By Pawel Florkiewicz and Justyna Pawlak
WARSAW (Reuters) - A satirical TV show avidly watched by millions of Poles depicts a Poland ruled by one man who never leaves his office but orders around the prime minister and sycophantic aides, while the Polish president is kept waiting endlessly in the foyer for a meeting.
For many Poles, "The Chairman's Ear" accurately represents how their country is governed, with all real power in the hands of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, even though he holds no government post.
Since the privately-funded show began to air on YouTube in January, some of its episodes have received up to 10 million clicks, compared to an average of six million viewers of the most popular TV program, a long-running family drama.
"The Chairman's Ear" appears to resonate both with critics of Kaczynski, who accuse him of tilting Poland toward authoritarianism, and with supporters who warm to its portrayal of the "Chairman" as a cat-loving, slightly other-worldly bachelor who needs help using the phone and reheating dinner.
"It's no secret that the (PiS) chairman is the true leader of the country and that the prime minister and president are subordinate to him," said Robert Gorski, 46, the show's creator and lead actor. "Getting access to him is power."
"Everybody whispers in his ear and he needs to decide whom to trust. Like any ruler, he is to some extent a tragic figure."
Arguably Poland's most polarizing politician since the end of communism in 1989, Kaczynski's nationalist, eurosceptic views have hardened since the death of his twin brother Lech, then Poland's president, in a plane crash over Russia in 2010.
The PiS government remains broadly popular 20 months after sweeping to power, despite concerns among liberal Poles and in the European Union about its conservative social policies and efforts to tighten control over state media and the judiciary.
For many voters, Kaczynski, 68, represents Poland's best hope of protecting its traditional Catholic identity and national sovereignty in the face of globalization and EU pressures.
"LETTING OFF STEAM"
Some say "The Chairman's Ear" provides a healthy safety valve for Poles, allowing them to have a good laugh at themselves amid the serious challenges the country faces.
"Every time when the atmosphere gets tense, people try to let off steam with laughter and jokes," said Andrzej Mleczko, one of Poland's most popular cartoonists since the 1980s.
"Like many others, I wonder if these shows are true criticism of the government, or an intended or unintended effort to soften Kaczynski's image," he added.
The show - bought by the video streaming service ShowMax - doesn't pull its punches when it comes to mocking Kaczynski's scepticism toward the EU and his deep distrust of Germany.
In one episode, ahead of a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Chairman's assistant - resembling Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak - pulls an EU flag out of a rubber boot to decorate the office. The assistant says he usually uses the flag to keep his feet warm while picking mushrooms in the forest.
A globe showing a huge Poland surrounded by the oceans adorns the Chairman's desk - a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Poland is indeed the whole world for Kaczynski.
Merkel is only able to meet the Chairman after his formidable secretary grants her clearance.
The real Kaczynski appears to be taking the show in his stride.
"It's good (people) are laughing, you need to laugh," Kaczynski said in a radio interview. "And the fact that they are laughing at me? Well, you can say its my own fault."
(Additional reporting by Pawel Sobczak in Warsaw and Wojciech Zurawski in Krakow; writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Gareth Jones)