What impact will Mr Tusk’s departure have on the Polish political scene?

The new political season began dramatically in Poland with the unexpected election at the end of August of the country’s prime minister Donald Tusk as the next President of the European Council. Mr Tusk’s appointment ushers in a new and extremely fluid period in Polish politics and could shake up the political scene very radically.

Civic Platform vindicated?

The appointment of Mr Tusk, who will replace the incumbent Herman Van Rompuy at the beginning of December, was not a total surprise and there had been some speculation earlier in the summer that he was a potential candidate for the post. However, during his seven years as Polish prime minister, Mr Tusk had always made it clear that his passion was national rather than EU politics. He also preferred to wield real power rather than occupy symbolic posts, turning down an opportunity in 2010 to run as the presidential candidate of Civic Platform (PO), the centrist main governing party of which he is the leader. Mr Tusk also stated on a number of occasions that he wanted to remain in Poland to lead Civic Platform into the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2015, and help it secure an unprecedented third term in office. The fact that Mr Tusk speaks poor English and no French also prompted fears among European leaders that he would be unable to forge consensus among them in contentious debates, one of the Council President’s most important roles, and communicate effectively on behalf of the EU to a wider audience.

On the other hand, Mr Tusk always enjoyed excellent relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously voiced her support for his presidential candidacy. He also received the unexpected backing of British prime minister David Cameron who signalled his readiness to support Mr Tusk a few days before the Brussels summit where the decision was taken, in spite of the fact that they had fallen out earlier this year over EU labour migration policy and alleged Polish benefit tourism to the UK. Mr Tusk may also have come to the conclusion that securing a third parliamentary election victory would be extremely difficult and that, even if he was then able to cobble together a coalition that kept Civic Platform in office, the prospect of heading up a greatly weakened government was not very appealing.

The EU Council presidency lacks extensive powers and is largely a prestigious and technical position. However, it does involve preparing the meetings of EU leaders at which key decisions are made and, in the event of disagreements, helping to broker deals and compromises. Mr Tusk’s appointment also has symbolic importance given that Poland has been one of the EU’s strongest advocates of sanctions against Russia over its involvement in the current Ukrainian crisis. Consequently, the Civic Platform-led government presented Mr Tusk’s election as a vindication of its broader strategy of adopting a positive and constructive approach towards Warsaw’s main EU allies and locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’. On the other hand, while congratulating Mr Tusk on his appointment, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, his predecessor as prime minister, which had always accused the government of failing to defend Polish interests robustly enough within the EU – argued that such symbolic triumphs were meaningless if they did not lead to concrete policy gains for Poland.

The ‘Tusk effect’

Since 2005, Polish politics has been dominated by the Civic Platform-Law and Justice duopoly and the increasingly bitter struggle between these two parties was personified by the acrimonious rivalry between their leaders. Mr Tusk’s imminent departure to Brussels thus represents the most fundamental change on the Polish political scene in the last decade and its short- and long-term consequences are likely to be radical and far-reaching.

In the short-term, Mr Tusk’s appointment creates a political opening that will give the ruling party an opportunity draw a line under its recent difficulties. Mr Tusk has been in office since 2007 and in 2011 become the first incumbent Polish prime minister since the collapse of communism in 1989 to secure re-election. However, Civic Platform has found its second term much more problematic and both the government and Mr Tusk slumped in the polls having faced an accumulation of problems. The most serious of these was the so-called ‘tape affair’, a political scandal that began in June when the weekly news magazine Wprost published transcripts of secret tape recordings of private meetings involving government ministers and other prominent public figures. The most controversial of these was a conversation between interior minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz and the head of the National Bank of Poland (NBP) Marek Belka where, in spite of the fact that the National Bank is required by the Polish constitution to be independent of the government, Mr Sienkiewicz called for Mr Belka’s help in stimulating the economy and financing the budget deficit. Mr Belka replied that his condition for helping the government was the replacement of the then finance minister Jacek Rostowski. Following the outbreak of the scandal, Law and Justice opened up an opinion poll lead of over 10%, although surveys conducted last month suggested that Civic Platform had recovered somewhat and Mr Kaczyński’s party was now only 5-8% ahead.

The opposition will no doubt attempt to portray Mr Tusk’s departure as ‘cutting and running’ ahead of an anticipated election defeat, but this message is likely to be overshadowed by the overwhelmingly positive publicity that his appointment will receive. It will be relatively easy for Civic Platform to present Mr Tusk’s election as a great success to a Polish public which is still overwhelmingly pro-EU and proud of the appointment of any Poles to senior European posts, however symbolic. Some commentators and Civic Platform politicians have (some would say, rather inappropriately) drawn an analogy between Mr Tusk’s nomination and the election of a Polish Pope in 1978.

