Outgoing European Council president and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk has announced that he will not seek to stand in Poland’s presidential elections, scheduled to take place next year.

His decision ends years of speculation that he was considering a run against incumbent Andrzej Duda, who was elected as the candidate of the current ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in 2015.

The 2020 presidential elections will be crucial in deciding the balance of power in Poland over the coming years. Should Duda win re-election, it will make it easier for PiS to continue to pursue its agenda in the second term that it won at last month’s parliamentary polls. But if an opposition candidate manages to unseat him, they will be able to use the presidential veto and other powers to frustrate the government’s ambitions.

Tusk, the founder and former leader of Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s largest opposition party, said today that after “deep reflection” he has decided that the opposition “needs a candidate not burdened with the baggage of difficult, unpopular decisions, and I am burdened with such baggage”.

He is “announcing this decision today because time is pressing and I would not like to hinder the opposition in the process of selecting candidates”. He will, however, “strongly support the opposition”, and believes that “we can win these elections”.

Today’s announcement follows reports in Poland yesterday that private polling commissioned by Tusk had produced disappointing results regarding his potential candidacy. A source said that it showed “a huge risk” of defeat for Tusk, whose “large negative electorate” in Poland would make it difficult for him to achieve the support required to defeat Duda.

Tusk is one of Poland’s most successful politicians. He served as prime minister from 2007 to 2014, when his government became the first to win re-election in the post 1989-period, before moving on to lead the European Council. However, he remains a divisive figure in his home country.

During PiS’s first term, Tusk became increasingly engaged in Polish domestic politics. Ahead of May’s European elections, he openly campaigned on behalf of the opposition, including suggesting that his longtime rival, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, is an “ayatollah” who wants to introduce a “sharia”-like system of state religion in Poland.

However, his intervention failed to bring success for the PO-led coalition, with some suggesting it may even have increased turnout among PiS voters.

Poland’s opposition is currently facing big questions over its strategy for the presidential elections. Its success in forging an electoral pact that ended PiS’s control of the Senate at last month’s election has given hope that rallying around a single candidate in the presidential election – at least in the second-round run-off – could help to oust Duda.

But finding a candidate that can garner support from a diverse opposition that ranges from the conservative centre-right to the liberal left will be difficult. The situation is complicated further by uncertainty over the leadership of PO, whose current chairman, Grzegorz Schetyna, is resisting pressure to quit after overseeing three election defeats. The potential for infighting and a leadership challenge will make it harder for PO, which is the largest opposition party, to forge a strategy for the presidential election.

Among opposition candidates whose names have been mentioned so far are Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, a PO MP who was chosen as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate for the October elections (and has said she was waiting for Tusk’s decision before considering her own candidacy); Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw and also from PO; and Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, the leader of the agrarian, centre-right Polish People’s Party, which was the junior partner in a coalition government with PO in 2007-15.

There has also been talk of choosing a candidate from outside politics who could win support across partisan lines. One name mentioned is Andrzej Rzepliński, who as president of the Constitutional Tribunal until 2016 resisted PiS’s successful attempts to install its own candidate as Rzepliński’s replacement during its controversial overhaul of judicial institutions, which led to opposition protests and European Union intervention.

Main image credit: Anna Mikkor/Flickr (under  CC BY 2.0)

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