Tusk Gets His Chance to Bring Poland Back From the ‘Dark Side’

The former European Council president was involved in managing the Greek crisis and the fallout from Brexit. His next challenge is to steer his homeland in a new direction.

(Bloomberg) — Donald Tusk returned to Gdansk with a message for the Polish opposition.  “Don’t give up,” he told thousands of supporters gathered at a rally in the Polish port city, “even if you lose the first match.”

That was June 2019 and Tusk, the European Council president and a former Polish prime minister, was taking time out from the Brexit process to return to his hometown on the Baltic coast to push the liberal movement ahead of a difficult election. The biggest opposition party had a leader who was struggling to unite various factions and, as Tusk suggested, the ruling Law and Justice party strolled to a second term.

Four years later, and Tusk’s faith has been vindicated.

After Sunday’s dramatic election, the 66-year-old veteran of European politics is set to return to power in Warsaw in an outcome that will resonate across the continent, from Brussels to Kyiv.

“This a clear victory for the opposition forces,” Nils Schmid, foreign policy spokesman for Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats in the Bundestag, told Bloomberg. “It is a victory for the democratic and pro-European forces in Poland, which can now restore the rule of law and media freedom in the country.” 

Law & Justice turned Poland into a rogue state on a par with Viktor Orban’s Hungary. The Polish government clashed with the EU over rule of law, control of the media and funding, all while weaponizing LGBTQ issues and women’s rights. Support for Ukraine brought Warsaw into line with its main EU partners, but even there the mood has soured after Warsaw imposed restrictions on Ukrainian grain and suggested it might stop weapons shipments.

The pro-EU alliance that prevailed on Sunday now has the opportunity to shift Poland’s course, steering the bloc’s fifth most populous country back from what Tusk once called the “dark side.” 

Tusk’s knowledge of how the EU machine works means that Poland will go from being an outsider at summits to one of the most influential participants, according to one EU official, who said he also expects the next Polish leader to become an important voice in shaping the bloc’s ongoing support for Ukraine.

Poland’s previously tight relationship with Hungary is also going to change dramatically, said another official familiar with Tusk’s thinking, who said the prime minister-in-waiting is deeply suspicious of Orban and his government’s ties to Russia. 

But unpicking eight years of populist rule won’t be easy, and the enmity toward Tusk runs deep among his opponents. 

President Andrzej Duda, a Law & Justice ally, is likely to make things difficult as the new government tries to unwind legislation which has given politicians more sway over the judiciary, and made public media into the mouthpiece for the Law & Justice party.

Born in Gdansk in 1957, Tusk worked as a teacher, journalist and renovation worker before becoming a politician. A pivotal moment came in his early 20s when the Solidarity movement grew out of the city to challenge the communist leadership and gain the world’s attention. Tusk helped found a student association to support leader Lech Walesa and the other shipyard workers.

It was during that era, in the early 1980s, when Tusk first met the men who would become his political nemeses: Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s most powerful politician over the past eight years, and his twin brother and party co-founder Lech. The Kaczynski brothers were also part of the anti-communist protest movement, although they eventually fell out with Walesa after he became president in the 1990s.

“They were incredibly irritated that we are a bit different,” Tusk reminisced in 1993. Lech Kaczynski was “convinced that they are more intelligent, smarter, have better knowledge of politics, work more and are more patriotic,” he said.

Tusk stood against Lech Kaczynski in the 2005 presidential election and lost. But the rivalry was then turbocharged when Tusk and his Civic Platform party won power in 2007 after the Law & Justice coalition collapsed over a scandal. Notable in the campaign was Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s catastrophic performance against Tusk in a television debate.

Tusk became prime minister. Things got more bitter when a plane crash in 2010 killed 96 people in bad weather near the Russian city of Smolensk. Onboard were many of Poland’s governing elite, including Lech Kaczynski, who was president.

Jaroslaw fostered a conspiracy theory that Tusk, who didn’t go on the trip, was to blame. Tusk was later summoned by the Polish prosecution three times to testify in three different investigations. He called it “political persecution.”

Meanwhile, Tusk was making his mark on European politics with the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After the Coalition of the Radical Left won power in Greece in 2015, Tusk was tasked with herding leaders at summits. He said if there was no deal with Athens, the worst-case scenario was that “everyone will lose.” A deal was eventually done as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras caved in to pressure.

A year later, the UK voted to leave the EU and Tusk found himself sparring with the British. There was “a special place in hell” for the people who sold Brexit with no plan of how to deliver it, he said in June 2019, the same month he was in Gdansk.

“Tusk demonstrated time and again that, while always true to his Polish origins, he was a committed European, always doing his best to find solutions in the common interest,” said Martin Selmayr, former secretary-general of the European Commission. “It is very good news for a strong, sovereign and geopolitically alert Europe if Donald Tusk returns as prime minister of Poland.”

At home, though, he was part of a culture war. The vitriol between Tusk and Kaczynski reflects the divide between more pro-EU, westward looking Poles and the conservatives backed by the Catholic Church and opposing abortion.

Law & Justice portrayed Tusk, a German speaker, as a puppet of Berlin and during the campaign, Kaczynski referred to him as the “personification of evil.”

Indeed, the decision to return to Poland after his EU term was likely driven in part by the idea of “personal payback,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at Sussex University in the UK who writes a blog on Polish politics. “I was a bit surprised he came back and did what he did, but he ran out of options internationally,” said Szczerbiak. It also meant “one more go at beating Kaczynski” he said.

Now that’s done, Tusk has the challenge of forming a viable government and uniting the country after the bitterest election campaign for years. 

“You need to be brave and have good ideas,” Tusk told supporters at the event in Gdansk four years ago to mark 30 years since communism. In his case, the idea was simple: return to Poland and defeat Law & Justice. 

–With assistance from Michael Nienaber.

(Adds comment from Selmayr in 20th paragraph.)

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.