How the EU elections could set Poland’s direction under Tusk

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s grand coalition – formed largely to oust the right-wing Law and Justice party – will face its first stress test when Poles cast their vote for the European Parliament in June.
Donald Tusk speaks to supporters after taking part in an electoral debate in Warsaw, Poland, on 9 October 2023.

By Wojciech Kosc

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

08 May 2024

If EU elections are just 27 national elections held on the same day, as the cliche goes, then the stakes are perhaps highest in Poland, where Prime Minister Donald Tusk will be waiting for a signal on where his sprawling coalition government should direct its energies. 

Tusk took power in December, but only after forming a grand coalition to oust the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which had ruled for the previous eight years and had begun to chip away at media and judicial independence. 

In the October election, which saw a record-high turnout of nearly 75 per cent, Tusk’s Civic Coalition took just under 31 per cent of the vote, behind PiS with more than 35 per cent. But three smaller parties – the Left, Polska 2050, and PSL – rallied behind Tusk in a single-minded effort to remove PiS. 

Beyond that overarching mission the coalition lacks a unified agenda, and so Tusk has only partially fulfilled the massive expectations that he faced. Next month’s European Parliament elections will show whether, after half a year as prime minister, he has done enough to maintain Poles’ support. 

“We see some lack of coherence in the government, as it’s having big difficulties in passing legislation such as on abortion,” says Ben Stanley, a political scientist at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. “The enthusiasm about the election result underplayed all the differences in the coalition that are coming to the fore now.” 

“The EU election will show whether the coalition, as a collective, is performing or not.” 

Pinch points 

A major point of contention is over reforming super-strict abortion laws. This is a priority for many liberal voters: Poland is one of only two EU countries – the other being Malta – where there is almost no legal avenue to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. 

All parties in the governing coalition agree on some degree of liberalisation, but disagree on what that should look like. Some want, as a first step, to restore the limited rights granted under the “abortion compromise,” which was in force from 1993 until being overturned by PiS in 2016. Others want to push for a more comprehensive liberalisation.  

As a result, the issue has gone to a special parliamentary committee tasked with hammering out a new compromise, though progress has stalled. 

Other issues abound, from how bold to be on climate and energy policy to whether to comply with the EU’s new migration rules; from how to handle farmers’ demands on Ukrainian grain imports to what to do about the housing crisis squeezing young people. 

“The coalition’s electorate is very heterogenous and their perception of the direction and the pace of the changes, or the lack of solutions to particular issues, varies greatly,” says Adam Gendźwiłł, an associate professor of sociology at Warsaw University. 

Rule of law 

Beyond these political questions, there is the question of how to restore the rule of law and repair the damage done by PiS to Poland’s democratic institutions. 

Here, Tusk faces a conundrum. Move too slowly, and PiS will maintain an undue influence over the public sphere; too fast, and the prime minister could face accusations of himself acting illegally. 

You can see a certain disappointment being voiced by the coalition voters who remember well the many promises made.

So far, Tusk has acted boldly. His allies have taken over state broadcaster TVP and prosecutor offices countrywide. Judges loyal to the previous government are being dismissed, while the government has ignored rulings from the Constitutional Tribunal – a top court that PiS had stuffed to the point of near-total obedience. 

The government also plans to put Adam Glapiński, president of the National Bank of Poland, on trial at the State Tribunal, a special court for top officials, in a move that could anger the European Central Bank. 

“One of our commitments for the first 100 days was to hold accountable the shameless thievery we all witnessed – although not everyone recognized the scale of this theft,” Tusk told a press briefing in March. 

At the same time, he acknowledged that this effort has distracted his government from delivering on its other promises. 

“You can see a certain disappointment being voiced by the coalition voters who remember well the many promises made in the campaign and right after it,” Gendzwiłł says. 

Local elections held last month returned a broadly similar result to last October’s national vote that brought Tusk to power. “The decomposition of PiS is nowhere to be seen,” Gendzwiłł says. 

Coalition politics 

With his position seemingly secure for now, some analysts think that Tusk may attempt to expand his own electoral base, targeting voters from within his own coalition even while continuing to fight PiS. 

“Given the ideological movement we’ve seen Tusk make recently, shifting to more liberal views on abortion and to more economic interventionism, it wouldn’t surprise me to find him willing to expand his party at the disadvantage of other coalition parties,” says Stanley. 

Rafał Matyja, a historian and political scientist at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, says the prime minister may have an eye on presidential elections next year, where he will be hoping for a friendly candidate to prevail. Under Poland’s constitution, the president is elected directly and holds several important powers such as being able to veto legislation. The current president, Andrzej Duda, hails from PiS.  

“Tusk is going to use the EU election result to overhaul the inner workings of the coalition,” Matyja says. “He knows that large voter groups are used to the rivalry between his party and PiS, so he’s going to keep at it or otherwise he won’t have much to mobilise voters in 2025.” 

For anyone trying to guess Tusk’s next move, the signal given by next month’s EU elections would be a good place to start. 


EU Institutions