How Donald Tusk came to dominate Polish politics

WARSAW, Poland — Donald Tusk, a balding and physically unimposing man, doesn’t at first glance look like a political colossus. But Poland’s prime minister has become by far his country’s dominant political figure, which he re-emphasized last week in celebrations marking two years of his government.

“We have become a great, proud country,” a triumphant Tusk, 52, said at the start of a two-day conference to observe the anniversary.

His transition has surprised many Poles, who have watched Tusk during his two decades in politics. For years he was seen as a smooth political operator, but someone who avoided hard work and dodged any ministerial appointments in previous center-right governments. His greatest joy seemed to be playing soccer with his buddies.

But step-by-step over the last few years, Tusk has taken control of the center-right of Polish politics, carefully pushing aside rivals until he became the leading figure of the Civic Platform party he helped found in 2001.

He became prime minister in 2007. Following a lobbying scandal this fall he sidelined his party’s No. 2, Grzegorz Schetyna, the former minister of the interior. He told his former soccer partner that “big boys don’t cry” in politics and now stands alone. He now has complete control over the party and the government, and is the likeliest victor in next year’s presidential election — if he chooses to run.

A good part of Tusk's success stems from who he is not, namely his predecessor, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Kaczynski, the identical twin brother of the current president, Lech Kaczynski, had an enormously turbulent stint in power from 2006 to 2007 at the head of his right-wing Law and Justice party. The party’s operating principle was that Poland was dominated by a shady conspiracy made up of crooked businessmen, former communist spies and bent politicians who had to be exposed and destroyed. The party also had a close alliance with the most extreme elements of the Catholic Church and a strong suspicion of both Germany and Russia.

That toxic brew quickly became too much for many Poles, and they turned to the more affable and non-confrontational Tusk. Instead of televised harangues on threats to the nation, Tusk once went on the air to tell Poles to turn on their barbecues and have a grill to celebrate their country.

Kaczynski has proven to be a terrible opposition leader, continuing to use verbal aggression against the government in ways that tend to scare off more moderate voters.

In an interview this week on the ultra-Catholic Radio Maryja station, Kaczynski denounced Tusk’s two years in power, saying “It’s difficult to find any successes,” then he turned to one of his favorite bugbears, the Germans.

In an attack on the government’s program to sell off billions of dollars in state assets to keep next year’s deficit from spiraling out of control, he worried that any sold companies would quickly become the property of the German state. Despite Poland being in the European Union and NATO, he warned: “Poland is not surrounded by kind uncles, and only someone who is very, very silly could believe such a thing.”

That kind of an attitude has propelled Tusk’s Civic Platform to 53 percent support — more or less the position it has held over the last two years — while Kaczynski’s Law and Justice has been unable to break through more than a quarter of the electorate.

“The government’s poll rating are remarkably strong,” said Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, the head of one of Poland’s largest banks, as well as a former prime minister.

Tusk’s hold on Poland has been cemented by the economic crisis. Poland has had the best downturn of any EU country — it is the only member of the bloc that will not see a recession this year. The expectation is that the economy will grow by 1 to 2 percent this year, and then speed up to as much as 3 percent in 2010, a far better performance than anywhere else on the continent.

“A very important thing is not just that we’ve got growth — and haven’t had a recession and won’t have a recession this year — but also that the very significant slowdown that we have had has resulted in a relatively small increase in unemployment,” said Jacek Rostowski, the finance minister.

The strong economy was the centerpiece of the government’s anniversary celebrations.

“This year and next year Poland will continue to be a leader in Europe when it comes to economic growth,” Tusk said to bursts of applause. “Poland’s prestige over the last two years in Europe and the world has risen strongly.”

Now Tusk, who shows the strain of governing on his increasingly drawn face, is no longer seen as a lazy politician. Instead he controls his party, and increasingly the country. And with the caliber of the opposition ranged against him, it is difficult to see that dominance erode over the next few years.