Prof. A. Szczerbiak: Can Donald Tusk save Poland’s opposition?

Opponents of Poland’s right-wing ruling party hope that the return of former prime minister Donald Tusk to front-line politics will re-energise the country’s divided opposition. But supporters of the governing party, and even some anti-government commentators, sense that Mr Tusk is a polarizing figure who could actually be less of an electoral asset than other potential opposition leaders.

A boost for Civic Platform

Former European Council President and leader of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) transnational party federation Donald Tusk returned to front-line Polish politics at the start of July when he took over from Borys Budka as acting leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s main governing party until the 2015 elections and currently the largest parliamentary opposition grouping. Mr Tusk led Civic Platform to two parliamentary election victories and was prime minister between 2007-14. The lacklustre Mr Budka was accused of failing to take the initiative effectively against the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015.

Given his international standing and high domestic media profile, Mr Tusk’s return to front-line Polish politics has re-energised Civic Platform and provided it with an opinion poll boost. Previously, the party had been trailing behind ‘Poland 2050’ (Polska 2050), a new centrist party formed by TV presenter-turned-politician Szymon Hołownia after his strong third place last summer’s presidential election. Mr Hołownia has succeeded in attracting some Civic Platform defectors and his appeal to ‘newness’ and claim to transcend the simple ‘pro-versus-anti-Law and Justice’ binary divide resonates with many liberal and centrist voters.

In June, the ‘E-wybory’ website which aggregates opinion poll data showed ‘Poland 2050’ as the second-largest party averaging 20% support, despite having just six parliamentary deputies, compared with only 17% for Civic Platform. Since Mr Tusk’s return, however, Civic Platform’s average has increased quickly to 22% and ‘Poland 2050’’s has fallen back to 17%; although both groupings remain well behind Law and Justice, which is averaging 33%.

A polarising figure

However, Law and Justice – and many commentators, including some who are sympathetic to the opposition – believe that Mr Tusk’s return will not necessarily be the game-changer that government opponents are hoping for. He is certainly a very articulate and effective critic of Law and Justice, which explains why opposition voters have already started to rally around his leadership. But while this appears to be reviving support for Civic Platform, Mr Tusk is a very polarising figure with loyal devotees but also fierce opponents, so may actually help to mobilise supporters of the ruling party as well.

Mr Tusk could also struggle to connect with voters beyond the opposition hardcore and be much less successful at winning over potentially disillusioned ‘soft’ Law and Justice supporters. Law and Justice’s election victory over Civic Platform in 2015 reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for a change; and most Poles do not want to simply go back to the political status quo ante. Given that Mr Tusk was prime minister for seven out of the eight years that Civic Platform was in office, few politicians better embody the previous administration which came to be viewed by many Poles as lacking social sensitivity and out-of-touch with their needs, while several of its ministers were forced to resign after being embroiled in scandals. Opinion polls appear to show both that Mr Tusk is one of Poland’s most distrusted politicians and that most Poles do not want him to return to front-line domestic politics. However, his supporters argue that, because Mr Tusk has not been active in day-to-day Polish politics for several years, these surveys are misleading and based largely on negative media stereotypes.

Opposing Law and Justice is not enough

In fact, the Polish opposition’s biggest problem has been its inability to develop an attractive and convincing programmatic alternative on the socio-economic issues that Poles appear to care most about. Law and Justice has certainly lost support over the last few months: from 45% in the autumn 2019 parliamentary election – and, according to ‘E-wybory’, an average of around 40% last summer – its opinion poll rating now fluctuates around the 30-35% mark. However, the party can still credibly claim to have delivered on the popular, high profile social spending and welfare pledges that were the key to its 2015 and 2019 parliamentary election victories, notably the extremely popular ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme.

In May, Law and Justice launched its new flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) post-pandemic recovery programme which includes a wide range of ambitious policies to boost economic growth and living standards. The party is hoping that this will provide it with a renewed sense of purpose and momentum for the remainder of the current parliament, scheduled to run until autumn 2023. For sure, the ‘Polish Deal’ has not, as yet, transformed Law and Justice’s opinion poll ratings. Nevertheless, not only does the opposition currently lack an effective counter-offer, the fact that Law and Justice is in office means that it can actually start to implement this plan and offer Poles something concrete and not just aspirational.

Although Mr Tusk’s blistering critique of Law and Justice has certainly been effective at rallying the core anti-government electorate and channelling opposition to the ruling party, his current message is a very negative one. Mr Tusk has not yet provided any indication that he is able to put forward the kind of credible and popular programmatic alternative that the opposition needs to reach out beyond this hardcore. Moreover, even if he proposes popular alternative policies, the fact that he previously served as a long-serving prime minister leaves Mr Tusk open to questions as to why he failed to implement them when in office himself. Indeed, Mr Tusk’s critics argue that he previously rubbished Law and Justice’s popular social welfare spending pledges as unaffordable and unrealistic.

A struggle for the opposition leadership

Mr Tusk’s return has also complicated the plans and weakened the position of other potential opposition leaders, notably Mr Hołownia and the popular Warsaw mayor and Civic Platform deputy leader Rafał Trzaskowski. Mr Hołownia was increasingly confident that his ‘Poland 2050’ grouping was consolidating its position as the main opposition challenger and that Civic Platform would not be able to recover under Mr Budka’s weak and indecisive leadership.

