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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » September 29, 2014
Politics & Society
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Testing Time for PO
September 29, 2014   
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Sociologist Andrzej Rychard, director of the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, talks to Witold Żygulski.

After seven years in power, Donald Tusk has resigned as Poland’s prime minister as he prepares for his new role—that of president of the European Council. In what state is he leaving the country?

Even as a relatively dispassionate analyst, I must admit that Prime Minister Tusk is leaving Poland in a good state. But it’s a pity we have to learn that from our foreign partners because Poles themselves seem to be permanently dissatisfied. When we listen to voices from abroad, we can see that the situation in Poland is not at all bad, which is largely due to the consistent efforts of the current coalition government led by Tusk. Undoubtedly, this has been noticed by European decision makers, who have selected him for one of the most important posts in the European community.

However, from the point of view of the prospects for further development, Tusk is leaving the country in a difficult situation. For quite some time, those in power knew where they were headed. That could be summarized in three words: Europe, modernization, integration. Today this is not that obvious any more; it’s no longer clear what this integration should be like, and there is more and more tension on the EU’s eastern flank, of which the Polish border is also part. Many questions will have to be answered once again, which will be the job of not only the next Polish prime minister, but also Tusk himself in his Brussels post. Perhaps that too contributed to the choice of Tusk because European politicians believed that someone from the New Europe, which has proven its creativity and adaptability over the past decade, would be the best person to lead the EU in its current critical situation.

Donald Tusk is vacating not only the job of prime minister, but also his post as leader of the ruling party…

The Civic Platform (PO) is undoubtedly facing a tough test. The party was and still is an efficient mechanism in the hands of Donald Tusk, but who will set it in motion when he’s gone? Tusk has built a party organized around its leader. Some criticize him for that, but one must bear in mind that most parties in Poland are organized in such a way, and the PO is no exception. It will now have to try to reorganize itself, introduce other mechanisms of action, and try to rebuild intra-party activity. This is crucial because no other leader comparable to Tusk is likely to appear, which is, by the way, due to the policies of Tusk himself: he consistently rid the party’s leadership of all those who could challenge him as party leader.

Thus the PO will have a difficult time, but some factors will be working to its advantage. Among all political parties in Poland, the PO has the greatest chance, in my opinion, to deliver on the aspirations and objectives of the middle class, a segment of society that is steadily growing in size. For now, the middle class tends to stay away from politics, but unless there is some economic disaster, a considerable proportion of these people may come to the conclusion that political activity is not a bad idea after all because it could help them achieve their goals. In such a case what a reorganized PO is offering could well prove to be the most attractive.

The reorganization process will be a tough test for the party though. With Donald Tusk at the helm, the party chiefly asked itself what new political platform it should develop and what kind of new reforms it should come up with. Today the most common question being asked during the first debates in this new situation is how to maintain internal cohesion. I’m afraid this goal is too conservative and not particularly ambitious. In the near future Poland will above all need further reforms, for reasons including the fragile economic situation worldwide. Meanwhile, if a coalition of the PO, the Polish People’s Party (PSL) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) comes to power after the next election in the fall of 2015, I can see no prospects for the appearance of genuine reformers. The PO will strive to maintain its unity and the two other parties have never tried to introduce any significant changes when they were part of a ruling coalition. Thus, on the one hand, there will be a need for significant reforms, but, on the other hand, the potential for introducing them will be reduced. That’s what I’m afraid could happen in terms of a pessimistic scenario.

What role could President Bronisław Komorowski play in the process of reorganizing the PO, the party from which he hails?
I believe Bronisław Komorowski will try to maintain the role he took on with success a long time ago—that of a person whose political views and sympathies are widely known, but who does not become involved in day-to-day disputes and conflicts. At the same time, he’ll be consistently emphasizing his autonomy.

Will Tusk’s departure change the strategy of the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has been topping the polls for several months now?

I think those who say PiS will rise in the polls after Tusk leaves are wrong. Up to now, Tusk was PiS’s main opponent, and opposition leader Jarosław Kaczyński could turn voters’ weariness with having the same prime minister for seven years to his advantage. Kaczyński could portray himself as a new candidate for prime minister, ready to carry out attractive reforms, unlike the fossilized Tusk. This argument is no longer possible—Tusk will be replaced with someone new who will make Kaczyński himself seem old rather than as someone fresh.

Another factor working to PiS’s disadvantage is of course the fact that the PO leader has been selected for such a prestigious EU post. You can stop being the prime minister in two ways: after a bitter defeat or after a spectacular victory. There’s no doubt that Tusk is leaving as a winner and this has to have a mobilizing effect on PO voters. It all depends on whether or not the party is able to effectively capitalize on the EU decision rather than becoming embroiled in a conflict over who should step into Donald Tusk’s shoes.


Factfile
Donald Franciszek Tusk was born April 22, 1957, in Gdańsk. He graduated in history from the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Gdańsk.

While in university, Tusk helped found the local anti-communist Independent Students’ Association (NZS). Due to his involvement in the opposition, Tusk was unable to get a job in his line of work after graduation. As a result, he spent seven years as a blue-collar worker, taking jobs such as a steeplejack painting chimneys at industrial plants in northern Poland.

After communism fell in 1989, Tusk founded the Liberal-Democratic Congress (KLD) party and was elected its leader in 1991. In the parliamentary elections that year, the KLD won 37 seats and Tusk became an MP for the first time. In the next elections in 1993, the KLD failed to garner the 5 percent of the vote needed to make it into parliament and Tusk was left without a seat. A year later the KLD merged with the Democratic Union (UD) party to form the Freedom Union (UW) and Tusk was one of the new party’s deputy leaders. As a UW member, Tusk won a seat in the Senate in the 1997 election and became a deputy speaker of the upper house.

In 2001, Tusk ran for UW leader but lost and decided to resign from the party. He went on to join forces with former finance minister and foreign minister Andrzej Olechowski and former lower house speaker Maciej Płażyński (who was later killed in the presidential plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, in April 2010) to set up a new party called the Civic Platform (PO). In the next parliamentary elections, the PO took 65 seats in parliament and became the largest opposition party, while Tusk became deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament. Tusk has been the PO leader since June 1, 2003.

He ran in the presidential elections in 2005 but lost to Lech Kaczyński from the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party in the second round, despite scoring more votes in the first round. The PO also lost narrowly to PiS in the parliamentary elections that year. The PO did not take over power in Poland until the early parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2007, after which Tusk became the prime minister of a coalition Cabinet of the PO and the Polish People’s Party (PSL). Running for parliament in the Warsaw constituency, Tusk received over 530,000 votes, a record for a single candidate. Tusk went on to become the longest serving Polish prime minister since the end of communism in 1989.
On Aug. 30, 2014, the European Council chose Tusk as its new president. Tusk will officially take up his new post Dec. 1 and will hold the job for at least two-and-a-half years.

Tusk has been married since 1978. He and his wife, Małgorzata, have a 32-year-old son, Michał, a public relations specialist, and a 27-year-old daughter, Katarzyna, who is a popular fashion blogger. Tusk lives in the northern city of Sopot and has for years been an avid soccer fan and a keen amateur player.
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