Donald Tusk comes back as prime minister of Poland. What to expect? [AUDIO]

Polish Law and Justice (PiS) government has just fallen after eight years of rule, and Donald Tusk comes back to lead a new coalition government united mainly by the will not to allow Law and Justice rule again. What to expect? Definitely, better relations with Europe, as Tusk is determined to make Poland again an important player in the region, as well as to unblock the funds of the Recovery Fund that were not paid to Poland due to rule of law issues. Then, the reversal of controversial justice system reform, strongly criticised by Brussels and by human rights groups. Tusk has also promised not to break with politics of social transfers that helped Law and Justice to win new voters, and to offer pay rises to teachers and other state workers. This, however, is the least sure part of his programme, and his coalition will face an uneasy cohabitation with Andrzej Duda, the president originating from Law and Justice.

The complete transcription of the recording is available below.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another cross-border talk, which will be a little bit more special as Cross-Border Talks, is a Poland-based media, and we are going to discuss the new government of Poland. Donald Tusk was just sworn in. We know his team of ministers. We are going to discuss the process of change of power and what to expect from the new government with Małgorzata who joins us from Katowice.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hello.

There was a really dramatic change in the last days, dramatic events in the Polish parliament. Maybe we could start with this: How exactly did the process of change of power unfold and what was the reaction of Kaczynski?

What happened on Monday in the Polish parliament was unexpected and expected at the same time. I mean, everybody more or less knew that Morawiecki is a government that was formed after the election had no chance to survive because it would not get enough votes to get a conflict to pass the confidence vote positively. But on the other hand, nobody expected Jaroslaw Kaczynski to jump to the podium and burst out in anger, saying that Donald Tusk is a German agent. Yes, he literally said that in the very final part of the discussion, after Donald Tusk arrived at the podium, to say that he was grateful to Polish people who voted for his party for his programme. He also referred to the rumours around him being a pro-German politician, assuring everybody that he was actually a Polish patriot. Then, Kaczynski felt obliged to jump in and say: Mr. Tusk, no matter who your ancestors were, you are a German agent. This can give us an idea in what atmosphere the new government will start ruling and will continue to rule for the subsequent years.

On one hand, we have the Tusk camp, the liberal camp, the pro-European camp, the democratic camp, which is now determined to clean up the mess left by the Law and Justice Party. But these people are also going to seek political revenge against Law and Justice politicians. On the other hand, we have the national-conservative camp, which is also determined to be a very resolute opposition to Tusk and to try to regain power as soon as possible.

It is also very important that Tusk said in his first words after Morawiecki fell as a prime minister and Tusk’s candidature was accepted by the parliament. He greeted all the people who voted against the darkness, against evil. So it would mean that there are millions of evil people in Poland, and that those who voted for Law and Justice are not considered just opponents, but representative of evil forces. Well, this is not good for any democracy, even though Law and Justice rule was marked by authoritarian tendencies, by non-democratic tendencies, and that a lot of disgusting words and accusations were also said against Tusk and his camp while Law and Justice was still in power.

Before asking you about the programme of the Tusk government – what will be its relation with the Law and Justice Party, given that the President Duda is from the Law and Justice, and he has a right to veto laws? The ruling coalition has not enough members of Parliament to overcome a possible veto by Duda. Would there be some kind of cohabitation between elements of Law and Justice, for example, the president and Tusk? Or would there be really fierce competition and war from now on?

Yes. You are right to say that the new ruling coalition has not enough votes to overcome the veto. This is exactly the case. And both sides are bracing for war. There will be no constructive cooperation, because the sides don’t trust each other. Law and Justice is just waiting for an opportunity to be back in power. Duda will be trying to show as much as possible that Tusk’s actions are actually detrimental to the majority of Polish people, and that his reform proposals must be stopped at any cost.

However, the government is quite aware of the fact that radical moves would be stopped by Duda. Actually, there was a lot of speculation in the government before the government was formed, on what law proposals can actually be pushed forward through Parliament not to risk being rejected by Duda. Therefore, while Tusk promises he would, for example, advocate the women’s rights issue and stand for the right to abortion, it is highly unlikely that such a bill will be passed through Parliament because everybody knows that Doda will then veto it.

Another question concerns the differences between the parties forming the coalition. It is actually quite a wide coalition, which is united mainly by the willingness to remove Law and Justice from power. Already in the process of forming the government, it became clear that, for example, some of the Social democratic proposals will not be accepted by the Third Way conservative coalition, another ally of Tusk. So the Social Democrats, as the weakest part of the coalition, will have to give up some of their ideas.

Coming back to the president, it will be a very tough cohabitation. It will be a very fierce rivalry. And we really don’t expect any move from Law and Justice towards constructive cooperation with Tusk. We need to remember that it is still Law and Justice, which is the biggest single party in Poland, who got the biggest number of votes. They are still hoping that Tusk’s coalition will not survive the whole term and that in two years, for example, we will have early elections when everything can happen.

