REPORTS
ANALYTICS
INVESTIGATIONS
  • USD92.51
  • EUR98.91
  • OIL88.23
DONATEРусский
  • 285
OPINION

Ready, set, Tusk: Poland's new government set to reboot the country's political system

The leadership of Poland's state-owned media—public television, radio, and the PAP news agency—has been dismissed. The new government explicitly stated that these media outlets had become propaganda in the service of the Law and Justice party, which ruled the country before the elections. Now, under the new Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the coalition promises to establish new media. And this marks just the beginning of the extensive changes announced by the authorities.

RU

For eight years and two months, Poland awaited a new, non-conservative, pro-European government. And here is the joy of victory. But alas, in every barrel of honey there is a spoonful of tar.

Donald Tusk, at 66, is taking on the role of prime minister for the third time. Energetically embracing his duties, shortly after taking the oath, he hurried to Brussels, where he feels at home. There, he negotiated the unfreezing of 5 billion euros, which the EU had blocked due to anti-democratic processes in Poland. At the forum, he voiced support for Ukraine, casually dismissing an ambassador and announcing the resignation of all agency heads.

Tusk's entourage is accustomed to such a pace, as his favorite saying when communicating with colleagues goes, “Go, go, don't go slow!”

The quick visit to Brussels served as a mere prologue. Concurrently, transformations unfolded in voivodeships. Audits were initiated in ministries, laying the groundwork for amendments to budget legislation. Efforts were set in motion for the reorganization of state-owned companies, while initial strides were made toward reforming state media, the judiciary, and the prosecution system. The list could go on. A comprehensive process to restore order following eight years of governance by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has been initiated.

A comprehensive process to restore order following eight years of governance by the conservative Law and Justice party has been initiated

To comprehend the events of today, one must momentarily revisit the parliamentary elections of October 15, 2023. What transpired on that day was unprecedented for Poland. The voter turnout reached nearly 75%, an absolute record. Citizens eager to cast their votes stood in colossal lines outside polling stations, with some enduring waits until three in the morning. These were not just another set of mundane elections; it was a plebiscite that determined the path Poland should take. Fear and fatigue were the decisive factors.

Conservatives were apprehensive that godless individuals, perceived as enemies of the church, and radical proponents of the LGBTQ+ community, harboring desires to relocate Poland's capital to Brussels or Berlin, would come to power.

The progressive audience believed that the next four years under PiS rule would entail persecution of the LGBTQ+ community, a further tightening of already draconian anti-abortion measures, continued politicization of the judicial system, Poland's marginalization on the international stage, and ultimately, Poland's exit from the EU.

The ruling party unabashedly utilized state media and state-owned companies for pre-election propaganda. Police helicopters were at the disposal of politicians during pre-election meetings. Conferences took place against the backdrop of military equipment, hinting at a breach of the unwritten rule that mandates the separation of the military from politics. Emotions ran high. Many opponents of PiS seriously believed that these elections could be the country's last free ones.

Many opponents of PiS seriously believed that these elections could be the country's last free ones

I discussed this with a friend who, along with his partner, participated in the majority of opposition rallies:

“Were these eight years tough for same-sex couples?”

“Yes, it felt like living one day at a time. I only felt that way during a state of war.”

“What did you feel after the election results were announced?”

““I couldn't believe what I was seeing.”

“No sense of relief or joy?”

“No, not at all! I didn't believe PiS would willingly give up power until the new government took the oath. I was convinced they would come up with something.”

The president's decision to give the outgoing government an additional two months somewhat fueled concerns. The president entrusted the task of forming the cabinet to the former prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki from PiS. Of course, he had the constitutional right to do so, especially since formally, PiS won the elections (35%, 7.6 million votes, and 194 seats in the Sejm).

However, it was evident that Morawiecki wouldn't be able to form a government. For this, he needed the support of at least 231 out of 460 deputies, and no party was willing to form a coalition with him.

On the other hand, Tusk had the majority. His party, Civic Platform, and two allied coalitions — The Third Way and the New Left — supported him. In the end, the Coalition of Three received a total of 11.5 million votes and 248 seats in the Sejm.

The Coalition of Three received a total of 11.5 million votes and 248 seats in the Sejm

The Confederation, a mix of nationalists, ultra-liberals, and radical Catholic activists, secured an additional 18 seats in the Sejm but remained incapable of forming any coalition.

However, Morawiecki's mission seemed insurmountable only at first glance. The authorities bought themselves time to quietly exit the stage. In the words of political rivals, they aimed to wipe hard drives clean, distribute the last of the state funds to their supporters, and try to shield their allies wherever possible.

