A potential return of Donald Tusk to domestic politics could kickstart a renewal of Civic Platform (PO), the largest opposition party in parliament. However, Tusk would have to overcome multiple challenges facing PO and the wider opposition in order to effectively challenge the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Rumors about the potential return of the ex-prime minister and former head of the European Council to an active role in domestic politics have been intensifying in recent weeks. It is widely believed that Tusk will assume a leadership role within PO, which should become clear at the party’s congress on 3 July.
Given Tusk’s positive track record as PO leader during 2003-2014 and his experience at the highest level of international politics, Tusk is perhaps one of the best-suited politicians to initiate much-needed changes in PO. After six consecutive electoral losses at various levels, PO voters are losing trust in the party’s ability to challenge PiS. PO is polling near all-time lows (at around 16-17%) and is losing ground to Szymon Holownia’s Poland 2050 movement. The departure of several influential party members suggests widening internal divisions. Finally, current PO chairman Borys Budka (in office since January 2020) has failed to gain public appeal, with only a small fraction of opposition voters considering him suitable for the prime minister’s position.
Despite obvious challenges facing the PO, Tusk’s return would not be straightforward. Having been absent from domestic politics since 2014, he would need time to reassert his authority within the party and bring in or promote trusted people to initiate and manage changes. This could lead to even more turmoil within the party in the near-term. Unenthused about Tusk’s potential return, the party’s highly popular deputy chairman Rafal Trzaskowski could choose to step aside to develop his own youth-oriented Common Poland movement. This would be a significant loss for PO, even if such a move could help the opposition to target wider and more diverse groups of voters in the longer term. Last but not least, Tusk would need to find common ground with the PO’s partners in the wider Civic Coalition (KO) electoral grouping.
After spending several years outside the country, Tusk would have to reaffirm his political wit and understanding of the most pressing issues for Polish voters. While PO has been a vocal critic of controversial PiS policies, it lacks a clear and well-communicated policy agenda of its own. Tusk would therefore have to oversee the development of an electoral program that appeals to diverse segments of the non-PiS electorate, ranging from liberal urban voters to more conservative constituents in smaller towns and rural areas. The party would also need to clearly differentiate itself from Poland 2050 and other opposition parties, as well as propose attractive alternatives to the PiS’s socially-oriented policies.
Aside from internal party issues, the main opposition parties (including PO) will have to find ways to cooperate if they want to realistically challenge PiS at the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023. The recent success of a joint opposition candidate at local elections in the city of Rzeszow (southeastern Poland) demonstrates the merits of cooperation. While Tusk’s authority and experience could help the opposition find common ground, he could also be viewed as a formidable competitor by other opposition leaders.