Tusk's triumph in EU election unbalances Polish coalition

Tusk's triumph in EU election unbalances Polish coalition
The result marks the first time Donald Tusk managed to beat arch-rivals from the radical right Law and Justice party since 2014. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw June 10, 2024

The biggest party of Poland’s ruling coalition, the centrist Civic Coalition (KO) of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, won the European election held on June 9, official results showed on June 10.

The result marks the first time Tusk managed to beat arch-rivals from the radical right Law and Justice (PiS) party since 2014. But the margin of KO’s success was tiny and the overall result was marred by the excellent showing by the far-right anti-EU Konfederacja, while Tusk’s coalition partners, the conservative Third Way and the Left, fared badly.

KO won 37.1% of the vote, taking 21 of Poland’s 53 seats in the European Parliament. PiS came in at a very close second with 36.2%, which gave them 20 seats.

Behind the top two parties, their rivalry defining Polish politics for nearly two decades now, there was tumult.

Reflecting the EU’s overall tilt – but also a sign of their growing appeal to voters tired by the seemingly unending duel between KO and PiS – the far-right Konfederacja celebrated success after winning 12.1% and taking six seats in the European Parliament.

The gravity pull of Tusk’s party proved too big to resist for many voters of his coalition partners, the conservative Third Way and the Left. The Third Way, which also seemed to have suffered a voter shift to the far right, only won 6.9% of the vote and three seats. The Left won 6.3% and also three seats.

The turnout in the election was 40.7% – measly when compared to 74.4% in last October’s general election but not dramatically lower when lined up with the previous EU elections in Poland.

The election’s result will matter both on the EU scene as well as domestically for Tusk.

Winning the election, even if by a tiny margin, may give the PM and his party a new momentum after the first six months in power proved somewhat disappointing. Ramifications could extend to next year’s presidential election in Poland and – possibly – even the next general vote in 2027.

KO’s coalition partners will view the results with concern, as Tusk’s power relative to them has now grown substantially. Tusk’s modus operandi in politics has long been to work with willing coalition partners – but also to devour them when an opportunity arrives.

That presents the Third Way and the Left with hard choices for the three remaining years of the parliament’s current term.

“Either avoid overt clashes with Tusk and face further marginalisation – and eventually a wipe-out in the next election – or make it tough going for the PM, risking disillusionment with the coalition as a whole that might open a path for PiS to return to power, possibly in a coalition with the far-right,” Miłosz Wiatrowski-Bujacz, a Polish political scientist working at Yale University, wrote in a comment for gazeta.pl, a news website.

“We won to unite Poles and all of Europe around safe borders. This must be a common national game. There is no room for party egoism,” Tusk said on X on June 10 as his cabinet met for a first post-election sitting devoted to the ongoing crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border, which is coming under pressure from Minsk-orchestrated migrant movement.

But on the election night the PM took a diplomatic swipe at coalition partners.

“I will not use our clearly better result in a way that is unpleasant for my partners. But I hope they learned a lesson: people do not want a compromise with evil,” Tusk told reporters, referring to his crusade to hold PiS accountable for their eight years in power that others in the coalition may have been too lukewarm about.

The Third Way especially has a lot to worry about now. One of its leaders, the current Parliament Speaker, Szymon Holownia, has long nurtured ambitions to win the presidential race in 2025. 

Those ambitions have now suffered a substantial setback, as “the democratic majority’s natural candidate” should come from within Tusk’s party, Marcin Kierwinski, a newly-elected MEP for KO, told Radio Zet on June 10. 

In Strasbourg, KO will be part of the biggest bloc, the European People’s Party (EPP) in a parliament that tilted to the far-right but where the mainstream – the EPP, the Social Democrats, the centrist Renew Europe and the Greens – could still form a relatively well-working majority.

Tusk’s 37.1% also puts him on top of the European mainstream, with analysts expecting the result to give the PM a strong hand in EU politics in the years to come – including in the politically fraught process to determine the line-up of the next European Commission.