Tusk devours novice Szymon Hołownia who becomes the butt of political jokes

Opposition party leaders, from left, Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, Szymon Holownia, Donald Tusk and Władyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz arrive for a meeting to announce to reporters that Tusk is their candidate for prime minister and that they are ready to govern together, in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
By John Cody
9 Min Read

The political identity and intended role of Polish Parliament Speaker Szymon Hołownia remain unclear.

Although he was prominently featured by the liberal coalition-friendly TVN broadcaster — far more than just a television network, but rather a kind of cartel connecting business, special services, and a strong media presence — the purpose of this entire operation is hard to pinpoint.

TVN has openly supported the Civic Platform (PO) for years, so its creation of an alternative for Donald Tusk’s voters is puzzling.

Hołownia has shown neither exceptional political intuition nor strength. Instead, he surfed on the wave of anti-PiS sentiment and an alliance with the Polish People’s Party (PSL), which has a compact structure in the field. It’s worth noting that during the last phase of the election campaign, the Third Way accurately read the mood of the society and sought to lower the temperature of political disputes. However, this success was more due to the mistakes of Law and Justice (PiS) than Hołownia’s long-term strategy, and it’s this very lack of strategy that the Speaker of the Sejm and the Third Way miss the most.

What was easy during the election campaign, such as the rough cooperation with Donald Tusk when the enemy was clearly defined, becomes a devastating battle during governance.

The personality of the current prime minister does not allow for the presence of an ambitious politician in his surroundings, more those who stand in line as loyal executors of the leader’s commands. This is well understood by Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz (Third Way, PSL) who never claims to be more than a subordinate to the prime minister. However, Hołownia entered politics not as a natural ally of the PO but as an alternative. He refused to be corralled onto a joint list, a decision for which Prime Minister Tusk has never forgiven him, because he wanted to propose a different kind of politics, as much as he, rather than the cartel behind him, is the creator of his own actions.

One of the significant elements was a different way of communicating with voters. Hołownia directed his message to young people and conservatives who were dissatisfied with or hated PiS but were also unable to vote for the PO. While it was obvious that he was useful for Tusk, taking votes away from Jarosław Kaczyński’s party and ultimately causing it to lose power, the reach for potential Civic Platform supporters was bound to lead to conflict sooner or later.

The open conflict had to appear before the elections. Tusk is desperate to prove that he is the leader of Polish politics. If he does not receive the most votes in the local and European Parliament elections, PiS will maintain its status as the strongest party in the country, with legitimate claims to return to power.

As the first hundred days of the government have been more of a source of shame than pride, and with PiS seemingly regaining strength and being capable of accurately targeting the left-liberal coalition amid internal disputes, the vision of a double victory over Kaczyński’s party in the dual elections seems to be fading. However, to not relinquish the initiative to the Third Way and the Left, Donald Tusk, as usual, decided to strike at his allies.

He left the Left out in the cold by ultimately deciding against creating a joint list for the local elections. He then called on Third Way voters to vote for the Civic Coalition, and Hołownia himself began to be harshly attacked for blocking the progress of a bill to liberalize abortion.

The most media-visible attacks on the Third Way leader came from the Left, for whom the issue of abortion is crucial for identity reasons. For Tusk, this situation is ideal, as he can position himself as the mediator and stabilizer of the coalition — the leader of the only reasonable force uniting power. However, the real message is different: enough poaching in the Civic Platform’s electorate.

The Third Way’s value is to function as a licensed conservative party. Yet, Szymon Hołownia realizes that he will not gain much more from the PiS electorate. What’s worse, as time goes by and electoral promises go unfulfilled, escalating violence, lawbreaking, and thuggish politics by Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, Adam Bodnar, and especially Donald Tusk himself, the credibility of the Third Way on the right will decline. The Platform leader has placed Speaker Hołownia in the fray between the biggest players on the Polish political scene. The higher the emotions, the less room between them, and thus for the Third Way.

Before beginning the political crushing of Szymon Hołownia, Donald Tusk first ensured that he had no possibility of playing with the party of Jarosław Kaczyński. The Third Way leader had become one of the main faces of the campaign against jailed conservative lawmakers Mariusz Kamiński and Maciej Wąsik. Stripping them of their parliamentary mandates not only left a lot of legal doubts but was associated with the ostentatious humiliation of these two politicians. Hołownia eagerly took on this role, hoping to become one of the main players in the coalition. However, once he lost the ability to balance between the coalition and the opposition, he was at the mercy of Donald Tusk. This exceptionally brutal and ruthless politician does not usually waste such situations.

First, came the tapes of the Third Way’s member demanding money from a candidate running in the local elections. Then, it turned out that there was no money to reduce the health contribution, one of the Third Way’s flagship electoral promises. Then, once again, Prime Minister Tusk applied his old, proven maneuver — taking over Hołownia’s proposal and suggesting his own way of calculating the health contribution.

The effects did not take long to manifest. Support for the Third Way, which ensured Donald Tusk’s takeover of power, began to plummet rapidly. In the realm of politics, where ruthless, almost Darwinian competition prevails, a leader lacking leadership qualities must accept his place in the hierarchy, often as the second in command. If one is merely representing the interests of his backers without real success, he is likely to lose their support sooner rather than later. If one wishes to be the alpha male in the pack, he must fight for leadership. Speaker Hołownia, without a program, political backing, and the ability to engage with parties outside the coalition, stands no chance. He neither ran nor put forward a candidate in the Warsaw mayoral elections, ceding the field to the Civic Coalition. He renounced the opportunity to launch a sharp critique of Donald Tusk’s party for its rather mediocre management of the capital.

This is all the more incomprehensible since he is to compete in the presidential elections against Rafał Trzaskowski in just over a year. Weakening him today could have been beneficial in the future. However, Szymon Hołownia did not throw down the gauntlet. There could hardly be a more evident sign of weakness.

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