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Donald Tusk is a menace to Poland

His ‘liberal’ government is trampling over democratic norms.

Rafał Woś

Topics Politics World

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Just over a month ago, an electoral coalition led by Donald Tusk, a former president of the European Council, took power in Poland – much to the delight of the EU establishment.

Since then, Tusk’s coalition government has been busily taking revenge on its political opponents and asserting its influence over state-owned media. And it has been doing so with no regard for the rule of law or for democratic norms. Had the Law and Justice Party (PiS), the populist party that governed Poland between 2015 and 2023, done only a fraction of what Tusk’s government is now doing, Western political and media elites would have been outraged.

Tusk’s first act was to deprive PiS of the right to elect the vice-speaker for both houses of the new parliament. This cuts against all precedent. It has long been accepted in Polish political culture that the largest opposition party effectively chooses the vice-speaker – and PiS is not just the largest opposition party, it’s also the largest party full stop, having won 36 per cent of the votes at the last election. But Tusk’s cobbled together coalition has rejected Elżbieta Witek, PiS’s nomination for vice-speaker, on the absurd grounds that her nomination would not ‘meet democratic standards’.

That was just the start of the coalition’s assault on democratic norms. In December, just a few days after being named prime minister, Tusk announced the takeover of Poland’s public media. He shut down state broadcaster TVP Media and dismissed its management. All this was justified in the name of restoring so-called impartiality.

Under Polish law, the government can only appoint the management of state media with the consent of two constitutional bodies, the National Broadcasting Council and the National Media Council. Given these bodies’ members were elected under a PiS government and still have lengthy terms in office left to serve, they would have likely opposed Tusk’s plans. His solution? He bypassed both bodies illegally, via ministerial decree. The police were then summoned to block the sacked officials from entering the building.

Most of Poland looked at this authoritarian spectacle, staged just before Christmas, with a mixture of disbelief and disgust. Yes, Polish political parties and governments have long exerted influence over public broadcasters. But never have they done so with quite as much brute force as Tusk’s coalition has done, violating constitutional and democratic norms in the process.

The new government is also looking to control the judiciary. To this end, it has filled the National Council of the Judiciary – a constitutional body overseeing Polish judges – with its own MPs. When PiS did something similar, the EU was up in arms, claiming that PiS was politicising the judiciary. Brussels even cited this as a justification for imposing sanctions on Poland and freezing some of Poland’s EU funding. But now Tusk’s government is doing exactly the same thing, the EU is fine with it. The European Commission has even announced that the first €5 billion of previously sanctioned funds will be released to Poland by the end of 2024, as the new government ‘works to restore rule of law’.

Over the past decade or so, PiS’s critics repeatedly appealed to the constitution and the ‘rule of law’. But now that Tusk’s coalition government is trampling over both, they have gone very quiet.

Some supporters of the government, worried by what they’re now seeing, hope all of this will eventually pass. That this is just a short period of violent but necessary adjustment after years of PiS rule. But what if it is not? What if Tusk and his pals continue to violate constitutional and democratic norms?

While in power, PiS had powerful opponents. At home, it faced a rich, private media and an influential opinion-forming elite. And it was constantly in the crosshairs of the European Union and of the liberal media abroad. They all used their immense power and influence to oppose practically everything PiS did. Paradoxically, this served the PiS government well. It made it stand upright. It kept a check on any authoritarian tendencies the party might have had.

Tusk’s government is not being scrutinised in this way. There are few powerful forces domestically or internationally calling out the new government’s democratic backsliding – all because the political and media establishment views Tusk as one of their own. Politico even accorded him the accolade of ‘the most influential person in Europe’.

As it stands, the ‘most influential person in Europe’ is becoming one of its most dangerous. His government can take over Polish media, override the constitution and overturn democracy. And not one of his friends in high places is batting so much as an eyelid.

Rafał Woś is a Polish journalist and commentator.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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