Poland's PM bows out of presidential race

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s prime minister has thrown his country’s politics into turmoil with his decision this week not to run for the presidency, declaring that he would prefer to stay on as the head of government.

Donald Tusk had spent much of his political career aiming at Poland’s top job, so his decision to bow out of a contest he had narrowly lost in 2005 to the current incumbent, the right-wing Lech Kaczynski, was something of a surprise.

But ever since becoming prime minister in 2007, it has become increasingly clear that Tusk has recognized that heading the government is the most powerful position in the country, while the presidency is much more symbolic. Tusk effectively worked to sideline Kaczynski, staging fights over who got to use Poland’s government plane to travel to government summits, and painting Kaczynski and his legislative veto as the main impediment to passing needed economic reforms.

“I made this choice because I need strength and effectiveness to conclude ambitious plans for Poland, not to live in the presidential palace,” Tusk told reporters during a press conference at the Warsaw Stock Exchange. He made his announcement standing in front of an enormous map of Europe, where every country that had experienced a recession was painted violent red. They included every country except for Poland (in bright green), which saw its economy expand by 1.7 percent in 2009.

Tusk said he needs to stay in charge of the government to build on that economic success and to push through economic reforms aimed at preventing the public debt — nearing 55 percent of gross domestic product — and the budget deficit — above 6 percent of GDP — from spinning out of control due to the impact of last year’s economic slowdown.

His decision not to stand for president in the election later this year came as a surprise to most. In a wide-ranging interview given just days before his announcement on Thursday, Tusk made it clear that he would spell out his political future as late as this March. Some of his closest advisors, including Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, a former prime minister, had long counseled him not to run, fearing that if he did so his centrist Civic Platform party would disintegrate without him at the helm.

“It would be a big mistake for him to run,” said Bielecki shortly before Tusk’s announcement.

Tusk had long dwelled on whether or not to run. “I have a serious dilemma,” he said earlier this week. “There is a public expectation that I should be a candidate.”

Now that Tusk, who dominates his party and is the country’s most popular politician, is no longer a factor in this autumn’s election, the race is on within Civic Platform to select a candidate for the presidency.

The likeliest candidates are Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of parliament — who updated his image in recent weeks by shaving off his handlebar moustache — and Radek Sikorski, the anglophile foreign minister who spent several years working at a Washington think tank. There are also suggestions that Tusk could choose Bielecki, one of his oldest political allies.

While Civic Platform concentrates on putting forward a candidate, the opposition Law and Justice party is rejoicing that Kaczynski will not have to face Tusk, who holds a significant lead over Kaczynski in opinion polls. Law and Justice leaders have jeered Tusk, calling him a “coward” for not challenging Kaczynski.

But the problem for the opposition is that Kaczynski’s presidency has so far been a disappointment, and polls show him losing against almost every potential candidate. In a rush poll conducted immediately after Tusk’s announcement, the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper found Kaczynski behind Komorowski by 14 to 27 percent.

Although he won’t be running, Tusk is still dedicated to getting rid of Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother, Jasroslaw, a former prime minister and the leader of Law and Justice. “We have to definitively remove the last vestiges of power from those who treat terms such as liberal democracy, free markets and Europe with suspicion,” he said.