Analysis: Return of the Polish Donald

Donald Tusk has returned to Polish politics with a blitz of hyperactivity in the media. Since finishing his term as President of the European Council two weeks ago he has promoted his new book, called for demonstrations against the government’s judicial reforms, criticized the government’s social transfers programme and its stance on climate change at last week’s EU summit, as well as hinting he might yet run for President after all.

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In November Mr Tusk was elected to lead the European People’s Party (EPP), the alliance of centre and centre-right groupings which is the biggest party in the European Parliament. This prestigious role for Mr Tusk ensures that he is able to play an international role. But it also means that he has considerable influence over the party he once led, the Civic Platform (PO) which is a long-standing member of the EPP.

President? Maybe later

Donald Tusk decided in November that he would not be running for President in the 2020 presidential election. He argued that his reputation had been damaged by attacks on him in the public media and that according to opinion polls he was still viewed as the face of some unpopular government decisions dating back to his term as PM (2007-2014).

However, Mr Tusk has now revealed, in an interview with the tabloid “Super Express”, that he does not rule out running in 2025. This may explain why he is so keen to re-establish himself in Polish politics. It also indicates that his level of confidence in the existing opposition figures running for President is rather limited, as a potential Donald Tusk candidacy in 2025 rather pre-supposes that Andrzej Duda will have been the winner of the 2020 contest.

Trying to energize the opposition

Mr Tusk launched his book, titled “Honestly” last week. It is meant to be a frank account of his time as President of the European Council. But since he is returning to front line politics it seems likely that he has kept his powder dry on many issues and many public figures on the international stage too.

But he has certainly not held anything back on projecting his opposition to the present Law and Justice (PiS) government and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński. In a recent interview, he said that Poles should not expect other EU member states to fight harder against Poland’s judicial reforms than Poles are willing to themselves. He argued that demonstrations against the reform should be organized.

He also criticized the government’s flagship child benefit (500+) programme, arguing that it was a risky approach to public spending and not one that he would have wanted to choose when he was in office.

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Climate dispute

On climate change, he accused PM Morawiecki of telling lies about the outcome of last week’s EU summit in Brussels. Poland has managed an opt-out from the zero-emissions by 2050 target which has been agreed to by the other members of the EU.

Donald Tusk has said that this was not a success of any kind as it meant that Poland had simply bought six months for itself to decide if it was going to participate in EU climate policy and be eligible for EU solidarity funding to help it reach the climate neutrality goal. He admitted that the issue had been neglected during the life-time of his government as there was no EU funding available to help member states with adjusting to a zero-emissions economy, but now the situation is different and there are ‘rewards’ for participating in efforts for “clean air and saving the planet”.

Changing Polish politics?

Mr Tusk has also hinted in interviews that he thinks it is time for changes in the leadership of the PO. He feels that the time has come for “generational change”, which would mean the removal of the current leader Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader who has now presided over three election defeats (local government, European and Parliamentary) in the space of just over a year. He is less critical of the PO’s Presidential candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska than he is of Mr Schetyna, praising her consensual approach. But he also had warm words for the Polish People’s Party (PSL) leader and presidential candidate Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz.

Indeed Mr Tusk seems to be spreading his bets on next year’s presidential contest. Some people close to him are actually supporting the independent candidate Szymon Hołownia, running as an independent with the support of liberal Catholics and environmentalists. Some see this as an opening gambit in an attempt to build a new political force that could in future replace the PO.

Donald Tusk has stated clearly that he is back and that he will not hold back from playing a role in Polish politics. But at this moment in time, it is not certain what that role is going to be. The danger for him is that, since he holds no state or political party position, he will come to be seen at best as an eternal commentator on Polish political life, and at worse an incessant meddler and backseat driver for the opposition. He is an alpha politician with an instinct to lead. Unless he finds a suitable leadership role for himself in Polish politics he may become a cause of frustration to both himself and his supporters.