By Daniel Tilles
Old foes Kaczyński and Tusk are relishing their first election battle in nine years. But their bitter rivalry is unlikely to help either the ruling party or opposition win power, and may instead further feed the recent rise of the far right.
“Donald Tusk is the personification of evil in Poland, pure evil,” declared Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, this week.
“Tusk is the greatest threat to Poland’s security,” said PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki a day earlier, adding that the leader of the opposition Civic Platform (PO) party is “an envoy of the Brussels elite”.
“Let’s send Tusk back where he came from,” Morawiecki told voters last week. Tusk is from Poland, but spent five years in Brussels as president of the European Council.
Donald Tusk is “the personification of pure evil” and opposition “traitors must be morally exterminated”, says ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński.
The only way to stop Tusk „implementing Brussels’ plan” in Poland is to vote for PiS, he warned https://t.co/CT5ThYWxdv
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 14, 2023
Such rhetoric is not unusual in Polish politics. Tusk himself, when he returned to domestic politics in 2021, declared that his aim was to “fight the evil PiS”. He accused the ruling party of “implementing the Russian agenda 100%”.
However, in recent weeks it has become apparent from both the quantity and nature of PiS’s attacks on Tusk that they are making this the centrepiece of their campaign for October’s parliamentary elections.
Between last Friday and Monday this week, for example, the ruling party unveiled, day by day, four questions that it wants to ask the public to decide on in a referendum that is likely to take place simultaneously with the elections.
Poland’s ruling party has now unveiled all four questions it wants to include in a referendum, including asking Poles if they „support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa…imposed by the European bureaucracy” https://t.co/sWDMhjIqpF
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 14, 2023
While the referendum idea, when first announced in June by Kaczyński, was initially focused on asking Poles to reject the EU’s planned new migration pact, the four proposed questions are on a range of topics:
1. Do you support the sale of state enterprises? (Today, PiS updated the wording of this question to add at the end: “…to foreign entities, leading to the loss of control by Poles over strategic sectors of the economy”.)
2. Are you in favour of raising the retirement age [that is] currently 60 for women and 65 for men? (Today, PiS also changed this question to now read: “Do you support raising the retirement age, including restoring the increased retirement age to 67 for women and men?”)
3. Do you support the reception of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?
4. Do you support removing the barrier on Poland’s border with Belarus?
As genuine referendum questions, none of these make much sense. The first is far too general. No major party is proposing raising the retirement age or removing the newly built border wall with Belarus, rendering the second and fourth moot.
The EU’s migration pact has already been approved by member states, meaning the Polish government no longer has any direct say on the matter. Moreover, the pact does not require any country to receive migrants, allowing them to offer other forms of “solidarity” instead. And, as a country that received millions of Ukrainian refugees, Poland is likely to benefit from the system.
The aim of the referendum is, therefore, purely political. Above all, it is designed to encourage Poles to reject what PiS presents as the Tusk agenda: undermining Poland’s security, sovereignty and prosperity at the behest of his foreign masters.
An opposition victory at this year’s elections „can mean only one thing: the end of Poland”, warns Jarosław Kaczyński.
He says foreign, and especially German, forces are seeking to hinder Poland’s development with the help of Polish collaborators https://t.co/Zm8ub0KfxN
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 27, 2023
In all four of the videos PiS published to unveil its questions, Tusk features prominently. In the first, Kaczyński declared that “the Germans want to install Tusk in Poland in order to sell off our common property”.
In the second, the very first word spoken is “Tusk”, with PiS deputy leader Beata Szydło noting that it was the former PO government he led that raised the retirement ages. PiS subsequently lowered them to the current 60 and 65.
In the third, Morawiecki noted Tusk’s support for a previous EU plan to require Poland to receive relocated asylum seekers. Pointing to the “rapes, murders, arson and destruction” caused by migrants in western Europe, it was here that Morawiecki described Tusk as the “greatest threat to Poland’s security”.
In the fourth, PiS defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak accused “Tusk and his team” of abolishing military units in eastern Poland and of opposing building the wall on the Belarus border, thereby leaving Poland more vulnerable to Russian aggression.
Jarosław Kaczyński has accused the opposition and its supportive media of acting like Russia.
„Whenever Poland’s interests are at stake, Tusk is against [them],” he said, criticising the opposition leader for „standing on the side of evil” https://t.co/MYbwYLRp3H
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 13, 2022
Tusk, a seasoned politician and campaigner, relishes such attention. He regularly offers acerbic responses on social media to the latest PiS attacks. He has also sought to neutralise the ruling party’s arguments by turning them back on PiS.
The PO leader has noted that under PiS there has been an unprecedented wave of migration to Poland, including of many people from Muslim-majority countries.
In response to the unveiling of PiS’s first referendum question, Tusk simply tweeted an image of a laughing Daniel Obajtek, the head of state energy giant Orlen and close PiS ally, who last year oversaw the sale of major state-owned oil assets to Saudi and Hungarian buyers.
Prezes Obajtek przeczytał właśnie pierwsze pytanie referendum. pic.twitter.com/Krew177k2z
— Donald Tusk (@donaldtusk) August 11, 2023
While Tusk no doubt personally enjoys sparring with his old rival Kaczyński, he also knows that, the more PiS focuses its attacks on him, the more it helps create the impression that the PO chairman is the only true leader of the opposition.
Achieving that status has long been Tusk’s aim. After returning to domestic politics, he sought to create a single united opposition coalition ranging from left to centre-right – but under his and PO’s leadership, of course.