The rule of Law and Justice was known for introducing some measures which increase the social base of the party. I mean certain social policies, money which is given for any child that is born. They also had a tax policy that encouraged small or micro-businesses. What do you expect to be the social and economic policy of the government?

Tusk is a skillful politician, and he knows that revoking all the social programs that PiS introduced would be really the end of his rule. And he did not come back to Poland just to be elected and then quickly removed from power. Therefore, he declared that all the programs that support families, children, pensioners, are going to stay in place. There will be even a new program which will be called the Active Mother. In the framework of this program women who gave birth to children and keep working will get some extra money to afford hiring someone to help with the child.

How sincere is Tusk when saying that the programs are necessary and that they were a good step forward? We know that Tusk is a liberal, even a neoliberal if you want, and that he was not an enthusiast of any kind of social policy. At least he was not when being in power in Poland for the previous two terms. Keeping the transfers in place is basically a move that he does just not to lose his regained popularity too quickly. There are other moves that can make us wonder whether neoliberalism is not coming back very fast. The first is that Tusk declared to open up a fiscal council, which is going to advise him on fiscal policy, which probably means that there will be no future social programs and there will be no moves taken to get more money into the state budget. I am saying this because there were already many hints from people around Tusk saying that after the Law and Justice government, the state budget is in a very bad state. They suggested that a lot of money had been spent for no reason, and the new government would need to save, which was debunked by a group of economists who published an open letter saying that claims that our budget was so damaged were actually not true.

What do I expect from social, from economic policy? I need to mention that among first promises delivered by Tusk today, he also mentioned moves towards the companies and towards people employed by the state. The second part is important because people employed by the state, starting from administration workers and finishing with the teachers, have not received a substantial pay rises for years, and Poland is already suffering from shortage of skilled people wishing to take these posts, namely because of bad earnings. Tusk claimed that the teachers would get a 30% raise next year and everybody else employed in the state administration could count on a 20% raise. While it sounds pretty impressive, we must not forget that there is still inflation running in Poland, and so the real amount of the pay rise will definitely be less important for these people and their households. And definitely these promises need to be delivered so that we can speak of a positive social impact.

As for the small companies, Tusk so far promised some things that could sound well, but are not that impressive when you will look closer at that. One of his flag proposals is to free the small business from taxes and for social fees for one month in the year, but this will be linked with an obligation not to do any economic activity over this month. So basically, while this is presented as free time that the state give to the small business person, it actually means that for a month you can’t earn money. Another proposal he did in the campaign was that we needed low taxes, which is basically something that everybody in Poland keeps saying. Perhaps apart from the Social Democrats, we have this consensus in the political class that taxes must be low and simple so that there is economic growth. How much it is valid, our listeners may decide for themselves.

The return of Tusk was lauded  in the wider European Union, Brussels and other countries. It is expected that the relations with Western Europe will get much better. And Tusk or, in fact, the Polish government has been asked for a long time to undo a judicial reform, to make the judicial system once again independent. Some funds which are if I understand correctly, from the Recovery and Resilience Fund will be unfrozen if this reform is done. What do you expect to happen in the relations between the two governments and the European Union, or in fact, the Western Europe?

While I am not sure if Tusk delivers any of his pro-social promises. I can say with a degree of certitude that indeed, our relations with Brussels will be better under his rule. Tusk is determined to have Poland again as a respected international player whose voice is heard, whose voice is important in European as well as regional formats. And bringing the money from the Recovery Plan to Poland was one of his key promises in this electoral campaign. He said he would get the funding very quickly, basically that he would come to Brussels as soon as he is the Prime Minister, he would have a couple of talks and then immediately the money would be released. While it would not be that simple for sure, I can assure you that Tusk will definitely do everything to have this money unblocked. This is what his voters are waiting for: the voters in the business, but also the voters in local administration in the regions, but also a lot of people in Poland who felt really bad with our country being kind of stigmatized in the European community.

Tusk is definitely going to try to keep as good relations with the West, with the European Union as possible. He also put Radoslaw Sikorski as his foreign minister, which also says a lot about his plans. Definitely we can forget about Polish sovereignism that we saw under law and justice, there will be no more conflicts with the European Court of Justice. There will be no more attempts to make a show of force in Brussels. And definitely there will be no more criticism against the European Union that wants to impose some foreign values on Polish traditional people that Law and Justice and their allies were famous for.

Well, as far as the judicial reform is concerned, it is not so easy to have it undone in one day. It is not so easy to verify all the people who were promoted under Law and Justice. But here also, I have no doubts that the new government will do everything to have the reform undone. This is one of the key things they promised to the voters, and this is one of the key things their voters expect from them.

