After winning October’s general election for his Civic Coalition (KO) alliance, Tusk is well aware how that political challenge will soon pale next to what lies ahead.
After two terms, the national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party leaves behind a deep-rooted legacy of politicised courts, prosecutors and public television (TVP). Undoing its ambitious plan is unprecedented in modern Europe, and comes without a handbook.
As he presented his first cabinet on Friday in Warsaw – even before next week’s swearing-in – Tusk’s bad-tempered press conference exchange with a TVP journalist was an indication of what’s to come.
Demonised on TVP for years as a traitor and German stooge, echoing government messaging, Tusk said: “Poland is waiting for these bad manners to end. The same rules of behaviour apply to all of us, whether prime minister, a member of parliament, a journalist or a civil servant.”
Re-establishing decorum in Polish political life – and balance in a deeply polarised public sphere – will be a delicate balancing act, even for a seasoned politician like Tusk.
Born 66 years ago in the northern port city of Gdansk, he cut his teeth in the 1980s Solidarity movement opposed to communist rule and, 20 years ago, founded the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO). After seven years as Polish prime minister he departed in 2014 for Brussels in 2014, from where,.as president of the European Council, he looked on as his PO allies lost power a year later to PiS.
It promised voters a wide-reaching reform programme to smash old elites and complete unfinished business from Poland’s transition to democracy. Critics feared a PiS political takeover of all public institutions that endangered the rule of law, a view shared by the European Commission in long-running legal battles with Warsaw.
On a conciliatory return visit to Brussels, hours after his October election victory, Tusk promised to “rebuild my country’s position in Europe” – and unlock billions of pandemic funding frozen by the EU over legal concerns.
On Friday, as head of an untested three-way coalition, Tusk unveiled a team he hopes can examine – and, if necessary, correct – controversial PiS policies, from a patriotism school programme to an effective ban on abortion. The new Tusk cabinet sees a return of some familiar faces, including Radosław Sikorski, back in the foreign ministry.
Another heavy-hitter is Adam Bodnar. As an outspoken independent ombudsman in the early PiS years, Bodnar was a vocal critic of judicial reforms and what he saw as politicised court appointments. His new job as justice minister will be to untangle a web of illegally-appointed judges, their respective rulings and arbitrary decisions by a politicised public prosecutor.
An early idea of what to expect can be seen already in the Tusk approach to Poland’s central bank and its governor, Adam Glapinski.
A close friend of the PiS chairman, Glapinski repeatedly – critics say – compromised the bank’s independence with interest rate cuts and other monetary policy decisions tailored to PiS political needs.
While the governor denies such claims, Tusk appears to have heeded warnings that a public tribunal into what he called the governor’s “peculiar decisions” could destabilise the economy or compromise the political independence of the bank moving forward.
“There are many indications ... that [Glapinski] performed his duties in a way that was contrary to the constitution and the principles of law,” said Tusk, before ruling out a “witch-hunt”.
Things are more complicated at TVP. After eight years as a government propaganda operation, some media analysts have argued for it, as well as public radio and the Pap news agency, to be dissolved and replaced with new structures.
Prof Tadeusz Kowalski, a member of the National Broadcasting Council, says pursuing individual journalists for following a pro-government editorial line is unlikely to succeed in the courts.
“It is difficult to hold the propaganda of media employees accountable before the judiciary,” said Kowalski, a professor of media studies at the University of Warsaw. “Some employees did not act in accordance with what the law obliges them to do, but this is the responsibility of the broadcaster.”