A new era for Poland? Will Donald Tusk return as Speaker of the Parliament, and what changes will he bring to his homeland?
Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), On October 15, 2023, parliamentary elections were held in Poland for both the Sejm and the Senate. The Senate serves as the “upper house” of the Parliament, while the Sejm, often referred to as the “lower house,” holds significant sway in shaping policies.
Now, let’s delve into the election results.
The voter turnout in the parliamentary elections reached an unprecedented 74.4% – a historic record in the Third Polish Republic. The results showed that the “Law and Justice Party” (PiS) secured 194 seats in the Sejm, while the “Civic Coalition” (a liberal party) won 157, the “Third Way” (self-described as a liberal party) secured 65, the “Left” won 26, and the “Confederation” (a conservative, Eurosceptic party) clinched 18 seats. The opposition alliance formed by these parties will be represented by 248 members in the Sejm. To establish a majority government in Poland, an absolute majority in the Sejm is required, which the current opposition unmistakably possesses. Out of the 460 seats in the Sejm, they needed at least 231 for an absolute majority, a threshold they have crossed. Given the majority of seats held by the opposition coalition, it’s highly likely that Donald Tusk will assume the role of the new Speaker of the Parliament.
Donald Tusk faces a formidable task: reconciling the divergent interests of the three primary opposition parties – the “Civic Coalition,” the “Third Way,” and the “Left.” The “Confederation” is excluded due to its contrasting, and at times contentious, conservative views.
The initial challenge for the new coalition government is to determine whether it will lean towards left or center-leaning views, as this distinction is pivotal in shaping the political agenda. While the “Civic Coalition” champions liberal policies, European integration, and progressive internal changes, the same cannot be said for the “Left” and the “Third Way.”
Differing viewpoints among opposition parties may lead to frequent impediments to reform proposals. Nevertheless, consensus can be observed among the opposition on key issues.
One critical issue is abortion. The “Third Way” proposed reversing the Constitutional Tribunal’s judgment, aligning with the “Civic Coalition’s” stance but only legally up to the “12th week of pregnancy.”
Another pressing matter is the rule of law. The “Civic Coalition” advocates “implementing judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights concerning guarantees of judicial independence and the impartiality of judges,” a position in line with the “Third Way,” which also aims to restore the rule of law in Poland.
Turning to other challenges facing the opposition, one of them may be the high national debt and rising inflation. This could impact the implementation of certain reforms the coalition intends to introduce. However, this challenge might be partly mitigated by another aid package from the European Union, with which Donald Tusk has a strong rapport. He even includes this in his political program as “obtaining funds from EU resources.”
The “Third Way” in its electoral program discusses introducing a “Family PIT program – the larger the family, the lower the taxes,” but whether this would be a prudent decision, given the budget deficit and inflation, remains a question.
The “Civic Coalition” also makes commitments to voters, such as introducing a 1500 PLN bonus for women returning to the job market after giving birth, a Caregiver’s Voucher worth 50% of the minimum wage for active caregivers of dependent persons, and introducing a 600 PLN rent subsidy for young people. Yet again, the question arises about whether Poland can afford these additional budget expenditures.
On one hand, it is the state’s duty to support its citizens, especially during their most challenging moments. On the other hand, these are substantial expenditures that might worsen the country’s economic situation.
Furthermore, even if Donald Tusk manages to reconcile the various views within the opposition, there is always the individual with the power to veto a law if it violates constitutional provisions. In addition, a new law related to Poland’s presidency in the EU Council is about to take effect, with Poland taking over the presidency in the first half of 2025.
This new law mandates the government to coordinate European policies with the president during the Polish presidency. According to the opposition, the presidential project is an “unconstitutional attempt to take away the prerogatives of the Council of Ministers” and may lead to a competence dispute between the president and the prime minister.
Another obstacle could be the consequences of deepening integration with the European Union.
The first issue pertains to Poland’s adherence to the “green” policies of the European Union. Several obstacles may hinder this effort, including the plan to establish the first Polish nuclear power plant by 2033. Despite support for the project from France and the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency, the German Green Party vehemently opposes this initiative, citing potential radiation exposure to 1.8 million Germans.
This project was presented as the ideal solution to Poland’s energy problem, as the country heavily relies on the coal industry, making it one of the most polluting countries in the European Union. The issue of phasing out black coal, which comprises 50% of the energy mix, remains a significant challenge due to its economic impact and the dependence of over 100,000 jobs on the sector.
