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Poland: Will Donald Tusk be barred from holding office?

Jacek Lepiarz in Warsaw
May 31, 2023

Poland's parliamentary election is still months away, but the race is already heating up: The government fears losing its majority and the president has signed a bill that could put the opposition leader out of the race.

Former PM Donald Tusk is seen at the Sejm, the Polish parliament on May 26, 2023
Poland's ruling PiS party has voted through legislation to form a commission that will have the power to investigate alleged Russian influence in previous administrations and punish those deemed to have acted in Russia's interests. Pictured here: former PM Donald TuskImage: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/picture alliance

In the eight years that he has been in office, Polish President Andrzej Duda has never been courted as much by the country's liberal opposition as he was last weekend.

This is not surprising, considering that the president was the only one with the power to stop a highly contentious draft law passed last Friday by the government's slim majority in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm.

The bill, which many consider unconstitutional and which the opposition wanted to have blocked, foresees the creation of a state commission to investigate Russia's influence "on the internal security of the Republic of Poland in the years 2007–2022."

Poland's President Andrzej Duda speaks to the press during his two-day visit to Britain, London, May 24, 2023
Poland's President Andrzej Duda announced on Monday that he would sign the bill passed by parliament last FridayImage: Peter Cziborra/REUTERS

Opposition politicians and media critical of the government have dubbed the bill "Lex Tusk." They see the creation of this special commission as a direct attempt to torpedo the candidacy of former PM and former President of the European Council Donald Tusk, the opposition politician with the best prospects in this fall's parliamentary election.

Despite the outcry, Duda signed the bill into law on Monday.

President ignores opposition's appeal

Duda had announced earlier on Monday that he would indeed sign the bill, dashing the hopes of Poles who had hoped that he would veto it.

Although he also announced that he would ask the Constitutional Tribunal to examine the document, the move was seen by many as an empty gesture, considering the ruling party's influence on the Constitutional Tribunal.

A ploy to sideline Donald Tusk?

The new commission will have more powers than a parliamentary committee of inquiry. If it finds that an individual acted under Russian influence, it can ban that person from holding positions that have control over the spending of public funds for up to 10 years.

There are fears that the commission would use these sweeping powers to effectively block Tusk from running for office.

Polish opposition leader and former Prime Minister Donald Tusk watches lawmakers vote
Opposition leader Donald Tusk (left), who is not a member of parliament, was present in the chamber during the voteImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo/picture alliance

"The cowards in the parliament voted for a commission to eliminate their most dangerous enemy," Tusk said after Friday's vote, adding that lawmakers who supported "the violation of the constitution" will regret it.

Focus on the Tusk government's energy policy

The new state commission will be given the mandate to focus on Poland's energy policy in the years leading up to Russia's war in Ukraine, and in particular the purchase of gas and oil from Russia.

The ruling PiS accuses Tusk of making Poland dependent on energy imports from Russia during his time as prime minister (2007–2014) and for not taking sufficiently decisive action to block the German-Russian Nord Stream pipeline project. 

Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski had initially proposed investigating the energy policy of the Tusk government in 2022. Now, just months before the country goes to the polls, his wish has become reality.

Experts consider the bill unconstitutional

Poland's commissioner for human rights, Marcin Wiacek, is of the opinion that the constitution does not allow for the creation of such a body. "In a democratic state governed by the rule of law, punishment is meted out by the courts for criminal offences. This body, however, is supposed to punish acts that were not necessarily illegal at the time," he said, adding that an administrative body that mixes investigative powers with the administration of justice is not acceptable.

Members of Law and Justice (PiS) party are seen clapping in the Sejm on May 26, 2023
Right-wing politicians in Poland have in the past dismissed Tusk and his party as "Germany's collaborators." While Tusk was following the parliamentary debate about the bill on the commission from the visitors' gallery on Friday, some PiS members shouted "To Berlin! to Berlin!" at him. Pictured here: members of the PiS party clap in the Sejm on May 26, 2023Image: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Pawel Kowal, of the opposition Civic Platform (PO), expressed his reservations in more drastic terms. "We have reached another level of authoritarianism," he said. "The citizens should know that, from this day on, it is not possible to hold normal elections, that electoral opportunities are no longer equal."

US and EU criticize bill

The US ambassador to Poland, Mark Brzezinski, also voiced his concern, saying the United States "shares concerns about laws that may ostensibly reduce voters' ability to vote for those they want to vote for, outside of a clearly defined process in an independent court." 

The European Union's justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, said on Tuesday that such a law would be "able to deprive citizens, individuals of their rights to be elected in a public function — public office." The EU would not hesitate to take measures if necessary, Reynders said, "because it's impossible to agree on such a system without a real access to justice."

A commission with sweeping powers

The nine members of the commission would be selected by the parliament, and its chair would be appointed by the head of government. The commission would have the power to demand the release of any document and information — even secret documents and classified information.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking national observances
Deputy PM Kaczynski proposed investigating Tusk government's energy policy in 2022Image: Michal Dyjuk/AP Photo/picture alliance

The opposition has announced that it will boycott the work of the commission, which would start work in June and present its first report on September 17 — the anniversary of the day in 1939 when Josef Stalin's Red Army invaded Poland from the east and occupied the eastern part of the country after agreeing to a pact with Adolf Hitler.

Tensions rise as election approaches

Although the conservative political alliance the United Right, which is led by the PiS, is well ahead and is expected to poll about 33%, this would not be enough to allow it to continue ruling alone.

The right-wing ruling party knows this and knows it will not be easy to find a coalition partner, which is why it is growing increasingly nervous. Even the preelection promise to beef up the children's allowance from 500 zloty (€110/$118) to 800 zloty has not had any impact on opinion polls.

In April, Tusk called for a demonstration in Warsaw on June 4 against "high prices, theft and lies and for free elections and a democratic, pro-European Poland." The fact that the "Lex Tusk" has now been passed by the parliament and signed by the president adds a new dimension to the protest.

The opposition hopes it will be the biggest demonstration since the collapse of communism in 1989. "I want the authorities to start feeling afraid on June 4 and people to see that they have to power to change everything," Tusk told Newsweek Polska in an interview.

This article was adapted from the German and updated by Aingeal Flanagan

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects