When his term as president of the European Council ended in 2019, Donald Tusk might have slipped into semi-retirement. Instead, the former Polish prime minister is returning to his home country for what promises to be a bitter final battle with his arch-rival, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
On Saturday, Tusk resumed control of Civic Platform, the centre-right party he co-founded two decades ago. The same day, Kaczynski was re-elected as leader of the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party which has dominated Polish politics since Tusk swapped Warsaw for Brussels in 2014.
The renewal of the two-decade rivalry between the pro-European Tusk and the more Eurosceptic Kaczynski is likely to play a key role in the country’s next parliamentary election, due by 2023. The outcome is likely to shape Poland’s longer-term relationship with the EU, with which Law and Justice has repeatedly clashed over Polish judicial reforms that Brussels regards as a fundamental threat to the rule of law.
“The race has begun”, the front page of Rzeczpospolita, one of Poland’s main newspapers, proclaimed on Monday. “This stormy political weekend in effect started possibly the longest and most exhausting election campaign since 1989.”
Since Tusk left Polish politics, Law and Justice has racked up victories in parliamentary, presidential and European elections. In the latest parliamentary vote in 2019, it scored the best result of any party in Poland since the fall of communism.
However, Tusk’s return comes as Law and Justice’s three-party ruling coalition is looking increasingly fragile. Over the past year, polls show its support has slumped nearly 10 percentage points to about 33 per cent, fuelled by controversies such as the tightening of Poland’s extremely strict abortion laws as well as a broader erosion of support for incumbents during the pandemic.
It has also been mired in infighting. Last month, three Law and Justice MPs left to form their own group, depriving the coalition of its wafer-thin parliamentary majority. It has since managed to claw back a majority of one. But the loosening of its grip on parliament has sparked talk of early elections, either this year or next.
Against this backdrop, Tusk’s return has sent a jolt of energy through the previously drifting Civic Platform. “I think [Tusk] felt that Law and Justice had become beatable but that what was lacking was a leading force on the opposition side that could do it. And I think he has a sporting chance of creating such a winning machine,” said Radoslaw Sikorski, an MEP who was foreign minister during Tusk’s premiership.
“The ruling party is now on the defensive and we are on the offensive again.”
But despite Law and Justice’s troubles, Tusk faces a huge challenge to revive Civic Platform, which under his leadership beat Law and Justice in elections in 2007 and 2011. In recent months, opinion polls have given it as little as 16 per cent support, barely half the level it had during the 2019 election.
Part of the reason is the emergence of Poland 2050, an upstart party founded by the media-friendly former TV presenter Szymon Holownia, which has been running second in recent polls. But Civic Platform has also suffered from a dearth of leadership and failed to develop policies to rival the popularity of the generous welfare programmes that have underpinned Law and Justice’s success.
Since his return on Saturday, Tusk has embarked on a withering critique of Law and Justice’s years in power. He has accused the party of being a “parody of a dictatorship” for its erosion of democratic checks and balances, and highlighted the international isolation caused by Warsaw’s frequent clashes with Brussels. But he has said little about policies, and observers say attacking Law and Justice alone is not a winning strategy.
“[Tusk] is a blistering critic of Law and Justice, which goes down really well with that hard core of the anti-Law and Justice electorate, which is why I think that in the short term Civic Platform will rally,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the UK’s University of Sussex.
“The problem is, you don’t win with those people. You win by reaching out beyond hardcore anti-Law and Justice voters.”
Analysts say the first reliable gauge of Tusk’s impact is likely to come this autumn. By then he will have had time to restamp his authority on his party, while Law and Justice will test its majority as it attempts to push through its new economic plan, the Polish Deal.
“Tusk’s return is a turning point — although it is not clear yet in which direction. Civic Platform has been in a lot of trouble,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist from the University of Warsaw.
“Tusk’s return gives the party a chance to bounce back. It will give it a boost in the polls — the question is for how long. If it lasts, it will be a turning point for the party. If it doesn’t last, it will also be a turning point, because it will mean the end of Civic Platform.”