After eight years in power, the Law and Justice party controls key institutions, including the State Tribunal, the Constitutional Court, the National Bank of Poland, the TVP channel, Polish Radio, and the largest oil company, Orlen. The last two months have seen changes in company bylaws, appointments of loyalists, and legal actions to make any transition as difficult as possible. Thus, it's hard to speak of a smooth power shift. In some regions, the struggle for power will be an incremental, hard-fought process. However, the supremacy of the law must be remembered, ensuring that the principles being fought for don't perish in the heat of battle.

It's hard to speak of a smooth power shift. In some regions, the struggle for power will be an incremental, hard-fought process

The pause the president had to declare turned out to be advantageous for Donald Tusk. It provided him with enough time to reach agreements on personnel matters and spared the public from being embroiled in immoral disputes over positions.

In a bold move, innovative solutions were applied: both the leader of the Third Way and the head of the New Left vied for the position of Sejm Speaker; they managed, however, to agree on a rotation that is set to occur in two years. Tusk appointed two deputies from coalition factions. The government comprises 26 ministers: 12 from the Civic Platform, 8 from the Third Way, 4 from the left, and 3 non-affiliated.

The Civic Platform, among other things, oversees finances, internal affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, intelligence agencies, the Ministry of European Union Affairs, and education. Defense, infrastructure, and social issues are delegated to coalition partners.

The two most controversial appointments are Bartłomiej Senkevich (Ministry of Culture) and Radosław Sikorski (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Both cannot be denied intelligence and political experience, but they represent the old Platform with all the baggage of the past. Senkevich, a former secret service officer, was the Minister of Internal Affairs in Tusk's previous government. And this is an awkward situation: there exist a lot of compromising tapes recorded on many of the ministers from that cabinet during their dinners at restaurants. The tapes were later leaked, contributing to the defeat of the Civic Platform in the previous elections. Senkevich not only failed to prevent it but also became a figure in the so-called tape scandal. His expression describing the state of the country, “Disaster and f**kery,” became particularly popular. Sikorski, the other figure in the recordings, was the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at that time. Among other things, listeners learned that the head of diplomacy curses like a cobbler and prefers to pay for lavish dinners with his official bank card.

During the formation of the government, Tusk had the freedom to do much. Today, he is undoubtedly the most powerful figure on the stage. It's fair to acknowledge that it was he who won the elections, despite many experts doubting his chances, considering his significant negative electorate, the power of pro-government propaganda directed personally against Tusk, and the nature of the Civic Platform party. Coalition partners were reluctant to agree on a joint electoral list, even though it would have increased their chances of victory.

It's fair to acknowledge that it was he who won the elections, despite many experts doubting his chances

In the past few months, Tusk has tirelessly traveled across Poland, engaging with thousands of people, orchestrating large-scale demonstrations in Warsaw. He achieved his victory through herculean efforts.

Tusk has substantial experience, starting as an opposition figure in communist Poland. Today, he is a three-time prime minister, former head of the Council of Europe, and former head of the European People's Party, the largest faction in the European Parliament. He is an enthusiast of fine wines, baroque music, and history.

His particular fascination lies in the history of Roman triumvirates, characterized by bloody and ruthless battles. Apparently, he perceives politics in a similar vein. To understand this, one should look at another passion of Tusk—football. He not only cheers but actively plays as a forward with close friends. All key passes are directed to him, making him the primary goal-scorer. He leads the team ruthlessly and brooks no objections. “To fight and win—that's what matters. If you step onto the field not to win, then don't bother people. Go for a run,” he declared in one of his interviews.

The first directive Tusk gave to his ministers was to conduct audits of their respective ministries to assess what state of affairs they inherited from their predecessors. For instance, the new head of the Prime Minister's Office discovered a shortfall of 3 million zlotys in his budget for staff salaries. “These funds simply don't exist,” he complained at a press conference. In the context of state expenditures, this situation may seem laughable, but one should expect other, much more unpleasant surprises.

The new head of the Prime Minister's Office discovered a shortfall of 3 million zlotys in his budget for staff salaries

The year will end with a deficit of 92 billion zlotys (compared to less than 13 billion in 2022). A record deficit of 162 billion zlotys is planned for 2024, though it appears to be much higher in reality. The Independent Institute of Public Finance estimates that some of the budgeted expenditures have been concealed in off-budget funds, resulting in an actual gap of 277 billion.

The European Commission is threatening Poland with the so-called deficit-exceeding procedure. This implies the need to either cut expenses or raise taxes, and either option is unfavorable for the voters.

Tusk is well aware of this. He is a liberal, but a seasoned one. He distinctly remembers that the support for his previous cabinet significantly declined after the decision to increase the retirement age. Economically, it was a sound move; politically, it was self-sabotage. That's why almost every day throughout the entire pre-election campaign, he reiterated, “No one is going to take anything away.” This means he has no intention of forsaking any of the social programs introduced by his predecessors and even aims to expand them significantly.

