The tusk effect | The strategist
In July, Donald Tusk, the former President of the European Council who served as Polish Prime Minister from 2007 to 2014, returned to Polish politics. Many voters remember him as the politician who raised the country’s retirement age – a policy that was reversed in 2017 by the Law and Justice Party (PiS). In fact, PiS blames Tusk for pretty much everything that is wrong in Poland.
Other paranoid allegations against Tusk are that in 2010 he worked with Russian President Vladimir Putin to arrange the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski, the identical twin brother of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and that he was, in fact, German is that of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But Tusk is an accomplished pragmatist. He admits that he made serious mistakes during his tenure as prime minister. He believes that people should now be able to choose whether to retire earlier or to receive a higher pension for later retirement. He is less economically liberal than before and admits that the state should be more active in redistributing. Like the rest of the Polish political class, he admits that the PiS government’s many generous social programs are popular. There will be no return to the neoliberalism that dominated Poland after 1989, in the era of “shock therapy” of then Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz.
Tusk’s return is electrifying. His party, the Civic Platform, immediately recaptured the leadership of the opposition, and its support rose from 16.9% to 27.3% in one month. An analysis of the polls shows that he has won up to a million new voters for the opposition. As one commentator put it, Tusk rolled up like a tank to challenge the infantrymen of the PiS and other opposition parties.
The atmosphere within the citizens’ platform has also changed. The party’s previously comatose politicians have woken up. Tusk travels the country meeting activists, local government officials, and ordinary people. At press conferences, he even answers hostile questions, including from PiS-related media. He refuses to be provoked, admits past mistakes and gives sharp replies – a style that is in stark contrast to Kaczynski, who never asks questions at press conferences.
Tusk’s strategy is to serve as a kind of father to the opposition. He not only avoids disputes, but also extensively praises other opposition leaders. He is not a politician who wants to share power; but right now he’s focused on defeating PiS. This goal is associated with considerable career risks. Although Kaczynski has a significant resource advantage (President of the State Budget, Public Media, State-Owned Corporations, and European Funds), it would still be a great embarrassment for Tusk to lose to him.
Tusk’s return has also exacerbated Kaczynski’s war against the independent Polish media. In order to limit the opposition’s election prospects, the PiS has tried to unplug the country’s largest private television broadcaster, TVN, and its news channel TVN24. Since the station is owned by the US company Discovery (which has just merged with another American company, WarnerMedia, the parent company of CNN), PiS introduced a law that would prohibit companies outside the European Economic Area from taking control of television networks, operated on the basis of a license issued in Poland.
PiS claims to want to protect Poland’s media market from takeovers by other countries such as Russia, China or an Arab state. However, that claim refutes that the PiS-controlled National Broadcasting Council delayed TVN24’s license renewal by 18 months, simply out of defiance. The station now has less than 50 days to secure an extension.
Poland thus disdains the country on which it depends most to protect its national security. The United States has repeatedly signaled its opposition to the actions of the PiS by a bipartisan group of US Senators warning in a recently released joint letter:
These and other steps recently taken by Poland – a NATO ally and close friend and partner of the United States – do not reflect the common values that underpin our bilateral relations. Any decision to implement these laws could have a negative impact on defense, economic and trade relations. We call on the Polish government to pause before taking any action that could affect our longstanding relationship.
The message here is clear. If the law goes into effect, Poland can forget about large arms deals, an increased American military presence (over the 5,000 U.S. soldiers currently rotating around the country), or state visits. This last point may of course go well with Kaczynski, who is doing everything to ensure that Donald Trump remains in power and now sees no reason to cooperate with the administration of US President Joe Biden.
Nevertheless, there is also resistance within the ruling camp against the so-called ‘Lex TVN’, where a small group of MPs under the leadership of the conservative MP Jaroslaw Gowin has resigned from the PiS coalition government and is threatened with overthrow.
Kaczynski seems ready to sacrifice the Polish-American alliance in order to wipe out the opposition’s election chances. He’s even more desperate now as the country’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign has stalled, setting the stage for a fourth wave of pandemics and possibly another lockdown. Worse still, anti-vaccination sentiment is growing among the right-wing electorate, including PiS voters. This means that the government cannot risk coercion or discrimination against unvaccinated people to stave off further infections.
In addition, Poland is still at war with the European Union over the independence of the judiciary, making it vulnerable to its EU funding being cut off. In the absence of a stable parliamentary majority and the possibility of a fourth wave, the PiS is not only on a collision course with its own electorate, but also with the EU and the USA.
Still, Tusk has to break the 25-30% approval ceiling to overtake the PiS in the polls. The coming months will tell us how strong he is and how weak Kaczynski may have become.