Veteran Tusk Returns to Battle for Poland’s European Future

Donald Tusk returned to Polish politics to lead the fight against the country’s drift to the European Union’s fringe.

The former president of the European Council was appointed on Saturday as the head of his country’s biggest opposition group, the Civic Platform, which propelled him to two terms as prime minister and the top level of politics on the continent.

The decision puts Tusk on a collision course with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was re-elected as chairman of the ruling nationalists. Since 2015, the Law & Justice party has transformed Poland into an EU rogue state that has been repeatedly sued for eroding democratic standards.

The duel between arch-nemeses that goes back almost two decades is set to determine whether the EU’s biggest eastern member -- with 36 million people and a $594 billion economy -- steers back into the bloc’s mainstream. Law & Justice has followed Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orban down the path toward authoritarianism, according to critics.

“I’m back to end this nightmare” and “bring back faith in winning,” Tusk told a party conference in Warsaw.

Tusk returns to domestic politics after seven years in Brussels, where he now leads the European People’s Party which includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s group. The move comes as Law & Justice’s grip on power looks vulnerable, with Poland’s ruling coalition riven by conflict and defections that have eaten away at its parliamentary majority.

‘Titanic Battle’

Tusk, 64, politician must win over the public and potential allies, which may prove difficult, with many Poles remembering his departure for the European stage following years of lackluster reforms, an unpopular decision to raise the retirement age and a taping scandal which involved some of his party’s leading politicians.

The leaks dominated headlines, painted his allies as out of touch with regular people and helped pave the way for Law & Justice’s defeat of Civic Platform in 2015 elections. The most recent opinion poll showed 60% of Poles don’t want Tusk back. Meanwhile, a new generation of opposition leaders, including the increasingly popular upstart party of former Got Talent! host Szymon Holownia, remain skeptical.

Kaczynski’s grip on his party remains firm despite recent setbacks, and he was picked to again lead the group for what the 72-year-old said was his final term. In previous head-to-head contests, Civic Platform under Tusk repeatedly bested Law & Justice.

“I’d consider it a good thing for the country if someone who won with Kaczynski seven times is now ready to leave his position in Brussels to wage a titanic battle for a democratic and European Poland,” said Tusk ally and former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

Generous Handouts

While Law & Justice has bolstered its popularity with generous financial handouts to families and an appeal to patriotism, the crucial issue for Civic Platform is the country’s place in Europe.

Poland has been repeatedly sued for alleged attempts to undermine judicial independence and is now likely to become a target of another lawsuit over attempts to limit LGBTQ rights.

The only viable option for the pro-EU opposition to win back power appears to be backing joint candidates in elections, as Law & Justice remains popular. The next parliamentary ballot is due in late 2023.

While that’s something Tusk may want to broker, his rivalry with Kaczynski may fail to resonate with the electorate, which is starting to be dominated by younger voters, according to Renata Mienkowska-Norkiene, a political scientist from Warsaw University.

“Everything has changed since he left Polish politics,” she said. “Still, what seems impossible at first glance, might be necessary for Poland to stay inside the European Union.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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