Leader of the Frustrated

Andrzej Lepper, the populist leader of the radical Samoobrona (Self-Defense) Party, has sworn to recruit a broad popular movement that will prevent Poland from entering the EU soon.

It is hard to expect refined language from a Polish farmer who in his past was a boxer and engaged in pig-farming. Indeed, when Andrzej Lepper relates to the regime in Poland he usually draws from his lexicon of barbs terms like robbers, cheats and villains. When he addresses the question of his country's forthcoming membership in the European Union - the fight against which has become his chief identifying mark - he says: "They (the Europeans) will turn us all into slaves. They will demand that we sweep the streets of Germany and wipe the Germans' ass."

Lepper, 48, the populist leader of the radical Samoobrona (Self-Defense) Party, has sworn to recruit a broad popular movement that will prevent Poland from entering the EU soon. Poland is the largest candidate for joining the EU in its first round of expansion, in 2004. In a telephone conversation with Ha'aretz, Lepper tried to explain that the conditions for joining that the EU is offering his country are disgraceful. The EU - with a bit of help from the government in Warsaw - is, in his opinion, to blame for all of Poland's ills: "The Europeans are killing our industry. They are buying up our factories only in order to close them down and to flood us with their surplus products. They also want to purchase our agricultural lands. Because of the imports from the EU, our production is lower today by 40 percent than it was when communism collapsed in 1989. Even today there are more than 2 million unemployed people in Poland. With our entry into the EU this number will triple."

Lepper established Samoobrona in the 1990s as a radical trade federation that set itself the aim of fighting the liberal reforms and protecting the farmers who had accumulated enormous debts. Every summer he regularly paralyzes the country by means of hundreds of roadblocks. In the past, he and his people took over a chicken factory. He distributed the booty of the sausages he found in the freezers to the poor.

Samoobrona entered the Polish parliament for the first time in September, 2001, after it won an impressive 10 percent of the votes in the elections. It thus became the third-largest parliamentary force. Commentators thought that Lepper's entry into political life would civilize him; they thought that the corridors of the Sejm (Parliament) would refine him; that his appointment as Deputy Speaker would put him on the right track.

But in fact the opposite has happened: Lepper has preferred to stay on the other side of the barricades and it is the parliament that has become a circus. Members of party have taken advantage of the new arena to import their radical methods of protest - they have taken over the right to speak, denigrated rivals and spread imaginary claims such as, for example, that government ministers have worked together with the Taliban to export anthrax into the United States.

The members of his party define themselves as socialists. Lepper himself, a former Communist, is now talking about a third way - between socialism and capitalism. Despite the fact that he has not been caught making anti-Semitic statements, sociologist Pawel Spiewak of Warsaw University defines him as "proto-fascist:" "His movement is based on negation and loathing," says Spiewak. Scandal has become second nature to him. Some of the members of his party have been convicted of crimes or questioned about tax-dodging, embezzlement and organizing illegal strikes. Scores of criminal charges have been filed against Lepper himself.

All this only adds to the popularity of the leader of the frustrated, who today include those who fear getting hurt by the EU. In Lepper's scenario, Samoobrona will soon become the largest force in the country. He talks about a farmers' revolution and predicts events that will lead to early elections: "During the coming year the failed policy of the government will ignite many riots."

This scenario is less imaginary than it might sound. For quite a while now, it has not been possible to write off Samoobrona as mere political folklore. In public opinion surveys published in June, it won support of 20 percent of the respondents and placed as the second strongest force after the party of Prime Minister Leszek Miller, the SLD - the Democratic Left Alliance. Lepper is exploiting to the fullest the public anger at the grave political and economic corruption (18 percent unemployment) that is linked in Poland to joining the EU. "Moscow stole from you, Warsaw is stealing from you, Brussels will steal from you," he is warning the Poles.

Miller claims that he is not worried by the possibility that Lepper will defeat the referendum. "When the Poles face a real choice they will vote with their heads and not with their hearts," says the prime minister. Perhaps. However, the proportion of supporters for joining the EU has dropped from 80 percent in 1993 to about 50 percent today. The farmers' votes could tip the balance in the referendum that will be held next year.

Officials at the EU admit in private conversations that the "Lepper phenomenon" worries them. Germany has often declared that without Poland there is no point to the expansion process. Indeed, many raised their gaze skyward this week hoping for heavenly intervention in the form of the Pope, who returned to visit his homeland.