Donald Tusk has taken office, but is the EU the real winner of Poland’s election?

After eight years in power, Poland’s right-wing populist government has been ousted and Donald Tusk, a pro-European integration prime minister, stepped in. The outcome has wider significance across the Continent
Donald Tusk is Poland's new prime minister | Photo: Alamy

By Wojciech Kosc

Reporter based in Warsaw, covering Polish politics for IntelliNews, POLITICO Europe and other publications.

15 Jan 2024

It took eight years. And then another two months. And then one more day. But in the end, Poland’s right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) government had clung to power for as long as it legally could.  

Standing before members of the Polish parliament’s lower chamber, the Sejm, on 11 December 2023, the then-prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, delivered a policy speech – despite being set to lose a confidence vote later that day. “The project I want to present to you today,” he said, “is about Poland’s future.” 

Everyone present – Morawiecki included – knew that his tenure would end just hours after that speech. He was only there because Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, had designated him to form a government ... despite Morawiecki having no majority to back it. Donald Tusk, leader of a four-party centre-left coalition, did. “We waited eight years; we could wait another few days,” Tusk told reporters at the time. 

"PiS stole millions and power is still very expensive" | Photo: Alamy

On 12 December the Polish parliament voted 248 to 201 to make Tusk Poland’s new head of government, his third stint as prime minister following two consecutive terms between 2007 and 2014. Now he’s back in office, leading the “October 15 Coalition” named after the date of the election that elevated it to power, what can we expect? 

“The priority of the Tusk government will be the restoration of the rule of law, first and foremost,” says Anna Siewierska-Chmaj, a political scientist at the University of Rzeszów. 

“Then it will have to make sure Poland and Poles are safe in the current – very difficult – geopolitical situation. That will entail ending Poland’s isolation in the European Union and rebuilding its international ties,” she adds. 

Over its eight years in power, PiS engaged in a protracted tussle with the EU over the rule of law. The former government overhauled much of Poland’s judiciary sector in a way the European Commission saw as counter to the EU’s founding treaties. But with every lawsuit in the Court of Justice of the EU and every “reasoned opinion” (a kind of formal warning given by the Commission), PiS dug in deeper. 

What started as a spat turned into all-out war in 2021 when the PiS-controlled Constitutional Tribunal labelled certain articles of the Treaty of the European Union incompatible with the Polish Constitution, in that they give EU law primacy over Poland’s. 

This year, Tusk says rolling back changes in the judiciary is his main priority. “Here I am, speaking about the special role of law and the rule of law,” Tusk told the parliament in a speech setting out his government’s programme. “There is truly nothing more important to a modern nation than a set of rights and obligations recognised as common, without exception,” he added. 

Sending a clear message that the rule of law has returned to Poland would also have a practical result – unlocking tens of billions of euros from the pandemic recovery fund and the cohesion funds earmarked for Poland in the EU’s current budget, but blocked by the Commission due to its concerns.  

Tusk at the helm also promises a Poland less isolated in the EU and, possibly, a close partner of France and Germany again after the PiS administration’s years of self-imposed alienation. Some flashpoints will, of course, remain – particularly Warsaw’s perceived ‘war-fatigue’ over the conflict in Ukraine.  

Other than that, Tusk and his coalition will offer what Brussels may view as a counterweight to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán – currently the sole populist figure in the region. That could play some part in the outcome of the EU elections due in June. 

In the few weeks since taking office, Tusk has also begun tackling the more local problems that the previous administration ignored, mishandled or made worse. He’s already shown he is serious about his election pledge to keep PiS’s welfare policy in place, and expand it further. 

Tusk’s finance minister, Andrzej Domański, prepared the state’s budget for 2024 over just a few days following the demise of PiS. It includes a 30 per cent pay increase for teachers and 20 per cent for other public sector workers. There’s also extra money pencilled in for mothers of young children. 

“The population’s biggest fears are how to handle the rising costs of energy and food. Polls show that we are afraid we are not going to have enough to make ends meet,” says Siewierska-Chmaj. 

