Leader of Poland’s ruling PiS party brings his personal vendetta to the EU’s top table

Donald Tusk has been re-elected as president of the European Council, despite fierce opposition from Beata Szydlo, Poland’s prime minister. European Council presidents are elected by a qualified majority of EU leaders.

Mr Tusk, Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014, was supported by 27 EU member states at a European summit in Brussels on March 9th as his stewardship of the EU through Greece’s debt crisis, Europe’s migration crisis, Brexit and a resurgent Russia showed that he is fit to lead the EU. The outcome of the vote was never in doubt, but it was a blow to the Polish government led by the right-wing, nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, leaving Warsaw completely isolated.

The Szydlo government persisted with a vicious campaign to unseat Mr Tusk from the EU’s top political job even after it became clear that other EU member states supported him. Warsaw made a proposal that Mr Tusk should be replaced by relatively unknown Jacek Saryusz-Wolski – a Polish member of the European Parliament and until recently a member of the Civic Platform, Mr Tusk’s former political party – but other countries never took his candidacy seriously. Poland’s endorsement of Mr Saryusz-Wolski stemmed from a domestic political feud between Mr Tusk and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS leader who holds no formal government positions, but he is the real power behind Ms Szydlo’s government. Mr Kaczynski – who wants to discredit Mr Tusk in the eyes of Polish voters, because he regards him as his biggest political competitor – brought his personal vendetta to Europe’s top political level. That irrational behaviour even alienated Poland’s traditional east European allies.

Under Tusk’s leadership, Poland was an important player at the top table of the EU’s decision-making, while the economy grew 20 per cent over a seven-year period, unmatched by any other EU member state. But many Poles felt left behind by globalisation, which gave Mr Kaczynski’s party an outright majority in the 2015 general election, the first in the history of post-communist Poland.

Since coming to power, PiS has been destroying Poland’s hard won reputation as the great success story of post-communist central Europe. The nationalist party has performed an unprecedented power grab over security services, the public prosecutor and the Constitutional Tribunal, which is supposed to check parliamentary power. The government has purged opponents from state-controlled companies, packing them with loyal but not necessarily competent people and turned public media into a propaganda tool. The government’s economic policy is marked by state intervention and its foreign policy by the nationalist tone and a confrontational approach to the EU.

The PiS-dominated parliament passed a law that allowed Mr Kaczynski’s party to pack the Constitutional Tribunal with pliant judges, prompting Brussels to accuse Poland of endangering democracy and the rule of law. Ms Szydlo’s government has refused the European Commission’s demands to roll back controversial reforms, saying that Brussels is meddling in Polish affairs. This abrasive stance is most likely to be self-destructive.

With an unofficial alliance with the powerful Catholic Church, Mr Kaczynski wants Poland to return to its conservative Catholic roots, rolling back the liberal order established after the collapse of communism in 1989, even if his quest to rebalance society undermines freedom, human rights and democratic checks and balances. Mr Kaczynski is building an illiberal form of democracy similar to that established in Hungary by Viktor Orban. By opposing the reappointment of Mr Tusk, the Polish government plays to its core electorate. Among PiS diehard supporters, Mr Tusk is embodiment of liberal elites, who have betrayed Polish traditional values. Poland’s governing party portrays its liberal and centre-left political opponents as enemies of the state, pursuing a policy of polarisation to serve its political ends.

Mr Kaczynski blames Mr Tusk for a plane crash in Smolensk in 2010 in which his twin brother, Poland’s then president Lech Kaczynski, died with 95 others. The PiS leader uses the Smolensk crash to motivate his supporters, who believe that foul play was behind the tragedy. Within days of taking office, the PiS government formed a new commission, containing people with no knowledge of air crashes, to investigate the 2010 crash. Well-paid members of the commission have been unable to disapprove the original report, which says that pilot error and bad weather were to blame. The Smolensk issue, though, has spawned multiple paranoid conspiracy theories and deeply divided Polish society. Defence minister Antoni Macierewicz claims that the plane disintegrated before crashing, without providing any evidence. Claims that Mr Tusk was somehow involved in the crash together with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin have become an integral part of PiS’s political message and have been transformed into state ideology after the party took power.

Despite its antics, PiS remains popular, mostly because of welfare policies such cash handouts for parents and lower retirement age, leading in opinion polls with about 35 per cent support.

Photo: European Council / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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