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Lost in the Pond: Takeaways from Warsaw’s Self-Destructive Vote

Although the European Union is one of the most influential institutions in the Old Continent, elections for any branch of this supranational organization are a strikingly overlooked affair. Recently, however, one election did not follow this tendency and instead figured prominently both in European media and public opinion. Ironically, this was the presidential election of the European Councila vote in which citizens do not participate directly and that is instead conducted by the heads of the member states who form the Council. The president is tasked with organizational and representative duties, such as chairing meetings and serving as a figurehead for the entire EU. As such, the position does not carry direct geopolitical benefit for the president’s nation (or any EU state for that matter) and previous presidents were therefore chosen for their unparalleled diplomatic experience rather than their policies.

The most recent president in the seven-year history of the post was former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk. He began his political career with notable involvement in the anti-Communist “Solidarity” movement and later played a key role in advocating for Poland’s entry into the EU. In addition to these highlights, he has entered the annals of Polish government with prolonged majority approval ratings that led to him being the first re-elected prime minister in post-’89 Poland. Such qualifications set him apart from other candidates and exemplify the story of Poland’s successful transition from behind the Iron Curtain to the forefront of European affairs.

Unfortunately, Warsaw’s lone opposition to Tusk’s reelection on March 9th corrupted the idyllic nature of the Polish tale and resulted in an embarrassing 27 to 1 defeat of the incumbent’s nation. To make matters more bizarre, the dissenting vote was supplemented by a farfetched nomination of a relatively unknown Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Jacek Saryusz-Wolski. Interestingly, Saryusz-Wolski was not a member of the right-wing opposition “Law and Justice” that currently controls all major offices, but the Civic Platform, Donald Tusk’s own Polish centrist party.

In a general European context, the inability to place state interests above party aims would be effective state suicide and would therefore never occur in the first place. However, given the precedent set by the Law and Justice party in their domestic policies, this contradictory opposition is actually alarmingly commonplace, and can be taken as an extension of tactics previously confined to a national scale to a larger geographic scene.

The motivations behind Law and Justice’s behavior are remarkably simple, given that Jarosław Kaczyński (the party boss) is its sole authority despite being officially just another parliamentary representative. Kaczyński has chosen Tusk and the Civic Platform as his populist vehicle, an all-encompassing source of the country’s ills behind which he can rally the support of disenfranchised voters with each denunciation. A useful analogy for readers unfamiliar with Eastern Europe is Trump’s reference to “elites” and “corrupt Washington insiders” but in many respects, this analogy is too charitable for Kaczyński. In statements preceding the election, Kaczyński accused Tusk and his party members of every possible wrongdoing including high treason and being a covert German candidate. Statements that might be classified as slander in other countries are merely a part of the Law and Justice modus operandi; years ago a representative put forward a claim that Tusk’s grandfather was a Nazi officer when in reality he was a conscripted Wehrmacht prisoner-of-war, captured while fighting for Polish resistance.

While the choice to vote against Tusk is a move straight out of Jarosław Kaczyński’s playbook, the opposition politician’s willingness to take up Law and Justice’s nomination is atypicaleven in the Polish political climate. Saryusz-Wolski’s conduct best appears to fit the narrative of a career politician. In the early 90s, he headed a committee on Poland’s integration with Europe, a post he was well-suited for given his diplomatic background and mastery of French. Despite his early contributions to Poland’s entry into the EU, when his party came into power under Tusk in 2009 he was omitted for all major nominations consequently leading to his distancing from the party, as well as right-wing voting patterns after that.

Notwithstanding his inevitable defeat in the race for the presidency, Saryusz-Wolski might be consoled by a domestic reward in the form of a prominent post in the Law and Justice Cabinet. After all, key posts like the chairmanships of state television or the justice department have already been filled with Kaczyński loyalists. Utter incompetency in their respective fields does not disqualify them from such positions, as made obvious by the example of Jacek Kurski, who made the Wehrmacht comments and today is responsible for the national TV network. Hopefully, the opposition will not experience further weakening and defections at the hands of careerists who are lured by Law and Justice’s open-handed approach to nominations.

Apart from providing a window into Polish politics, the presidential elections also shed light on general strategies of other states within the European community. For one, member states with socialist governments did not attempt to capitalize on the competition for the presidency between the two Polish centre-right candidates. Countries like France and the Netherlands did not nominate left-leaning alternatives and instead opted for Tusk, thereby prioritizing the continuity and stability of the European project over national interests. Such behavior is reassuring, especially given continued worries about the EU’s viability.

Hungary’s vote “for” is also an interesting case. Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” is undoubtedly an influential model for Kaczyński and the Hungarian prime minister has established himself as a close ally for Warsaw. Furthermore, his trademark vision of uniting the Eastern European Visegrad Four alliance against further European integration made him a likely candidate for opposing Tusk. Seeing as Polish prime minister Beata Szydło explicitly cited Tusk’s negligence of Eastern European interest in a letter motivating Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination, a Hungarian opposition would be a perfect opportunity to manifest the Orbanite vision. Hungary fell in line with the majority and the pragmatic futility of voting against does not seem to be an adequate explanation for doing so. Instead, Orban may be working towards the alienation of other post-Soviet states from the favors of richer, Western EU members. Through edging Poland on to take a stronger stance against the Union, but simultaneously aligning his country with Western policy, he might finally be able to ameliorate Hungary’s existing reputation of being EUs’ enfant terrible.

Nevertheless, as demonstrative as the votes may be of other states’ European strategies, the crux of the issue lies in the Polish dissent and the underlying tumult in my home country’s politics. Jokes on social media that this is the second time a Pole has been elected to an influential position without the approval of his own government (the first being John Paul II election for papacy under the communist regime) are unfortunately only partly comedic.

Kaczyński and his party’s agenda are antithetical to the liberalism the majority of Polish youth take for granted, and consequently, are gravely unpopular with my generation. This in turn often leads to a simplistic dismissal of his actions as deluded and inexplicable, which is inaccurate, especially in the case of such an experienced politician, who does not steer his country against the EU without a particular aim to motivate such monumental decisions.

From all possible explanations, the most likely logic behind Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination is further delegitimization of Tusk in the eyes of Polish voters ahead of the 2020 Polish presidential elections.  Tusk’s foreseeable victory only gives credence to Kaczyński’s sustained claims that the incumbent is subservient to states other than his own. From this perspective, Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination becomes more of a statement than a genuine candidacy.  

Impressive as this strategy may be, it nevertheless falls on the grounds of realism. Tusk’s domestic approval ratings are higher than ever, and internet humor (yet again providing an astute depiction of the political climate) runs rampant with comparisons of Tusk’s future Polish presidency with Jesus’ return from heaven. Kaczyński’s belligerent electoral maneuver that was supposed to chip away at Donald Tusk’s image thereby becomes more of a foolish gamble that gives credence to his public image of a frenzied authoritarian.

What is perhaps even more worrying is the fact that so far, Kaczyński has had no difficulty in assembling a majoritarian political movement behind his detachment from reality and personal vendetta against Donald Tusk. Jacek Saryusz-Wolski is not an anomalous figure in the Polish political landscape which is increasingly filled with spineless careerists who forego ideological integrity and the common good for personal gain. As a whole, amidst a fractured European project, my country seems to be experiencing an even graver crisis – that of democracy as a whole. What was once a vehicle for synergizing popular will with policy has been now degraded into a structure for the power-hungry to realize their grandest aims.