It was the young Donald Tusk’s habit, after watching or playing a game of football with friends, to make two toasts at the Pod Kasztanami bar in Gdańsk: the first to the fortunes of his club, Lechia Gdańsk, and the second to the “end of komunizm” in Poland.
Tusk, now 66, is unlikely to make the annual game of football that his close circle has been playing for the last 40 years, always at noon on New Year’s Eve. But at the final whistle there is likely to be a tentative third toast offered – to Tusk’s return as prime minister and the end of Poland’s disastrous flirtation with a populism that has ploughed deep divisions in society, undermined democratic institutions and driven a wedge between Warsaw and the EU.
Tusk’s return after eight years of rule by the Law & Justice party (PiS) will be a moment of satisfaction for those raising a glass of vodka in Gdańsk; many of those playing have supported him since his time as a student organiser working with the anti-communist Solidarity movement that emerged from strikes at the local shipyards. But they will also recognise that Tusk’s second coming is far from guaranteed to succeed; communism did fall in Poland, but the performance of Lechia Gdańsk never did match the passion of its fans.
Donald Tusk (second from left) in Norway in 1988. Photograph: Jaśko Pawłowski
On Tuesday, a day after parliament voted in favour of making him prime minister, Tusk will present his government, an ungainly coalition of his Civic Coalition group with the agrarian conservative Third Way party and the New Left. He could take office as soon as Wednesday. “We’ll fix everything together,” Tusk told parliament. “From tomorrow, we will be able to right the wrongs so that everyone, without exception, can feel at home.”
Although he will once again gain access to Willa Parkowa, a handsome whitewashed official residence a few hundred yards from the chancellery in Warsaw, his friends say they expect him to spend as much time as possible in his family’s modest ground-floor apartment in Sopot, a prosperous city on Poland’s Baltic coast, just north of the larger Gdańsk.
Ewa Chrzan, a neighbour of the Tusks, in front of the building where they live. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian
Described ungenerously as “dingy” by one local newspaper, it is where Tusk and his wife, Małgorzata, also 66, brought up their children, Michał and Katarzyna, now 41 and 36. The last time her husband was prime minister, from 2007 until 2014, Małgorzata, a retired university librarian, stayed put in Sopot.
Tusk’s two terms in office were marked by the introduction of free market policies, which, his supporters say, though hard on some, controlled public debt in the wake of the global economic crash and delivered record growth for the country. Almost every weekend he would return to Sopot, not least to join his friends for football training on Sundays, even in the fiercest Baltic winters.
“He would never pass,” recalled one, “but, like in politics, knew where the ball would land to score.”
Such attachment to the familiar is understandable given the stresses and strains that Warsaw will soon no doubt come to represent after a poisonous election campaign, during which PiS relentlessly attacked the former European Council president, calling him variously a traitor, a German spy and a Brussels stooge.
Friends suggest Tusk’s attachment to Sopot offers a telling insight into how he has fought his way back to the top of Polish politics after being nowhere in the polls just two years ago. And, perhaps more importantly, why.
Donald Tusk playing football in the snow. Photograph: Andrzej Kowalczys
“He is a Kashubian,” said Jacek Karnowski, 60, a newly elected MP for Civic Platform, part of Civic Coalition, who served for 25 years as mayor of Tusk’s home city, with reference to the west Slavic ethnic minority of 300,000 people that originates from north-east Poland. “This is a kind of people who are very tough in action,” he said. “They are stubborn, they take a long-term view, and tradition is very important to them.”
When Karnowski was indicted in 2009 on corruption charges, of which he was acquitted in 2015, Tusk publicly urged his old ally to leave the party. Karnowski admits he was very angry at the time, although Małgorzata privately offered support. “It was against Tusk also – both against me and against him,” he said of his reasons for forgiving Tusk. “And I am more than sure that we have the same enemy, the same person who tried to destroy Polish democracy.”
That mutual foe is Jarosław Kaczyński, 74, the chair of PiS, who in reality has been leading the country of 38 million people for the last eight years, during which the future of Poland’s democracy has come into question for the first time since the fall of the Polish People’s Republic in 1989.
A mural on a building depicting the Gdańsk shipyard and Lechia Gdańsk. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian
Poland’s economy has come a long way since the country joined the EU in 2004. Its GDP per capita is on track to pass that of the UK by 2030, but with change comes anxiety, and PiS answered it with restrictions on abortion rights, the demonisation of LGBTQ+ people and tirades against migrants and refugees. Brussels has frozen tens of billions of euros in funding over the politicisation of the Polish judiciary, while the metamorphosis of the public television channel TVP into a propaganda wing for PiS is perhaps the most visible change to outsiders.
