Coverage of Poland’s new prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has focused (understandably enough) on the fact
that he is the president’s twin brother, a situation for which no-one has
been able to find any precedent. But Poland is large and important
enough to be treated as more than comic relief, and the background to the change of leadership is anything but comic.

The conservative Law and Justice party, to which
both Kaczynskis belong, won the largest share of seats in last year’s
Polish election, but failed to put together a coalition with the more
liberal centre-right party, Citizens Platform. Instead, Law and Justice
took in populist parties from both left and right. But Prime Minister
Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz was apparently unhappy with this state of
affairs and had been making fresh overtures to the liberals. According
to The Observer,
for these “unexpected signs of political independence” he was forced to

A senior member of Civic Platform, Bronislaw
Komorowski, said “I am afraid that with Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a new
Prime Minister, Poland will become more extreme, more anti-European and
a more xenophobic country”.

But right-wing populism is not confined to Poland; a
more worrying case is in neighbouring Slovakia. There it was the left –
Robert Fico’s Smer-social democrats – that came out ahead in last
month’s elections.

But to gain a majority in parliament, it too has gone into coalition with the extreme right – Vladimir Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, and Jan
Slota’s Slovak National Party. The latter in particular seems much
scarier than anything in Poland; Slota once called on Slovakia to send
tanks to flatten Budapest.

The socialist group in the European parliament has
responded strongly, condemning the new government and suspending
Smer-SD from membership. Martin Schulz, the group’s president, said “This coalition is
unacceptable”, and described the Slovak National Party as “racist,
intolerant, ultranationalist”. Expecting them to be loyal to democratic
values, he said, would be “like a wolf saying that it was going to
become vegetarian”.

Sometimes bringing extremists into government is the
least harmful option; they can be kept under control, and the
responsibilities of office often moderate them. But not always. The
establishment politicians who tried that tactic with Adolf Hitler in
1933 found they had made a costly mistake. That’s enough of a reason
for Slovakia’s neighbours to be wary.