Tusk has no intention of forsaking any of the social programs introduced by his predecessors

Starting from January 1st, a 20% salary increase for all public sector employees and a 30% raise for teachers will come into effect (estimated cost - 26–30 billion zlotys). Support for mothers wishing to return to work after childbirth (costing 4 billion zlotys). Child benefits will be raised from 500 to 800 zlotys per child (70 billion). Voters quickly grow weary of what they have and await new bonuses. Politicians are well aware of this, and a whirlwind of promises has swept across Poland.

Tusk faces a challenging task. The president from the opposing camp has the right to veto, meaning he can block any legislative proposal. Overcoming the president's objections requires a 3/5 majority vote (276 deputies), which is more than the government coalition commands. The opposition will consist of the adversarial Law and Justice party and the unpredictable Confederation.

The government coalition itself is quite exotic. It includes the Civic Platform, once a liberal and now a centrist ruling party. To the right of it is the Third Way, a coalition of the Polish Peasants' Party (the oldest in Poland) and the young movement of Szymon Hołownia, a journalist and TV personality. On the left are the New Left, a coalition of post-communists, greens, and urban activists. Their common goals are largely confined to one slogan: remove PiS from power, restore normal life, and uphold the rule of law.

The common goals are largely confined to one slogan: remove PiS from power, restore normal life, and uphold the rule of law

Reaching an agreement on the details won't be easy. One of the contentious points will be the liberalization of abortion laws. The left advocate for extensive changes, citing the successful overthrow of PiS thanks to the massive protests by women. The Third Way treads cautiously, fearing it might upset its Catholic electorate.

The list of contentions is much longer: it includes the legalization of same-sex marriages and the retention of low-interest housing loans for youth.

The same can be said about relations with Ukraine. Relations with Kyiv have soured significantly. Just two years ago, they could be considered exemplary—mainly due to the generosity of Polish citizens who welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn Ukraine. Poland supplied weapons and urged allies to do the same. Presidents Duda and Zelensky regularly met, reassuring each other of their friendship.

Today, a cooling-off is evident. Poland imposes an embargo on grain shipments from Ukraine. Freight carriers and owners of transport companies block border crossings. Sugar producers are gearing up to protest.

Presidents Duda and Zelensky regularly met, reassuring each other of their friendship. Today, a cooling-off is evident

For Ukrainian politicians, Poland has become a logistical hub on the path to the West, as well as a warehouse through which weapons destined for the front pass. Tusk aims to change this dynamic, to restore normalcy, fully aware of the challenges ahead. While Ukraine's closer ties with the EU are strategically advantageous for Poland, they pose additional obstacles for farmers, food producers, and the transportation sector. Addressing the interests of these groups falls within the purview of the Third Way; this is its electorate.

That's precisely why Tusk spoke in the Sejm about the commitment to aid Ukraine while emphasizing that it does not exclude safeguarding the interests of his own country.

In his post-election speech, Tusk navigated a delicate balance between two extremes. On one hand, he declared that the elections were a “triumph over the evil” that had spread during the rule of PiS. This was a signal to those who believe that PiS should be rigorously held accountable. On the other hand, his goal is societal reconciliation. Therefore, it is essential to remember the 7.6 million citizens who voted for Law and Justice and ended up on the losing side.

In his post-election speech, Tusk navigated a delicate balance between two extremes

Members of the Law and Justice party, with over a hundred individuals queuing up to pose questions to the new Prime Minister, accused Tusk of cynicism, alleging that he serves the interests of Berlin and Brussels. Jarosław Kaczyński, the party's leader, went so far as to label the head of the government a German agent. Tusk endured these accusations with stoic calm. The debates were dull in their predictability.

However, the discussion was interrupted by an incident within the parliamentary building, albeit outside the session hall. Grzegorz Braun, a member of the Confederation, sprayed a fire extinguisher at a Hanukkah menorah. The Jewish community has been invited to such celebrations in the Sejm for many years. Braun was immediately removed from the debates, fined, and the Sejm's office referred the case to the prosecutor's office. The incident was captured by several cameras, making it clear that the day's news in Poland would revolve not around the new government but Braun's attack on the Hanukkah menorah.

It was evident that the day's news in Poland would revolve not around the new government but Braun's attack on the Hanukkah menorah

Marian Turski, a journalist for the weekly Polityka and head of the historical department, who was present at the Sejm session, remarked, “Braun is a Polish fascist; it's sad that he's in parliament.” The ninety-eight-year-old Turski is intimately familiar with fascists, having been a prisoner at Auschwitz and a participant in the Jewish underground in the Lodz Ghetto.

The incident served as a reminder or a warning, indicating the potential direction events could take if citizens don't learn to engage in dialogue with each other.

Subscribe to our weekly digest

К сожалению, браузер, которым вы пользуйтесь, устарел и не позволяет корректно отображать сайт. Пожалуйста, установите любой из современных браузеров, например:

Google Chrome Firefox Safari