Another challenge lies in Poland’s failure to implement at least three European Union directives necessary for deeper integration. These directives concern access to a lawyer in criminal proceedings, legal aid for suspects and accused persons, and the right to information in criminal proceedings. Poland’s non-compliance with these directives presents a significant legal obstacle.
A final contentious issue is the compatibility of the Lisbon Treaty with the Constitution of the Republic of Poland. While the European Union upholds the principle of the primacy of community law, Poland maintains the supremacy of its Constitution, as stipulated in Article 8(1). This legal divergence may remain a topic of conflict in the coming years.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the leader of today’s opposition, Donald Tusk.
Donald Tusk, born on April 22, 1957, in Gdańsk, hails from a family of a carpenter and a secretary. His family belongs to the Kashubian ethnic group, a fact that Tusk emphasizes in the media. Donald Tusk’s father passed away while he was finishing primary school.
Ewa Tusk, the mother of the opposition leader, has German roots and contemplated returning to Germany with her family after World War II. However, after marrying Franciszek Dawidowski, she chose to stay in Poland. Donald Tusk did not learn the German language during his childhood but began learning it during his studies.
Donald Tusk completed his history studies at the University of Gdańsk in 1980, earning a master’s degree. During his studies, he founded the Student Committee of Solidarity and later worked as a journalist for the weekly magazine “Samorządność.” He also became the head of “Solidarity” in Wydawnictwo Morskie at the end of 1980 and played a key role in the opposition in the 1980s.
In 1989, after the Round Table talks and the formation of a new government in Poland, he became the chairman of the Liberal-Democratic Congress, holding this position until 1994.
From 1997 to 2001, Tusk served as the Vice Marshal of the Senate in the fourth term, and from 2001 to 2005, he was the Vice Marshal of the Sejm in the fourth term. He has been the Chairman of the “Civic Platform” from 2003-2014 and resumed this role from 2021 onwards.
Additionally, from 2007 to 2009, he chaired the Committee for European Integration, served as the Prime Minister from 2007 to 2014, assumed the position of the President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019, and was the Chairman of the “European People’s Party” from 2019 to 2022.
Let’s assess the achievements and failures during Donald Tusk’s previous terms from 2007 to 2014.
Donald Tusk assumed the role of Prime Minister during one of the most challenging financial crises of the 21st century, the Stock Market Crash in 2008. Consequently, the early years of the “Civic Platform’s” rule were marked by significant challenges, including high inflation, bankruptcies of small and medium enterprises, and high corporate debt in Poland.
However, inflation began to decrease in 2009, owing to a stable fiscal policy and a flexible banking sector, a notable success compared to other European countries’ responses to the crisis.
Wage growth in Poland from 2007 to 2014 was relatively slow, partly attributed to the financial crisis.
The unemployment rate initially dropped from 11.2% to 9.5% between 2007 and 2008 after the “Civic Platform” took office but later began to rise again. The highest unemployment rate reached 13.4%, persisting at that level in 2012-2013, before eventually decreasing.
It’s worth mentioning that in 2007, Poland recorded one of the highest levels of investment (23%), a significant achievement during Donald Tusk’s government. Additionally, the period saw the highest economic growth among all EU countries, with cumulative GDP growth reaching 22.1%.
Another advantage of Tusk’s government was the positive relations with the European Union, reflected in substantial EU budget spending for Poland. This funding, coupled with economic growth and new investments, facilitated numerous infrastructure projects, including the construction of 1,800 km of new highways and expressways, the modernization of 89 railway stations and 5,400 km of railway tracks, upgrades to 10 airports, and modernization of 200 scientific centers.
However, alongside these achievements, there were also failures during the “Civic Platform’s” rule. Firstly, Poland’s public debt increased during this period, rising from 517 billion PLN in 2007 to 782.1 billion PLN in 2014. This increase was attributed to the economic slowdown after the financial crisis, increased public spending, no tax hikes, and reluctance to cut budget expenditures.
Secondly, scandals and controversies surrounded the government, ranging from “invisible” investors to leaked tapes of conversations among members of the “Civic Platform.”
The third major failure was the non-fulfillment of government promises, such as the elimination of the National Health Fund, reforms to mining pensions, reductions in the number of civil servants, and other issues.
It remains uncertain what course of action the opposition party will take and whether it will repeat past mistakes. While positive changes are anticipated, it’s essential to exercise caution, as promises can differ from reality.
In conclusion, Poland is undergoing significant changes, and the European Union eagerly anticipates the restoration of its relationship with one of its member states. Slogans like “Poland is back!” are resonating, but it’s crucial to approach the future with caution, recognizing that not everything that shines is gold.