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No country for reasonable men

Tusk
©EPA-EFE/MARCIN BIELECKI  |   Leader of main opposition party Civic Platform Donald Tusk (C) and deputy Speaker of the Sejm Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska (R), during a press conference on the White Eagle Square in Szczecin, Poland, 05 July 2021.

Donald Tusk returned to Poland. He's main goal is to take power from Kaczyński and the right-wing government of Law and Justice. How does he want to do it and what are his chances?

Although he was sent into retirement many times and by many people - including politicians from his own party - Donald Tusk decided to return to Polish politics. After almost eight years in Brussels (he was the President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019; in 2019 Tusk was elected as the president of the European People's Party, Europe's largest transnational political party) on July 3rd, the former Polish Prime Minister became the head of Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska or PO) which he co-founded and lead for many years before.

Death bend

"Why am I coming back today?" - he asked himself during the National Council of Civic Platform, which again handed over the reins to him. He did not answer this question until the next day. He came back because the PO was on a "death bend", and earlier he thought it would manage without him. It seems that Donald Tusk dreams of ending his political career as a retired savior of Polish democracy. And although many present problems of Poland result directly from the way Prime Minister Tusk and his party managed the country for seven years until 2014 (lack of courageous reforms and social programs, lazy administration of the state, arrogance and disregard for poorer citizens and those living outside large cities), today his return can really improve the condition of Polish democracy. First of all, because it may strengthen the position of the opposition (which has been weakening in recent years), which should be a natural counterbalance to the ruling party, especially one that likes to bend the rules of the game, such as Law and Justice (PiS) under the leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczyński.

There is no doubt that the re-election of Donald Tusk will benefit the Civic Platform, which is now part of bigger block of opposition parties called Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska or KO), but there is no question of miracles. Therefore, consciously assessing the chances of defeating PiS, Tusk will certainly not strive to accelerate the elections, which are nominally scheduled for autumn 2023. Although the right-wing government is cracking down, every day more scandals discrediting PiS politicians are revealed, and the internal coalitions of the United Right are crumbling in Parliament (and are being glued back again by compromises that are increasingly rotten and harmful to the state), there is no political force in Poland today that could threaten the position of Kaczyński's party if the parliamentary elections were held today. How is it possible?

The race is on

It is not known if and when the early elections will be held. But in the ruling camp, everyone is already acting as if the elections were to take place right away. This is best seen in the increasingly harsh and absurd statements of right-wing politicians, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, as well as in foreign policy and the battle with Brussels. Within three days - on July 13, 14 and 15 - the Polish Constitutional Court and the EU Court of Justice adjudicated four cases concerning the independence of Polish courts, as well as the relationship between the Polish constitution and EU law.

Poland has decided to escalate its six-year struggle with the European Union over the rule of law and the country’s constitutional court ruled it did not have to comply with an order from the bloc’s supreme court over its oversight of judges. The decision by the Polish court followed an order by the European Court of Justice to suspend a disciplinary “chamber” that critics say has been used by the ruling Law and Justice party to intimidate judges not to its liking. Poland’s top court said that the European court, which is based in Luxembourg, did not have the power to impose such orders under Poland’s Constitution. The next day, the European Court of Justice said that the system of overseeing and disciplining judges in Poland, set up by the ruling party, was not compatible with EU law. If Poland does not comply with the EU ruling, the European Commission can ask the court to impose daily fines. The Commission considers Poland’s actions to be a violation of the treaties that bind the bloc together and that guarantee an independent judiciary. Poland’s government has argued that the disciplinary chamber, which was set up in 2018, was necessary to purge a corrupt system that includes Communist-era holdovers – such a narrative is aimed at maintaining support among parts of the ruling party's electorate. Scaring people with communists, post-communists, gays, refugees, eco-terrorists, etc. is a well-known technique for building a message designed to unite PiS voters. But it's not only that.

When recently three MPs left the parliamentary club of Law and Justice party and the government de facto became a minority government, a litany of lies and terrifying visions poured out of the mouths of right-wing politicians, not only those who are known for their boisterous and provocative statements. This is due to the fact that the ruling coalition is formed by PiS (with still high support reaching approx. 30% in polls), but also many other smaller ones (with no chance of entering parliament on their own) and much more extreme groups that are already positioning themselves for an electoral race which has not started yet.

In recent days, one of the MPs returned to his home party (after a few weeks spent outside the PiS club), thanks to which the ruling party regained the majority in the Sejm (the lower house of the bicameral parliament of Poland), but it is hard to suspect that Kaczyński cares about earlier elections - the risk of not achieving a satisfactory result is too big.

“Blame Tusk”

In recent years, PiS has appointed its nominees to all institutions that organize elections, count votes and announce the results, and then decide on their validity. In addition, in election campaigns, Law and Justice uses state media and everything that was called "administrative resources" in '90s Ukraine: intimidating the opposition, sending secret services, the prosecutor's office and the police against opposition politicians and its own disloyal supporters, and with the help of the largest and richest state-owned companies PiS conducts propaganda, the costs of which it does not have to report to the State Electoral Commission. In addition, state-owned companies drag independent media out to the courts. In such a situation, early elections pose a greater risk to the opposition than to the authorities. Even if Civic Coalition (and other opposition parties) would win, the Constitutional Court staffed by Kaczyński's people and Poland’s pro-PiS president would prevent the opposition from governing. It therefore seems that today the ruling party's greatest enemy is PiS itself, which has so far dealt with issues that have guaranteed it a stable and constant popularity among conservative voters: abortion ban, curbing of LGBT rights, and other ideological projects. However, it did not attach enough importance to the collapse of the health system and ignored new mutations of the coronavirus.