Those efforts failed, with other opposition parties choosing to stand in left-wing and centre-right blocs separate from the centrist PO-led Civic Coalition (KO). However, Tusk has managed in recent weeks to successfully sideline those rival groups, whose polling numbers have stagnated while PO’s have risen.
Again, he has been helped in this aim by PiS. The ruling party’s creation of a controversial commission to investigate past Russian influence in Poland has been widely dubbed “Lex Tusk”, as it seems to be aimed in particular at the former prime minister.
The passing of that law helped boost attendance at a PO-led opposition protest in Warsaw in June, where hundreds of thousands turned out. Tusk addressed the crowd from a stage while other opposition leaders – who had reluctantly decided to attend at the last minute – were sidelined.
Hundreds of thousands of people have joined protests around Poland today against the ruling PiS party.
„We are here today so the whole world can see how strong we are and how many of us are ready to fight for democracy and a free Poland,” said @donaldtusk https://t.co/kzYIuOmPZ4
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 4, 2023
Yet while all this has helped PiS and PO consolidate their positions as the two most popular parties, it does not necessarily help either to win October’s elections.
PiS’s polling figures have remained stable at around 34% since the start of this year – enough to win the election but almost certainly not enough retain the parliamentary majority that has allowed it to govern for the last eight years.
While PO has risen in the polls to around 29%, that has largely come at the expense of the other mainstream opposition parties it would need to form a coalition with if it wished to replace PiS in government. Tusk’s personal success therefore does not necessarily bring him any closer to power.
The biggest beneficiary over the last few months, meanwhile, has been the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) party, which has risen from around 6% support at the start of the year to over 12% now. On current polling, neither PiS nor the mainstream opposition look likely to be able to form a majority unless they ally with the far right.
The far-right Confederation is now running third in the polls with double-digit support.
That raises the likelihood of it holding the balance of power after this year’s elections and has led to renewed scrutiny of the views of its young new leader https://t.co/jrC2mmxENi
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 2, 2023
Part of Confederation’s success has been down to its shift away from nationalist rhetoric and towards a focus on its economic libertarianism, where it has carved out a niche that differentiates it from other parties and attracts young Poles in particular.
But it has also no doubt also benefited from the campaign increasingly turning into a personal duel between Tusk and Kaczyński, two men who – aged 66 and 74 respectively – represent the generation of politicians that has dominated post-1989 Polish politics.
Confederation’s young leader, 36-year-old Sławomir Mentzen, has repeatedly outlined his aim to “send Kaczyński and Tusk into retirement”, a message that resonates with many young Poles.
One third of young Poles plan to vote for the far right at this year’s election, more than for any other political group, a study of voters aged 18-21 shows.
It also found that 80% say they are „frustrated with the current political situation in Poland” https://t.co/azU0sQwXbD
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 25, 2023
Moreover, his party has presented itself, with some justification, as the only true alternative to PiS and PO for young voters who feel, again with some justification, that neither of the two main parties represents their interests.
The centrist Poland 2050 (Polska 2050), founded by former TV present Szymon Hołownia after his strong run for the presidency in 2020, also sought to offer an alternative to the old PiS-PO duopoly.
But its narrative of offering a new type of politics has been undermined by Hołownia’s recent decision to form an alliance with the Polish People’s Party (PSL), the oldest force on the political scene and a junior coalition partner in various post-1989 governments, including the PO-led one from 2007-15.
Voters also know that both the Poland 2050-PSL alliance – know as the Third Way – and The Left, the other main opposition bloc, could only enter government after the elections if they went into coalition with PO – meaning a vote for them would effectively be a vote for Tusk becoming prime minister.
The Third Way, an alliance of centrist opposition parties PSL and Poland 2050, is struggling.
Despite its name, the group has struggled to present itself as a genuine alternative to the main opposition or the ruling party, writes Krzysztof Mularczyk https://t.co/fZNmcqlKsH
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 24, 2023
Confederation, by contrast, has condemned PiS and PO equally. It has at various stages either ruled out forming a coalition with either or hinted that it could ally with whichever promised to implement its economic programme.
Yet for their part, both PiS and PO have been adamant that they do not want an alliance with the far right. If that became a necessity after the elections, it would be problematic for both of them.
PiS is more compatible with Confederation on relations with the EU and culture-war issues such as abortion and the role of religion in public life. However, the ruling party’s generous social handouts and statist economic policies are anathema to the nationalist libertarians.
Poland’s ruling PiS party has announced a rise in its flagship child benefit scheme from 500 to 800 zloty per month as it campaigns for a third term.
It has also pledged free medicine for children and seniors and the end of tolls for using motorways https://t.co/S2Iek3tYHF
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 14, 2023
PO, despite recently seeking to outbid PiS on social benefits and other forms of state support, would find it easier to come to an accommodation with the far right on economic policy.
But it would struggle to do so on EU and cultural issues. Moreover, it is hard to imagine PO leading a coalition government that included both The Left and Confederation, as could be necessary to secure a majority.
It appears, therefore, that by seeking to make this year’s elections a choice between Tusk and Kaczyński, PiS and PO may have consolidated their position as the dominant two parties but also made it harder for either of them to govern.
As the Polish saying goes: gdzie dwóch się bije, tam trzeci korzysta – where two fight, the third benefits.
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Main image credit: Tomasz Stanczak / Agencja Wyborcza.pl
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, EUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.