Civic Platform is, therefore, likely to receive a short-term boost to its popularity from the ‘Tusk effect’ and, although this many not last for every long, will clearly try and derive maximum political benefit from it. In particular, the ruling party will be hoping that the ‘Tusk effect’ will be enough to carry it through to victory in the November local elections, a crucial test of party support which Civic Platform had been expecting to lose. Given that Mr Tusk does not take office until the start of December, he will be available to spearhead the party’s election efforts and the ruling party will no doubt attempt to make his appointment a centre-piece of its campaign. This is important because although Mr Tusk’s approval ratings have slumped since the last parliamentary election he is probably still the politician most capable of mobilising the party’s core supporters.

Can Civic Platform survive without Mr Tusk?

On the other hand, beneath the surface Civic Platform is a deeply divided and factionalised party and in the long (and possibly even medium)-term Mr Tusk’s departure could bring these underlying tensions to the fore. Firstly, the party has weak ideological underpinnings. Initially, Civic Platform attempted to profile itself as a modernising form of pro-market, right-wing liberalism focusing on economic issues and subsequently incorporating a moderate form of social conservatism. However, particularly since it took office in 2007, the party self-consciously adopted a deliberate strategy of diluting its ideological profile and projected itself as a somewhat amorphous modernising and pro-European moderate ‘catch-all’ party, what its critics have dubbed a ‘post-political party of power’. However, while this proved to be an extremely effective election-winning strategy it does not provide Civic Platform with a firm basis for more enduring, long-term organisational stability making the party vulnerable to implosion if it faces a serious internal crisis.

At the same time, although it encompassed a fairly broad spectrum of views the party’s most serious internal divisions do not necessarily map on to ideological differences. Rather, they are primarily personality-based, particularly between supporters of Mr Tusk and those of his former deputy – and, at one time, main rival for the party leadership – Grzegorz Schetyna, whom the prime minister has marginalised but who retains significant support among the party grassroots. Moreover, although there are indications that Civic Platform has built up a fairly solid and loyal electoral base, it is motivated mainly by the belief that Mr Tusk’s party is the most effective vehicle for keeping Law and Justice out of office. National and local elites, on the other hand, are bound to the party primarily by the access that it provides to state patronage. There was, therefore, always a danger that both Civic Platform’s electoral coalition and the cohesion of its party elite could come under serious strain in the event of an election defeat (or even the prospect of one). Consequently, given Mr Tusk’s key role in providing the party with electoral impetus, his departure could easily unleash centrifugal forces leading to its eventual implosion.

At the time of writing, the favourite to take over from Mr Tusk as prime minister appears to be Ewa Kopacz, the speaker of the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. As Mr Tusk’s deputy, Mrs Kopacz will also take over as acting Civic Platform party leader until a new one is elected Although she was health minister between 2007-11, Mrs Kopacz remains relatively unknown to most voters, which provides party strategists with an opportunity to ‘re-invent’ her ahead of the elections. However, the fact that she is unswervingly loyal to Mr Tusk could prompt accusations that Mrs Kopacz will be a ‘figurehead’ prime minister while the outgoing premier pulls the strings from Brussels. She is also a controversial figure within the party, disliked strongly by Mr Schetyna’s supporters. Even the smoothest government handover process involves some element of political de-stabilisation but if Mr Schetyna uses the ensuing party leadership contest as an opportunity to re-launch his political career then this could lead to a very bitter struggle between with Mrs Kopacz.

However, all of Mr Tusk’s potential replacements lack his charisma, strategic foresight and instinctive ability to judge the mood of the Polish electorate. For all his government’s recent difficulties, Mr Tusk remains the party’s single greatest electoral asset and certainly its most effective campaigner who, in critical situations such as the outbreak of the ‘tape affair’, was able to defuse even the worst crisis. Part of the problem here was that, in trying to prevent any potential rivals from emerging, Mr Tusk ruthlessly marginalised and eliminated any party figures that he considered a threat to his authority, so that he now lacks a strong natural successor. Mr Tusk also pursued a highly personalised style of government, preferring to appoint and promote ministers with no independent political standing and who were completely dependent upon him for their survival.

An early election?

Given that the ‘Tusk effect’ is likely to be short-lived and Civic Platform’s problems will come to the fore in the medium- to long-term, the party will need to derive maximum benefit from it as quickly as possible. Consequently, it may be tempted to call an early parliamentary election, possibly to coincide with next summer’s presidential poll (where it would hope to cash in on the popularity of Civic Platform-backed incumbent Bronisław Komorowski) or even the November local elections; although party leaders appear to have ruled this option out for the moment. An early test of the public’s reaction to Mr Tusk’s appointment will come in three Senate by-elections scheduled for September 7th. Law and Justice is defending all three seats but one of them, the marginal Rybnik constituency in Silesia, was an important by-election gain from Civic Platform last year. Either way, the pace of events in Polish politics is likely to pick up very rapidly over the next few weeks as the full impact of the political earthquake set off by Mr Tusk’s departure becomes clearer.