Tusk Sets Out to Rebuild Polish Institutions After Populist Rule

Donald Tusk is set to return as Poland’s prime minister, putting him in position to unlock billions in European Union funding and begin restoring independent institutions after eight years of nationalist rule.

(Bloomberg) — Donald Tusk is set to return as Poland’s prime minister, putting him in position to unlock billions in European Union funding and begin restoring independent institutions after eight years of nationalist rule. 

His top priorities include normalizing relations with the rest of the EU after the rancor of the Law & Justice government and depoliticizing the courts and the media. If he can do that, his administration could get a significant early boost from more than €35 billion ($37 billion) in EU funding that was frozen due to a dispute with the nationalists over the rule of law. 

“The victory of the opposition opens the way for a massive reorientation of Poland’s domestic and European policy,” Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a note. “But even with full control of parliament, the new government will face tremendous obstacles.”

For starters, it could be weeks before Tusk is sworn in. 

Although his Civic Platform is set to win enough seats for a majority with two other parties, President Andrzej Duda is likely to nominate a candidate from Law & Justice to take the first crack at forming a government, since it is on track to win the most seats. 

Civic Platform and its allies will have 248 out of 460 lawmakers, according to a projection by Ipsos that includes a partial count and exit polling. Law & Justice will get 198. 

Parliamentary Delay

Duda, a longtime ally of the nationalists, will have 30 days to convene parliament, after which the premier-designate has a two-week window to form a government. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the likely choice, said Law & Justice has the electoral mandate and he’s prepared to reach out to “everybody” to extend his tenure. Given that Tusk is set to have a blocking majority, Morawiecki’s efforts are likely to be fruitless. 

“This means a month’s delay,” Radoslaw Sikorski, who served as foreign minister during Tusk’s previous premiership, told Onet.pl. “I think we will have a democratic, pro-European government by Christmas.” 

Once in office, Tusk’s team will get to work on dismantling the illiberal measures built up over Law & Justice’s two terms in office. 

Judicial Independence

Rolling back the nationalists’ controls on the court system is likely to lead the new government into complicated constitutional issues. On the one hand, they need to decide what to do about the judges appointed by Law & Justice, while the EU insists that a disciplinary chamber designed to remove judges must be abolished. 

Parliament already approved changes to the court system which the EU demanded as a condition of releasing funding. But Duda threw that process into limbo by referring it to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. The president will also have veto power over any other legislation that Tusk wants to introduce to undo the legacy of his predecessor. 

Eliminating political influence over the public broadcaster will also likely require personnel changes, though Tusk has indicated that could be done quickly. 

Investigating the Populists

Also a target is the central bank, led by another Law & Justice ally Adam Glapinski. 

Glapinski stepped into the early weeks of the campaign, delivering a jumbo-sized rate cut in September that seemed designed to deliver a boost to voters’ pocket books. Tusk’s party has said it will seek to convene a special tribunal to target the central banker, whom it accuses of failing to combat inflation and undermining the bank’s independence. 

Duda, Morawiecki and other ruling party leaders could also face the tribunal, according to a plan sketched out by Tusk’s party last month, though it’s unclear whether his future coalition partners would support such a move.

Beyond the parliamentary brinkmanship, the campaign has left Poland a polarized nation, split between more liberal voters who look to the EU and conservatives wedded to traditional values. 

Law & Justice for years cultivated a rural, heavily Catholic base and pilloried Tusk as the embodiment of urban elitism. Tusk’s attacks on Law & Justice leader and longtime rival Jaroslaw Kaczynski have been similarly biting, so bringing Poles back together may be the toughest task of all. 

–With assistance from Piotr Skolimowski.

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