A protest against PiS in Warsaw, in 2017 | Photo: Alamy

But contrary to campaign rhetoric, the new government inherits an economy that’s not doing too badly. Poland’s economy returned to growth in the third quarter, expanding 0.5 per cent year-on-year, after contracting in the two previous quarters. A much more dynamic recovery is now expected in 2024, thanks partially to EU funds – the release of which the new government hopes to accelerate. 

The 2024 budget bill assumes economic growth will pick up. And inflation is on a downward trajectory, having dwindled from more than 18 per cent in early 2023. The bill assumes it will come in at 6.6 per cent – still some way off the circa 2.5 per cent target set by Poland’s central bank, but a clear sign that inflation is no longer the threat it was. 

In one other important indicator, the net inflow from foreign direct investments to Poland came in at 140.3 billion Polish złoty in 2022 (about €30bn), representing a year-on-year increase of 24.3 per cent, the National Bank of Poland said in early December. That was equivalent to 4.6 per cent of the country’s GDP that year.  

But it appears Tusk’s to-do list consists of more than restoring the rule of law and addressing economic challenges. Some political moves indicate his appetite for a “Tusk revolution”. 

A week into office, his government made its biggest move to dismantle the system built by PiS. The new government fired the supervisory boards and management teams of public television TVP, public Polish Radio, and the state-owned news agency PAP. New supervisory boards and new management teams took over shortly afterwards. 

In extraordinary scenes that resembled the tumultuous period following the fall of communism rather than anything experienced by an EU Member State in recent years, TVP and its sister news channel TVP Info temporarily stopped broadcasting on 20 December.  

The Tusk government is using its honeymoon period to get the most controversial things done first

An apparent attempt to air a comment about the “government taking over media” by a TVP journalist was cut off mid-sentence, after which the channel began broadcasting only music and its logo. 

Freshly stripped of power, and now of its influence over public media, PiS accused Tusk of destroying free media and democracy – charges levied against PiS on a daily basis throughout its time at the helm. Dozens of PiS MPs protested at TVP headquarters in Warsaw to block the takeover.  

Tusk remains unfazed. He knows that “moving fast now is crucial to laying the foundations for remaining in power after the next election in 2027”, says Ben Stanley, a sociology professor at Warsaw’s SWPS University. 

“The Tusk government is using its honeymoon period to get the most controversial things done first,” he explains. “If PiS now continues to bring up how unlawful that was, they will only make people focus on how ineffective they were as they couldn’t counteract.” 

Stanley warns, however, that the government’s strategy might turn out to be risky. “Tusk using PiS’s playbook against them could undermine his own arguments about restoring the rule of law in Poland,” he explains. “It might also compromise another of Tusk’s big goals: the reconciliation of a divided nation.” 

Having a safe-margin majority in both houses of the parliament, Tusk is, however, far from the near-omnipotence PiS enjoyed during its first term of office from 2015 to 2019. 

The prime minister does not have enough votes in the lower house to override a veto by Poland’s president, who told the new parliament in November that he would not hesitate to wield it should he consider the Sejm is trying to undermine anything achieved by PiS that he considers fundamental for the Poles.  

Should he choose, Duda could well derail the Tusk government by vetoing key legislation, which the ruling majority simply will not be able to override. 

Siewierska-Chmaj suggests, however, that Duda, a relatively young player at 53, will be more cautious – allowing the Tusk government to sail the turbulent political waters more smoothly than expected. 

“The president will, of course, hinder the government more often than not, but he seems to have become keener to listen to what people want,” Siewierska-Chmaj says, referring to Duda’s agreement to pass into law a legislation passed by the Tusk-led majority to restore the state financing of in vitro fertilisation, scrapped by PiS. 

“Duda is playing his own game now. He wants to build his political position by [succeeding current PiS chairman] Jarosław Kaczyński and weakening Morawiecki,” Siewierska-Chmaj says.