WHEN Rex Tillerson, America’s secretary of state, dropped in to see the most important politician in Poland a few weeks ago, he might have hoped for grander surroundings. But power in Warsaw resides not in the presidential palace, the prime minister’s chancellery or the parliament. Instead Mr Tillerson had to duck into the headquarters of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, a dingy office that shares a building with a shuttered Japanese restaurant in an unremarkable corner of the capital. There he was greeted by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who chairs the party but holds no constitutional position beyond his role as a backbench MP serving Warsaw constituents.

Europeans got used to dealing with back-seat drivers when Vladimir Putin ran Russia as prime minister in 2008-12, while his factotum, Dmitry Medvedev, kept the presidential throne warm. But now they are found closer to home. Mr Kaczynski is perhaps the most prominent among them. Polish prime ministers serve at his pleasure. In December he summarily dispatched Beata Szydlo to make way for Mateusz Morawiecki, her deputy. That decision was taken to improve Poland’s scratchy relations with its European partners; the suave, English-speaking Mr Morawiecki is seen as a more convincing exponent of his boss’s views. But Europe’s leaders know who is really in charge.

Mr Kaczynski has chosen to stay in the shadows, perhaps to avoid inflaming the large segment of Polish voters who detest his brand of nationalist populism. But elsewhere criminal convictions have kept puppet-master politicians from the stage. In Romania a vote-rigging conviction bars Liviu Dragnea, who leads the ruling Social Democrats, from office. He also faces a string of corruption probes. So instead he directs a series of unimpressive prime ministers while urging his party to wage war on Romania’s “deep state”, including its anti-corruption directorate, and to pass laws making it harder to tackle graft. In January Viorica Dancila, an obscure member of the European Parliament, became Romania’s fifth prime minister in just over two years.

In the Czech Republic Andrej Babis, a tycoon-turned-politician facing corruption charges of his own, has been unable to form a majority since his ANO (“Yes”) party won the most seats in an election last October. He serves as acting prime minister but perhaps not for long; potential coalition partners have made their support conditional on his stepping aside. Yet like PiS and Romania’s Social Democrats, ANO is a one-man band: if Mr Babis is shunted aside, he will simply direct the action from offstage.

And then there is Italy. It is impossible to predict the outcome of the election on March 4th, but one possibility is victory for the three-party right-wing coalition, of which Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia might, according to the latest polls, win the most seats. As with Mr Dragnea, a criminal conviction, in this case for tax fraud, bars Mr Berlusconi from taking office, at least until next year, but he has loyal lieutenants. The most plausible contender for prime minister is Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament. Mr Tajani has signally failed to shed his air of mediocrity in that job, but possesses the cardinal virtue of having remained loyal to Mr Berlusconi, whom he once served as spokesman, since Forza’s founding in 1993.

Europe’s back-seat drivers have several things in common. They have emerged in countries where parties have shallow roots or have been atomised, enabling strongmen to dominate their organisation and personnel decisions. That is easiest in ex-communist countries with barely three decades of multiparty democracy under their belts. In Italy Forza Italia was established by Mr Berlusconi in the wake of the “clean hands” corruption scandal that destroyed the Christian Democrats in the 1990s. Messrs Berlusconi, Kaczynski and Babis all co-founded their respective parties. None has shown much interest in grooming colleagues who may harbour ambitions of their own.

The crash to come

But the problems with such arrangements are obvious. International partners can hardly negotiate with political ciphers in good faith. Two years ago EU officials discussing judicial reforms with the Polish government thought they had secured a deal until Mr Kaczynski emerged from nowhere to squash it at the last minute. In Italy’s case this could hamper difficult talks on euro-zone reform later this year, especially when it comes to managing the sovereign debt on which some of the country’s banks have gorged. It is frankly difficult to imagine Mr Tajani negotiating such issues seriously with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron. More broadly, European summits depend on mutual trust among leaders that each will follow through at home on commitments made in Brussels. How can that be done when the real leader is thousands of miles away? During her two-year stint in office Ms Szydlo sometimes asked for summits to be suspended, to give her time to phone home for instructions.

There can be checks on unaccountable leaders, including independently elected parliaments and presidents. In Romania Klaus Iohannis has at times been a bulwark against the Social Democrats’ excesses. Even appointed prime ministers who are supposed merely to execute their master’s will can develop a taste for office; that is why Mr Dragnea has rattled through so many of them. Mr Morawiecki, who has no standing of his own inside PiS, has been loyal so far but that could be tested.

Yet this is no way to run a country. Leaders who are unaccountable to voters endanger democracy and undermine institutions. Basic governance becomes harder when lines of authority are blurred and ministers serve at the whim of figures who do not occupy formal office. The incompetence of Romania’s latest government is outrageous, says Oana Popescu of Global Focus, a think-tank in Bucharest. It does not take a back-seat driver to ensure that a country is badly run. But it certainly helps.