Under Law and Justice, Poland was known as the champion of the Three Seas Initiative, and as a country, which is strongly linked to Great Britain and the USA. What do you expect to happen with this tendency in Polish politics? Will the Three Seas initiative continue? What will be the relations with Ukraine, for example? And what would happen if a Republican president comes into the white House?

There is no question right now in Poland of any substantial shift in our relations with the United States. We have based our doctrine or our defense doctrine on the alliance with the United States for decades. And I don’t think Tusk has any other idea, especially that the talks of European strategic ambiguity, or a kind of common strategic policy in the European Union, have stalled. Definitely, Poland will still be the key ally of the United States in Central Europe. The new government will continue what Kaczynski started in terms of expanding the army in terms of military spending, in terms of supporting Ukraine as well. I don’t really expect any big changes.

In the case of the Three Seas initiative, definitely there may be a change. And not a positive change. I definitely stand personally for more cooperation in the region, for building ties with the neighbors of Poland in Central Europe, and I am very sad to say that for Tusk’s team, this project, the Three Seas initiative is largely seen as something that Law and Justice developed and invented. Therefore, for Tusk it is not worth a continuation. For him and his party, the place of Poland is in the West, in an alliance with Germany. While Tusk is not a German agent, he is definitely a champion of very close relations between Poland and Germany, in many fields. So, Tusk would like to place Poland firmly in the west. As far as the relations with other countries in Central and Eastern Europe are considered, they would not be made a priority.

Perhaps Poland would like to have a role in the upcoming process of negotiations between Moldova and the European Union, and Ukraine and European Union, because there is still this thinking in the Polish political elite that we have responsibilities in the East, we are the experts in the East, and we should somehow simplify the process of having these Eastern countries accepted in the European community. But this will not be a priority. Reparation of our relations with Germany and Brussels will be the priority. If something happens in central Eastern Europe, I don’t think it would be on Tusk’s initiative.

Let’s end this talk on the expectations of the new government with  this question: what are the weak points the Tusk government would have? What might be a test for it or what might challenge it?

The first weak point of this government is that it is a coalition government with a coalition united mainly by the willingness to remove Law and Justice from power. You can hardly imagine two parties more different than the Social Democrats and the Third Road Coalition. There are advocates of women’s rights. There are advocates of LGBT rights. There are advocates of some moderate social policy in the social democratic camp, while the Third Road Coalition is led by a former American-owned TV presenter. He is conservative, Catholic, claiming to be European, but in this style of Europeanness that could be, for example, compared to Angela Merkel’s party in Germany. And yet these forces will need to cooperate for the next couple of years so that Tusk doesn’t lose the parliamentary majority.

The first test might come if the Social Democrats actually try to advance any of their proposals, and they had proposals in the campaign on housing, on women’s rights, also on the very big reform of education. Schools, by the way, had been handed by Law and Justice, to one of the most conservative politician of that party. There are already problems here: neither Tusk’s party nor the Third Road is very enthusiastic about investments in housing, the state investments, making the education more European friendly or LGBT friendly. I think it is important to say that there was a huge debate, even before the government was formed, around who should be the Minister of Education in the new government, and while there was a very good candidate from the Social Democrats who had often hinted that her political ambition is to namely to be the Minister of education, she was refused the post at the very last moment and replaced by a politician from the Tusk’s coalition, who is definitely not known to be an expert on education. All for the sake of not having a too radical, too left wing person in the education ministry.

These differences, different positions in the government may prove fatal for it in one moment when the parties feel, for example, too self-confident and not bound anymore by the willingness to not to allow the return of law and justice. The other weak point is the social policy, because it was much easier for Tusk to refuse any kind of social policy when he was the prime minister the previous time, because the Polish people were basically used to having no social policy. After socialism fell, we never had a pro-social policy from any government. Tusk, saying that we can’t afford any social spending, was just continuing what others did.

But now people have the comparison and people have the comparison on two grounds. First, they see that Law and Justice actually did what they had promised to do. So Tusk cannot promise too much and then show it were just empty words. And secondly, people saw that it was actually possible to offer social spending, which was not as generous as in many Western countries, which was sometimes chaotic, but which actually changed the lives of people in this country. And here I am mentioning not only the children benefit programs, but also the truly revolutionary decision of Law and Justice to make the minimum wages much higher than under Tusk. Tusk will now have to struggle with this shadow of the Law and Justice party. He won’t be just able to introduce austerity immediately, and if he does, there will always be somebody in the low injustice ranks to remind the public that Tusk is a German agent who takes money out of the Polish people to give it to someone else.

Okay. I’m aware of the great interest which the Polish elections created in Central and Southeastern Europe. A lot of Romanian liberals, but also other people were watching them with great interest. We will also continue to follow Polish developments. Thank you for this cross-border talk. And I invite our listeners to continue to follow our stuff on various social networks such as YouTube, Twitter, SoundCloud, Substack, and others.

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