However, the right-wing government is more and more weakened and inefficient, and in addition it will be increasingly busy preparing for a possible election campaign and fighting to maintain power. Sooner or later it will face a dilemma: whether to alienate part of the electorate by introducing the obligation to vaccinate against Covid, or to take the risk of having a part of the electorate exposed, in fall and winter, to serious illness and death - and then the relatives of the victims will blame PiS.

At the moment, PiS and its subordinate private and public media blame Tusk as usual for all the evils that befalls Poland. "Blame Tusk" - is a popular phrase that has entered mass circulation and is used as a playful reaction to any possible "defeat": heavy rains and flooding – blame Tusk; divorce – blame Tusk; expensive fruits... It's all Tusk's fault.

It's nothing new that Tusk is the villain of Public Television (TVP) - for years TVP has been convincing viewers that his leadership brought a long list of misfortunes for Poland. The novelty is the concentration of this type of messages since he decided to return to Polish politics. In the main news program, the former prime minister's one-second statement from his speech was repeatedly broadcast, saying: "für Deutschland", without stating that it was a fragment of the speech of the head of the European People's Party at the congress of the most important part of this group - the German CDU. According to TVP, there are two real reasons for Tusk's return: the desire to save the former associate of the prime minister, suspected of corruption (called in TVP "Tusk's golden boy") and the implementation of the mission set by Angela Merkel - the leader of the Civic Platform is presented in Polish public media as he was "indicated by the German media as the leader of the opposition in Poland". For Civic Platform, the return of its former leader is symbolic - it heralds a new beginning, much desired by this group, which has recently stumbled over its own legs. The PO will be able to cut itself off from the streak of defeats after 2015, because it is headed by a heavyweight politician who is several lengths ahead of not only those from his party, but also all the others. The party's activists felt the wind in the sails. According to many political scientists, it was the last moment to save this party and they estimate that the Civic Platform will quickly make a support jump to around 25%. The question is whether Tusk can maintain such a sudden increase in popularity for much longer? Political scientists pay attention to the communication skills of the former prime minister - he is said to be a master of political speech, he has the ability to name things and define the playing field. His words reach the audience flawlessly, say political analysts.

Tusk plans to act quickly and has already called Kaczyński "his main opponent". The PiS leader took up the challenge, saying: "It promises to be, for reasons that I will not talk about here, because it is not worth it, a tightening of the political fight". During the Law and Justice party congress, Kaczyński never once pronounced the former prime minister's name, as if he were "the one whose name cannot be pronounced." By the way, Putin does the same with Navalny.

“One ring to rule them all”

Unfortunately, in his first speech, Tusk referred to the reality of the country he wants to save with populist nonchalance, telling Poles that the last six years of their lives had been a "black dream". How does such rhetoric differ from the black and white visions ("time for Poland to rise from its knees"; "time to rebuild Poland from ruin") with which Kaczyński feeds his electorate? Perhaps Tusk, as an EU official, saw the dynamics of the disintegration of traditional democracy in many countries and is now convinced that one populism can be fought by other, and all we can do is to choose wisely between them, considering which populist understands global threats better and for which crude rhetoric hides a less paternalistic vision of society.

Which of the self-proclaimed evil slayers would rather extinguish than incite unnecessary cultural wars? For now, Tusk gives his program announcements a new biblical dimension: "Today evil rules in Poland, we go out to the field to fight this evil" - he said recently, almost recreating Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings”. On one side, the Army of the West facing the Black Gate, on the other, the armies of Sauron's orcs, both on the eve of the final clash. Some will buy a box of popcorn and will sit comfortably in the audience, others - like me - probably think about this clash with great anxiety, because in a total war for power, unfortunately, citizens and their needs rarely count.

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  • Although he was sent into retirement many times and by many people - including politicians from his own party - Donald Tusk decided to return to Polish politics. After almost eight years in Brussels (he was the President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019; in 2019 Tusk was elected as the president of the European People's Party, Europe's largest transnational political party) on July 3rd, the former Polish Prime Minister became the head of Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska or PO) which he co-founded and lead for many years before.
  • It is not known if and when the early elections will be held. But in the ruling camp, everyone is already acting as if the elections were to take place right away. This is best seen in the increasingly harsh and absurd statements of right-wing politicians, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, as well as in foreign policy and the battle with Brussels.
  • Tusk plans to act quickly and has already called Kaczyński "his main opponent". The PiS leader took up the challenge, saying: "It promises to be, for reasons that I will not talk about here, because it is not worth it, a tightening of the political fight". During the Law and Justice party congress, Kaczyński never once pronounced the former prime minister's name, as if he were "the one whose name cannot be pronounced." By the way, Putin does the same with Navalny.
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