Tusk owes Putin one

Remi Adekoya

Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine have radically altered the political dynamics in Poland

by Remi Adekoya

Afew months ago, Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s ruling party, looked sure to lose the upcoming European Parliamentary elections in May. Polls showed the conservative nationalist opposition Law and Justice (PiS) in the lead, outperforming PO by anything from 4 to 10 percentage points.

But then Vladimir Putin started flexing his muscles in the Crimean region, sending out aggressive signals and scaring many Poles who still shudder when they think back to the days when the fate of their country was decided within the confines of the Kremlin.

Never waste a good crisis
PM Donald Tusk, who heads PO, was quick to seize the opportunity. He started addressing Poles regularly, convincing them about the gravity of the situation. He talked about how his countrymen had to realize that Poland’s independence “is not guaranteed forever” and that the Crimean crisis “has all the trademarks of a conflict that could lead to a world war.”

At the same time, the PM assured Poles that he was in control of the situation, that there was no “direct threat to Poland” and that his government would effectively mobilize the EU to respond decisively to the threat of Russian expansionism. Tusk delivered his lines convincingly. He came across as tough, but not gung-ho, pragmatic, but no sell-out.

The balancing act required here was always going to be the most difficult part for the Polish PM. While many Poles feel a strong distaste and even contempt for the corrupt ex-KGB officers now ruling Russia, they are scared of antagonizing the Kremlin because of the big guns it wields. The only thing Poles want less than a leader who yells “flee” at the mere sight of the Russian bear is one who yells “forward” upon the first viewing of it.

Tusk also succeded in portraying himself as a major player in Europe, holding high-profile meetings with European leaders in the heat of the crisis including with the boss-player herself, Angela Merkel. The PM’s message to Poles was simple: “Danger is nigh but I am here to protect you. Keep me in power and I will keep you safe.”

The strategy is working. A voter survey at the end of March had PO with 36 percent support while PiS is now backed by 33 percent of the electorate.

Not fair, we said it first
PiS and its populist leader Jarosław Kaczyński must really feel cheated here. For years, they have been the ones harping on about how dangerous Mr Putin is while Tusk’s government consistently brushed them off them as being anti-Russian and paranoid. So theoretically, the opposition party should be the biggest political beneficiary of the Ukraine crisis. But when a society feels in danger, it focuses its attentions on the current government and its leaders, those who have the power to make the really big decisions. Furthermore, societies tend to consolidate around their existent leadership in times of crisis. All this has helped boost PO and put it in prime position to win the EP elections. The result of the May poll is more important in Poland than in most other European countries as it will kick off an election calendar set to include local government, parliamentary and presidential polls all within the next 18 months. Whoever wins in May will have the momentum on their side going into the next election.

That is why the PM and his ruling party are doing everything to keep the Ukraine issue alive during the ongoing campaign. So far, the emotions the Ukrainian crisis has awoken in Poles have worked to the favor of PO, and if they do win the EP election, they will have none other than Vladimir Putin to thank for it.

Remi Adekoya was the politics editor of WBJ Observer. He also writes for The Guardian

 

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