POLAND has both a president and a prime minister, but Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, is its real leader. Mr Kaczynski, who turns 69 next week, is an ordinary MP with no cabinet post. Yet since PiS came to power in 2015, he has been behind the overhaul of the country’s institutions, most recently the judiciary, which the European Commission says threatens the rule of law. Along with Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, he has stoked nationalist fears at home and defied Brussels by refusing to take in refugees from the Middle East.
But recently, Mr Kaczynski has hardly been seen, spending several weeks in a military hospital in Warsaw; he emerged only briefly before slipping out of sight once more. His absence has raised questions about PiS’s future—and Poland’s.
Known to his followers as prezes (chairman), Mr Kaczynski has dominated his party for over a decade. In 2006-07, during PiS’s first stint in power, he served as prime minister, while his twin brother, Lech, who died in a plane crash in Russia in 2010, was president. This time, he has stayed out of the limelight, installing less divisive figures in office.
Mr Kaczynski’s disappearance has prompted rumours about his health. Officially, he is having trouble with his knee. The hospital says he has osteoarthritis—a condition that does not usually require so long a stay.
Mr Kaczynski has no clear successor. Mateusz Morawiecki, a former banker whom Mr Kaczynski promoted to prime minister in December, lacks a strong political base. In a recent poll, just 14% of respondents tipped him as Mr Kaczynski’s successor; 43% answered “don’t know”.
For now, PiS remains on top. The party still leads in polls, though its advantage over the centrist opposition has narrowed a bit. On June 8th Mr Kaczynski emerged from hospital after over a month, thanking journalists waiting outside his home for “their interest in a humble member of parliament”. But with further treatment due, speculation about his condition continues. Anyone hoping to replace Mr Kaczynski will have to be “very patient”, said the interior minister, Joachim Brudzinski, one of his confidants, last month. Yet as Poland heads into election season, the chairman’s health will weigh heavy on PiS. Europe, too, will be watching.