Mr Trzaskowski, on the other hand, leads the faction of ‘young’ politicians who installed Mr Budka as Civic Platform leader in January 2020 because the Warsaw mayor did not then want the job. Having been narrowly defeated in last summer’s presidential election by Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda, in spite of securing more than 10 million votes, Mr Trzaskowski has been keeping his future options open. Knowing that he was easily the party’s most popular leader, Mr Trzaskowski was well-placed to challenge Mr Budka’s leadership at any time if this fitted with his political plans. At the same time, Mr Trzaskowski was building his own ‘Common Poland’ (Wspólna Polska) civic movement if he felt that Civic Platform could not regain its hegemony as the main opposition grouping and he needed to form an alternative political support base. At one point, Mr Trzaskowski also suggested that he would be prepared to run against Mr Tusk for the Civic Platform leadership, although an open confrontation would be very risky as day-to-day mayoral responsibilities leave him little time to engage in the kind of internal party manoeuvring in which the former prime minister excels.

In fact, both Mr Hołownia and Mr Trzaskowski are, arguably, more dangerous political opponents for Law and Justice than Mr Tusk. In their different ways, both have been able to offer a ‘newness’ to voters (in spite of the fact that Mr Trzaskowski was actually a member of the previous Civic Platform government) which has allowed them to mobilise support beyond the core anti-Law and Justice electorate in a way that Mr Tusk finds difficult because of his historical baggage. Arguably, they also have a much better ‘feel’ for how to develop an appeal to some of the key groups of voters that the opposition needs to win over and mobilise, notably younger Poles. While Mr Tusk is undoubtedly very effective at energising and mobilising hardcore opposition voters, this will almost certainly not be enough to defeat Law and Justice, especially if the ruling party can start to win back support based on its ‘Polish Order’ post-pandemic recovery programme.

Out-of-touch and de-motivated?

Finally, there are question marks as to whether Mr Tusk is the political driving force that he once was and still has his finger sufficiently on the political pulse, or simply has the appetite, for the kind of hard grind of campaigning that will be required to secure victory in an election that could be more than two years away. One of Mr Tusk’s great strengths, when he was at the peak of his political influence in Poland, was his ability to read and respond to the Polish public mood. This combined with his rather schizophrenic, but effective, image as simultaneously a political unifier (in contrast to the allegedly ‘divisive’ Law and Justice) and ‘street-fighting moderate’ able to face down political extremists.

Having been out of active Polish politics, and relying on secondary sources for on-the-ground political intelligence, for nearly seven years – and with the domestic political situation having clearly changed so markedly during this time – there is a question mark over whether his long stint abroad has dulled Mr Tusk’s previously extremely well-attuned political antennae. Moreover, some commentators argue that Mr Tusk was always prone to have something of a lazy streak and question whether, after years of moving in the exulted salons of the international political establishment, he has the energy and appetite to engage in the kind of sustained, grassroots campaigning in a small town, provincial Poland that will be needed to lay the groundwork for renewed electoral success. Although he has promised to visit every county in Poland before the next parliamentary election, an ominous sign here was the fact that only a few days after his spectacular re-entry onto the domestic political scene, Mr Tusk broke off from campaigning for a family holiday in Croatia.

Autumn will be the key test

Mr Tusk is undoubtedly an impressive political operator with a knack for taking full advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses and who can communicate effectively with, and generate enthusiasm among, his supporters. Civic Platform has clearly benefited from the energy and momentum generated by his high-profile re-entry into Polish politics and powerful anti-Law and Justice message, re-establishing itself (for the moment at least) as the main opposition grouping. Indeed, some commentators appear to believe that Mr Tusk’s re-entry onto the Polish political scene is a game-changer that can transform the opposition’s fortunes.

The key question is: how far can the ‘Tusk effect’ expand the Civic Platform and the opposition’s support? Up until now, Mr Tusk’s return has proceeded along fairly predictable tracks with his message focused on polarizing the political debate and appealing to hardcore anti-Law and Justice voters. Moreover, in some ways, Mr Tusk’s comeback could actually help the ruling party by rallying its own core voters, while consolidating the opposition around a figure who, potentially, has less political appeal than other alternative leaders. The key test of whether Mr Tusk can really pose an effective challenge to Law and Justice will come when the new political season begins in earnest in the autumn. By then it should start to become clearer how he will develop his relations with other opposition leaders and parties; and whether the momentum and enthusiasm that his return has undoubtedly generated has simply provided Civic Platform with a short-term opinion poll boost, or if Mr Tusk has a long-term plan and forward-looking programmatic agenda that can broaden his appeal beyond the anti-Law and Justice hardcore.

Prof. Aleks Szczerbiak

This post originally appeared on the Polish Politics Blog. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and don’t have to reflect the views of the British Poles Portal.

Aleks Szczerbiak is a Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe? (Routledge, 2012)

Picture: Geert Vanden Wijngaert, Twitter @donaldtuskEPP

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