Maverick populist chosen as Poland's deputy leader

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The Independent Online

Andrzej Lepper, a former pig farmer famous for rabble-rousing rhetoric and populist street protest, has been appointed Poland's Deputy Prime Minister in the country's latest lurch to the nationalist right.

The maverick leader of Poland's Self-Defence Party, has been named deputy premier and Minister for Agriculture after marathon coalition talks.

Under the deal - which has already prompted the resignation of Poland's Foreign Minister - both Self-Defence and a small right-wing Roman Catholic party, the League of Polish Families, will join the government led by the Prime Minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, of the nationalist Law and Justice Party .

The arrival of Mr Lepper in government completes an extraordinary transition for a man accused of anti-Semitism and well-known for his past leadership of violent street protests against free-market reforms and Polish membership of the EU.

The rise of such an unpredictable populist, who has made clear his ultimate ambitions to become President, has alarmed Western diplomats and provoked concern at home. Opinion polls suggest seven out of 10 Poles oppose the appointment.

Mr Lepper has warned that he may take his populist, anti-EU protests to the streets of Brussels. Though he has tempered some of his more extreme comments, he recently called Poland's central bank chief, Leszek Balcerowicz, "a scoundrel and economic bandit".

Mr Lepper has previously praised Hitler's early employment policies and said that "the most dangerous nation for the Poles is the Jewish nation". But when he was asked in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz whether he was anti-Semitic, he replied: "Not at all ... as far back as 2001 I threw prominent members who spread anti-Semitism out of the party. I'm really a tolerant person."

Many believe that, rather than changing his mind, Mr Lepper is merely changing his tune. "Like all populists, he is flexible, adapting his message to circumstances," said one opponent, adding: "The real thing for Lepper is to get power. The support he could collect on the street has already been collected. Now he has to enlarge his electorate and, to do that, he has to enter the circle of power."

Coalition negotiations are not yet complete, but the arrival of Mr Lepper would bring an unguided missile into the heart of government, beefing up internal opposition to economic reform. No government in the past two years has had a solid majority.