Donald Tusk returned to the top of Polish politics as Prime Minister. As hated as he is adored in his country, the liberal politician succeeded in removing from power the ultraconservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which failed on Monday in its attempt to form a government after the October elections. After presiding the European Council, one of the main EU institutions, and the European People’s Party (EPP), he decided to return to Warsaw to take the helm and undertake the same journey as in 2007, when he had brought Poland back to the center of the EU. On this occasion, the 66-year-old leader also addresses the mission of dismantling the illiberal system built for eight years by his eternal rival, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, starting by restoring the rule of law.
The Polish political context in which Tusk emerges again gives him an open and almost progressive image compared to PiS, but the Prime Minister is not revolutionary. During his previous term, the leader defended harsh stances towards refugees, did not consider social measures such as the legalization of abortion and put liberal economic postulates into practice. The new Tusk has evolved in some aspects and integrated more social initiatives into its program, but it remains in line with popular Europeans on issues such as lowering taxes, reducing the weight of the state or rejecting of immigration, and therefore behind on certain points in the recognition of LGBTI rights, for example. In Brussels, we are waiting for the former pro-European and constructive partner, but his profile is neither easy nor docile.
Tusk is public enemy number one for many Poles and a hero for others. According to an IBRiS survey for the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, 41.8% have a negative image of the new Prime Minister, compared to 31.2% who have a positive one. It seems that his detractors and admirers are talking about different people when they refer to him. Pawel Jablobski, PiS MP and former State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, defines him as “an unscrupulous politician, capable of doing anything to get what he wants”. He also uses the words “arrogant” and “dictator,” who “refuses to argue with anyone who disagrees with him.” A source from his team within the EPP, however, is full of praise and assures that he is focused and strategic; humble, intelligent; a person who listens to everyone, no matter who they are, and who is capable of evolving and changing their minds.
The image that many Poles have of the leader who left for Brussels in 2014 is partly shaped by campaigns to discredit PiS. Jacek Kucharczyk, president of thinking group Institute of Public Affairs, recalls that Tusk was accused of “horrible things”, such as being responsible for the death of Lech Kaczynski, the twin brother of Jaroslaw, who died in 2011 while he was president with other senior officials in a plane crash. During the campaign for the October 15 elections, state media persistently portrayed him as a traitor ready to sell his country to Brussels, a puppet in the service of Germany and even Russia. But Tusk is not wanted on the left either.
Kucharczyk acknowledges his “admiration” for the leader of the Civic Platform, which assumes the government of Poland in coalition with the Christian Democrats of the Third Way and Left (Lewica). “He is one of the most impressive political leaders Poland has had since 1989, if not the most,” he said on the phone, emphasizing his ability to evolve, “while remaining a centrist liberal.” “He’s a trial-and-error kind of politician who, at the same time, never gives up,” he says.
A united past
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
The son of a carpenter and a nurse, Tusk was born and studied history in Gdansk, birthplace of the legendary Solidarity union that led to the fall of the communist regime, which he joined in 1980. Before launching in politics, he worked for several years as a mason, specializing in work at height, and industrial painter. Following the country’s first semi-democratic elections in 1989, which led to the fall of the regime, Tusk helped create two liberal parties inspired by the economic theories of Thatcher and Reagan, before founding Civic Platform in 2001.
The new party competed in the 2001 elections with the Kaczynskis’ Law and Justice party, also from the recently created Solidarity. The twins won by defending country, Church and family. In 2005, Tusk competed with Lech for the country’s presidency. In his attempt to win over some PiS voters, he turned even further to the right and even celebrated a religious wedding with the mother of his two children. But a Kaczynski won again.
At that time, PiS was already heavily engaged in clashes with the EU, which Poland had just joined in 2004, and openly in conflict with Germany and Russia. In 2007, after high-profile corruption and wiretapping scandals, Tusk won early elections. Like today, it was proposed to place the country at the center of the EU. “In both cases (yesterday and today), this was crucial for stabilizing Polish democracy,” Kucharczyk emphasizes.
The first Tusk government managed to avoid economic crisis, but made mistakes that Kucharczyk said he learned from, such as not firing people loyal to PiS in institutions that then dedicated themselves to torpedoing his government. His second term, which he did not rush to leave in Brussels, was marked by cases of corruption and social protests. “Many people remember these years as a time of economic crisis and anti-social laws, such as increasing the retirement age. This generated a lot of rejections,” underlines MP Jablonski.
As President of the European Council between 2014 and 2019, Tusk saw all kinds of crises pass before him, such as the euro shocks and debt crisis, the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, and especially Brexit . After being appointed President of the European Council, the Polish leader learned English in record time, but above all he honed his negotiating skills to reach agreements. He then became president of the European People’s Party.
In Brussels, we remember that he went to the EPP headquarters on foot or by scooter, as a member of his team recounts. His life was more peaceful than in Poland, where police thwarted plans to attack him and his family. But in May 2022, he decided to return to Polish politics. According to the same source, the leader affirmed that this was due to his country and that he believed that he was facing “the last opportunity to stop the course towards Hungary”.
Boost for the civic platform
His return propelled Plataforma Cívica into the polls, where it had been in free fall. Tusk, which returned from Brussels, continues to defend the liberal economy, but it has learned from its mistakes, out of conviction or opportunism: it no longer questions PiS social assistance, but promises to maintain it. He also moved left on some social issues, such as the legalization of abortion and the separation of church and state. And in addition to cities, he decided to visit rural Poland.
The election campaign was fierce. He found himself once again facing Kaczynski in a fight that both saw as definitive: democracy, the rule of law and the EU versus national sovereignty and Christian values. Law and Justice was the party with the most votes, but the liberal opposition led by Tusk had the majority needed to govern. “In 2007 as today, it is difficult for me to imagine the defeat of the totalitarian leaders without their leadership,” notes political scientist Kucharczyk.
The Tusk government will begin its mandate, this time, by cleaning public institutions and businesses of people placed by PiS and rebuilding the rule of law. This will not be a placid legislature. He will have to live with the predictable opposition of President Andrzej Duda, but he also has experience of it, having governed under the presidency of Lech Kaczynski. Law and Justice began attacking the Executive even before it came to power and is patiently awaiting the collapse of the coalition: “They have many political differences. The only thing that unites them is acting against PiS,” says Jablonski. Last Friday, Tusk described himself as “a walking deal.”
Tusk’s inauguration is scheduled for Wednesday, after the vote of confidence in his government scheduled for Tuesday. The new Prime Minister wants to participate in this week’s European Council and put Poland back at the table where decisions are made in Brussels and which he knows perfectly. In the European capital, says the person from his former team, he embodies hope, the possibility of a return of ultra-current.
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits