 years later, leaving key sectors in foreign hands means the profits leave Poland.

-'Polish Dream'-

Backed by powerful PiS party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- widely considered Poland's ultimate powerbroker -- Morawiecki took over the finance portfolio in September 2016.

Morawiecki says he is focused on creating a "Polish Dream" model for a welfare state that would ensure equal access to basic goods, work and housing for all Poles.

So far, the PiS government has introduced a popular child allowance, lowered the retirement age and increased wages, among other measures.

Hefty public spending has stimulated domestic consumption, and the economy is expected to grow 4.0 percent this year. Joblessness sank to 6.6 percent in October.

But although Poland's debt-to-GDP ratio stood at a relatively low 54 percent last year, critics say it is bound to balloon.

As finance minister, he mapped out a "Morawiecki plan" intended to "strengthen Polish capital" and spur growth by investing one trillion zloty (238 billion euros, $282 billion) in innovation and technology sectors in coming years, using a mix of funding from public, EU and global financial institutions like the World Bank.

"After two years, we see that he is certainly an effective financial manager... but so far, he still hasn't managed to push through his own policies" focused on public-sector investment, Witold Orlowski, the chief economic adviser for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Poland, told AFP.

And Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of Poland's painful "shock therapy" transition from communism to capitalism in the early 1990s, has accused Morawiecki of populism and "politicising the economy, including banks, imposing statism instead of market rules and harming public finances."

Morawiecki, who is married with four children, speaks English, German and Russian, and his hobbies include watching football and playing ping-pong.

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