Donald Tusk Tops Poland’s Populists, Now Europe Cries “Blueprint Please!

Donald Tusk proved himself to be an unlikely victor in Poland’s political theatre. After eight years of right-wing populist rule, Tusk managed to galvanize opposition forces and catalyze a large-scale election victory for the country’s left-leaning Civic Platform party. His success marked a major turning point in Polish politics, and it has left Europe eager to find lessons in Tusk’s strategy. Tusk first came to power in 2007, but it was not until 2015, when his government faced a challenge from Law and Justice Party (PiS), that his approach truly came into focus. PiS was an avowedly populist party – appealing to Polish identity and tradition while denouncing Western liberal values and globalization. In response, Tusk presented a long-term vision for Poland – a vision bold and daring enough to set him apart from the torrent of false promises and easy fixes proposed by his rivals. At the heart of Tusk’s vision was an emphasis on the economy, education, promotion of a modern, competitive nation, and improving the infrastructure of Polish towns. In addition, Tusk took initiative to engage with Poland’s many marginalized communities, plus launching initiatives to reduce poverty and ensure equal opportunities for all citizens. Such moves were met with a strong reaction from the right, yet Tusk was determined to hold his ground, and it paid off. On the eve of the 2015 election, the polls suggested a Tusk victory was imminent. He went on to gain 47% of the vote compared to the 35.5% won by the PiS, an 13.5% difference. Although Tusk’s political legacy is still to be decided, his success in the face of populism has provided Europe with a benchmark for how to handle a threatened rise of right-wing ideology. Money and hard work alone are not enough to quell populist leaders; a strong, consistent message which resonates with the public is paramount to success. European nations in current crisis are well served to take note.