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Polish PM under fire in leaked tape row, hints at snap election

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Marcin Goclowski and Marcin Goettig

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's prime minister said on Thursday he may call a snap election after he was accused of using law enforcement agencies to try to stop a magazine publishing secret recordings of officials making remarks embarrassing for his government.

Late on Wednesday prosecutors and officers from Poland's internal security agency raided the offices of the Wprost weekly magazine that has already published some of the recordings and is planning to release more next Monday.

The audio tapes - and the government's response to them - have tarnished the image of Poland, the European Union's sixth biggest economy, as a model post-communist democracy.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk told a news conference he wanted to respect freedom of speech but there was also a need to track down any as-yet unpublished tapes to stop them being used to blackmail officials.

"It may happen that the only solution will be earlier elections if the crisis in confidence is so deep," Tusk added.

Poland's zloty currency was little changed but volatile on Thursday and credit default swaps - the price of insuring Polish debt against default - were stable.

In the tapes, central bank governor Marek Belka and Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz were recorded discussing the removal of another minister and ways to put pressure on a private businessman. [ID:nL6N0OZ2FH][ID:nL5N0OV15J]Belka and Sienkiewicz have said their words were taken out of context and they deny doing anything illegal.

Criticism has up to now come from the opposition but it was joined after the raid on the magazine's offices by Polish media organizations usually sympathetic to the government.

Photographs posted on Twitter showed officials wrestling to take a laptop out of the hands of Sylwester Latkowski, the editor-in-chief of Wprost magazine. He later said he had managed to hold on to the laptop and also a thumb drive containing more recordings which his magazine planned to publish on Monday.

Reuters reporters who visited the offices of Wprost magazine late on Wednesday, after the raid, said a door to the editor-in-chief's office had been ripped off its hinges. Inside, pieces of torn paper were strewn across the floor.

Tusk said law enforcement agencies had conducted the raid on their own initiative, without political interference.

But the head of Internal Security Agency, whose officers took part, is subordinate to Tusk. And according to Adam Bodnar, a Polish lawyer, it would be normal for prosecutors to seek a judge's ruling for such a raid, something they did not have.

"Just a few days ago I was of the opinion that at the central level in Poland we don't have a problem with freedom of speech and abuses by the government, but this situation changes my opinion totally," said Bodnar, who is vice president of the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

"WE'RE AGAINST YOU"

Poland is highly sensitive to any hints of media being gagged because of its history of censorship and arrests of independent journalists under communist rule.

Monika Olejnik, one of Poland's best-known journalists, took the unusual step of publicly criticizing Tusk over the raid.

"For this first time since 1989, it's come to pass that the whole journalistic community is against you Mr. Prime Minister, I'm sorry," Olejnik told Tusk at the news conference.

The next scheduled parliamentary election in Poland is at the end of 2015. Parliament can trigger an early election if two-thirds of lawmakers vote for one.

An opinion poll conducted since the tapes emerged showed that the conservative opposition Law and Justice party led with 32 percent support. The poll, by Millward Brown, put Tusk's centrist Civic Platform (PO) at 25 percent, down from 28 percent in May, the last time the pollster conducted a survey.

Jacek Raciborski, a professor at the University of Warsaw, said an early election was not in the interests of PO or its coalition partners, but that could change if public anger grows.

"I think that yesterday's unsuccessful and procedurally questionable operation with Wprost has changed a lot to the detriment of the government," he said.

At celebrations earlier this month in Warsaw to mark 25 years since Poland's Solidarity trade union movement ended Communist rule, guests including U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Poland as a beacon of democracy and economic reform.

It is not known who made the tapes featuring Belka and Sienkiewicz, recorded last year in the private room of a Warsaw restaurant, or how the magazine obtained the tapes.

In one exchange, Sienkiewicz asks Belka if the bank would help the government with the economy in the event that Tusk's party was heading for electoral defeat. Belka replies that if the finance minister were to be removed, he would then tell the prime minister "very much is possible".

Both men have since said they were talking about hypothetical scenarios which never materialized.

Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, a dissident under communism, said the government was not living up to the ideals of the pro-democracy movement that helped bring down the Iron Curtain in 1989.

"In all highly developed countries Belka and Sienkiewicz would have left their posts a long time ago," said Frasyniuk, who helped negotiate the end of communist rule. "Arrogance and insolence, a belief in your moral superiority and that one can do anything, are unacceptable."

(Additional reporting by Michal Janusz; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/140619/polish-pm-under-fire-leaked-tape-row-hints-at-snap-election