Thoughts of a Polish comeback

A few weeks ago I referred to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Union, as “a consistent voice of sanity” on Brexit. He has continued in the same form, with a tweet last week following talks with the Irish prime minister:

I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted #Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.

The Brexiters, unsurprisingly, were appalled, and for a couple of days it was a huge topic in the British media. But a tweet from earlier in the week was probably of more lasting importance. It was on his personal account, so it’s in Polish, but here’s Politico’s translation:

Lies organized by the authorities with the use of public funds are a terrible and dangerous form of violence, of which we are all victims.

What Tusk is doing is buying into the controversy over the role of Poland’s state-owned television network, TVP, which is accused of being a mouthpiece for the right-wing government of the Law & Justice party. Specifically, its record of stirring up hatred against the government’s enemies is blamed for the assassination of the opposition mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, a month ago.

Tusk, of course, is not just an EU official. Before taking his current post he was prime minister of Poland, becoming in 2011 the first leader of democratic Poland to win re-election. But he left for Brussels in 2014, and without him his party, the centrist Civic Platform, was defeated the following year by its right-wing rival, Law & Justice.

Since then, the government – nominally led by prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, but under the control of the Law & Justice leader, Jarosław Kaczyński – has become notorious for its authoritarian sympathies, attacking the independence of the judiciary and demonising immigrants and the EU. It’s no surprise that Kaczyński is something of a favorite of Donald Trump’s.

But with elections due in October-November this year, Law & Justice’s re-election is by no means assured. Its current majority is largely due to a quirk of the electoral system (it won 235 of the 460 seats with just 37.6% of the vote), and although it has led in the opinion polls throughout its term, its support has usually been below 40%.

Law & Justice’s hardline conservatism is deeply unpopular with young Poles, who are more socially liberal and pro-European. Local elections last year saw major gains for the opposition in Poland’s cities.

So it’s vital that the government’s opponents put up a united front. In addition to Civic Platform, they include the rural-based Polish People’s Party, the populist Kukiz’15, the centre-left Democratic Left Alliance, the liberal Modern, and a new centre-left party, Spring, led by a popular former mayor, Robert Biedroń.

Getting them all to work together will be a big task. Tusk will not be there to do it in person; his term in Brussels runs until the end of November. But he is clearly signalling his continued interest in domestic politics, and as the most successful Polish leader of recent times his influence, even at a distance, is likely to be considerable.

Following the parliamentary elections, there will be a presidential election in the middle of next year, and it’s widely expected that Tusk will be a candidate.

The Australian equivalent would be for a governor-general, at the expiry of their term, re-entering state politics – an unlikely occurrence. But the Poles would no doubt object to being compared to an Australian state, and Tusk clearly sees his current position as more than just ceremonial.

Much of the commentary on the “illiberal” or “populist” bloc in east-central Europe puts Poland and Hungary on a par, but the differences are significant. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, is well entrenched, but Kaczyński’s grip on Poland is much more tenuous.

And with an economy about four times the size of Hungary’s, what happens in Poland is likely to have much greater repercussions across the continent.

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