Polish PM's departure offers opportunities as well as dangers for his party

By bne IntelliNews September 1, 2014

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -


Prime Minister Donald Tusk's appointment as the new president of the European Council is an enormous success both for him and and the country, but his looming departure is leaving a large hole in Polish politics.

Tusk has dominated Polish politics for the better part of a decade, winning an unprecedented two terms as prime minister beginning in 2007, and he had been gearing up to lead his centrist Civic Platform party in a bid to win a third term next year. The problem is that Tusk has been such a powerful figure in the party there are growing fears it could splinter in his absence.

Although he projects an air of affability and charm, under his disarming smile Tusk is a ruthless political player. In his time as party chief – he was one of Civic Platform's three founders in 2001 – and later as head of government, Tusk has been careful to cull any rival big beasts from the party herd.

His two co-founders have long since been pushed aside. Ministers who dared challenge him were demoted, the best example being his former close ally Grzegorz Schetyna, now cooling his heels on the parliament's back benches after serving as deputy prime minister and minister of the interior.

With Tusk in Brussels, the animosities and party factions concealed under his dominant personality could erupt into the open. However, Tusk's resignation also creates opportunities for Civic Platform.

New faces

Tusk's government has become increasingly unpopular over the last year, losing its lead in opinion polls to the rightwing Law and Justice party led by former prime minister and long-time Tusk rival Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Civic Platform's troubles have been compounded in recent weeks by a bugging scandal that saw some of Tusk's senior ministers illegally recorded while having embarrassing conversations in some of Warsaw's top restaurants.

A new face as prime minister could change that dynamic, injecting a note of freshness into a political scene that has been dominated by most of the same people ever since the end of communism a quarter century ago.

Ewa Kopacz, the speaker of parliament and a close Tusk ally, is seen as having the best chance to take his place. “If the situation demands it, then probably yes,” Kopacz told reporters who asked her if she was ready to become prime minister.

Other potential premiers are Tomasz Siemoniak, the defence minister whose brief carries extra weight during the current worries over Russia's intervention in Ukraine, and Elzbieta Bienkowska, the deputy prime minister who has been in charge of disbursing the enormous flood of EU funds being used to modernise the country.

Tusk heads to Brussels in early December. His resignation leaves Bronislaw Komorowski, the president, two weeks to name a new prime minister, who then has to seek the approval of parliament. With Civic Platform and their smaller coalition allies in the Polish Peoples Party controlling a slim majority in the legislature, such approval should be easy to obtain.

Then with a new leader at the helm and aided by the glow of Tusk's Brussels success, the party hopes to turn around its opinion poll slump and hold office for a third term.

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