Tusk, whose maternal grandmother’s German nationality is regularly raised by the channel at a time when the neighbouring country is held in low public regard, has had a mark resembling a gun sight put on his chest in news programmes. A 43-year-old man was convicted last month of making death threats against Tusk after hearing on public television that Tusk would abolish social benefits. Kaczyński has described Tusk as “a traitor who must be morally exterminated”. Even Sopot cannot be said to be a safe harbour.
Włodek Kubiak, 80, who lives near Tusk, claimed that the new prime minister was “spitting on the church” with his plans to liberalise abortion laws. “When Tusk was walking here on the estate with his grandson, I crossed the street,” he said. Such bitterness is widespread. At the election, on a record 74.4% turnout, PiS won 35.4% of the vote and 194 seats in the 460-member Sejm, compared with Tusk’s Civic Coalition’s 30.7% of the vote and 157 seats. Tusk, the goalhanger, was politically in the right place to find coalition partners.
Andrzej Kowalczys has known Tusk since he was 15. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian
Andrzej Kowalczys, 64, has known Tusk since he was 15. He knows what drives him. Their world in the 70s and 80s was “football and politics” and it is little different today, he suggests. Tusk, between writing political tracts eulogising free-market thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, would be among those throwing stones at the police when they were young. But he stood out for his moral bravery among the 100 or so young Solidarity organisers, including Kaczyński’s brother, Lech, who moved to Sopot in 1971, Kowalczys said. “There were a lot of ‘jokes’ about Jews, but he told people to shut up, that it was not right to divide people,” he said. “That took courage.”
Mixed with courage is “monstrous stubbornness”, said Jaśko Pawłowski, 64, who has been friends with Tusk since 1982, when Poland’s Moscow-controlled government, under Gen Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law in response to the Solidarity movement. “I had a small flat where they produced underground papers,” he said of Tusk, who joined him and his wife in renovating a school in Norway in the summer of 1988. “I said: ‘The police are beating people with batons and you are publishing stuff about free markets? What the hell?’” he recalled. “Tusk said: ‘One day there will be a change and society should be ready for these ideas.’”
Jerzy Borowczak, 66, was one of four workers who initiated the first strike in 1980 at the Lenin shipyard, an important milestone in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. Speaking within sight of Gdańsk’s towering port cranes, he recalled Tusk being dazzled by the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher at a 1988 meeting with Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałęsa, in Gdansk. “Thatcher is his leader,” he said. “It must be difficult for him to talk to the left leaders in the coalition.”
Gdańsk’s port cranes. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian
That might be true of a less pragmatic politician, suggested Adam Jasser, who worked in Tusk’s office as a policy adviser from 2010 to 2014. But a series of spending commitments have been made, including a 30% wage rise for teachers, some of which have upset Tusk’s one-time mentor Leszek Balcerowicz, a hawkish former finance minister, who worries that his protege has become a “typical politician”.
The challenge this time, Jasser said, would be to deliver governance reform in the face of a hostile president, Andrzej Duda, who has a legislative veto over major changes and is aligned with PiS. Jarosław Kuisz, the author of The New Politics of Poland, said such was the state capture by PiS that it was akin to sappers having laid mines throughout the institutions, from politically appointed judges to the stuffing of state-owned enterprises with PiS acolytes. “It is perhaps the most challenging moment in his political career,” Kuisz said.
A major quandary is how to unravel alleged corruption without further poisoning the political sphere by appearing vengeful. “You will need radical measures to restore proper governance, but if you apply some of these radical measures, then immediately [Tusk] will face accusations that he is using the same methods as his predecessor,” Jasser said. The governor of the National Bank of Poland, Adam Glapiński, has been talking up his independence amid suggestions that he will be sacked over claims that he made monetary decisions to aid PiS electorally.
There will be easy wins. In Germany and France, there is talk of a new “Weimar three”, a concept that with Poland, those countries will jointly drive EU policy. Tusk was regarded as an effective European Council president, the job he took in Brussels after leaving government. He called out Donald Trump early. An aide to Michel Barnier, Georg Riekeles, recalled Tusk’s “perennial optimism” about the possibility of avoiding Brexit, although it irritated some EU countries, who just wanted those negotiations over with.
Such optimism is much needed today, said Ewa Chrzan, 67, a family friend, as she walked her Irish terrier past Tusk’s family home. “I don’t know how many people wanted him back,” she said. “But the situation in Poland is terrible. I lived under communism and it was easier, there was not hate. There was fear, maybe, but not hate.”