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The Battle for Public Opinion in Tusk's Poland

Policy Analyst


Since Donald Tusk’s close victory in the 2023 Polish parliamentary elections, granted to him by the combined strength of the Civic Coalition, Polish domestic and foreign policy narratives have undeniably moved towards the progressive centre and away from the populist right. But how founded are these decisions in the holy grail of public opinion? And what can Tusk do to reunite a nation that finds itself critically divided by the ever-corroding schism of political difference? In hoping to answer these questions, I draw on survey data gathered as part of a 2019 Polish national election study to form original insights into the relationships between public opinion, demography, and government response.

Who Is Tusk Appealing To?

Table 1 presents the four most significant outcomes from a logistic regression analysis I conducted, which aims to model the relationships between various demographic characteristics and support for Tusk. An odds ratio simply tells how likely it is for an event to occur, given the presence of an independent variable. For example, we can see in Table 1 that residents in Kujawsko-Pomorskie carries an odds ratio of 1.459, meaning that individuals who live in that region are 45.9% more likely to support Tusk compared to the average population. Given Tusk’s long-standing reputation as the man for Poland’s burgeoning  middle class, the results shown in Table 1 do not come as a great surprise. Kujawsko-Pomorskie boasts a strong, diverse economy composed of traditional sectors, such as agriculture, and more modern industries, such as renewable energy. The region also attracts high levels of foreign direct investment (FDI), providing a nurturing environment for business. 

Education level significantly influences support for Tusk, with PhD bearers 38% more likely to approve of Tusk than the average population. Whilst education is universally viewed as a vehicle for social mobility, this sentiment is especially poignant in post-soviet societies. In the USSR, enrolment at a university occupied one of the few channels through which it was possible to gain entry into a respected career, often in the military or the government. This legacy is still somewhat institutionalised in many former soviet republics, and the cultural emphasis on higher education as a means to success and social prestige remains prominent. Given these factors, it’s likely that many PhD holders fall into what is already a large portion of Tusk’s target demographic, the aspirational middle class. 

93.5% of Poles follow a religion, with Roman Catholics comprising 91.9% of the population. High concentrations of religiosity within a population make aligning oneself with that religion politically profitable. PiS, Civic Platform’s rival, thrives on this rationale by concretising itself in the minds of the electorate as the party that stands up for Roman Catholic values and principles. It follows that Protestants, who often diverge from Roman Catholic values in favour of a more socially liberal ethos, are likely to feel unrepresented by PiS for this reason and subsequently put their vote towards parties that align with a more socially liberal tradition, which likely explains the elevated approval rate amongst Protestants.

Who Isn’t Tusk Appealing To?

Table 2, a product of the same regression model, reveals which characteristics produce the most significant opposition to Tusk. Expectedly, these results are almost perfect inversions of the findings displayed in Table 1.

Frequent church attendance — attending a service once a week or more — is associated with a 51.6% increased likelihood of disapproving of Tusk compared with the general population. This is likely because staunch social conservatives tend to exhibit greater religious fervour than social liberals. Whilst, indeed, social liberals may well also possess strong religious feelings, it is also the case that ritualism and community engagement, often seen as being prime functions of the church, are also defining hallmarks of traditionalism, something that tends not to inform Tusk’s policy agenda. 

Podlaskie, in direct contrast with the previously considered Kujawsko-Pomorskie, is characterised by its peripheral status and low levels of socioeconomic development. The region is nestled in the upper eastern part of the country, shares borders with neighbouring Belarus and Lithuania, and takes pride in the retainment of its peasant-farmer cultural heritage. Emigration, especially of women, poses a particularly complicated challenge to the development of the region, as money is transferred from Podlaskie to wealthier areas and fewer families are settled there to provide the human capital needed for microeconomic stimulation. Through enduring the socioeconomic reclusion inherent to living there, individuals resident in Podlaskie are likely to be poorer and more socially conservative than average. These characteristics likely serve as the lynchpin in generating opposition to Tusk, given his emphasis on progressivism and neoliberalism.

The regression model also predicts that those working in legal/social/cultural occupations are 19.1% more likely than the average population to disapprove of Tusk. Whilst it’s less immediately clear as to why this might be, it could be the case that this group’s professional interests and ideological leanings diverge from Tusk’s progressive, markets-oriented doctrine. Those working in an arts-based occupation might argue that certain elements of Polish culture are threatened by Tusk’s insistence on progressivism and might feel that their interests would be better protected by the more socially conservative PiS. It may also be the case that these individuals perceive PiS to be more generous in their decisions regarding arts funding than Tusk, who might be more inclined to write off the arts as a futile pursuit marked by unprofitability. Those working in social services may have similar economic concerns; those in legal professions may prioritise issues of justice, often reflected in socially conservative ideologies, that they feel are not adequately addressed by Tusk, thus piquing opposition.

Is There The Potential For Consensus?

After examining which characteristics are most likely to prompt support for Tusk, it seems natural to ask how he can meet the desires of both his advocates and detractors via policy measures. Through a comparative analysis of views on public expenditure with views on Tusk, we can identify which spending initiatives are most likely to produce positive reactions from across the political spectrum. It should be noted that this analysis only accounts for public opinion toward certain policies and does not consider whether a given policy is likely to be effective or not. It must also be noted that the sample size of the data presented in this section is quite large, at 2,003. This means that whilst it may appear at first glance that much of the variation discussed in this section is negligible, it is, in fact, statistically significant.

Interestingly, Figure 1 tends to suggest that in matters such as social services, unemployment, 

and the armed forces, Tusk’s most fervent critics agree with his most enthusiastic supporters that spending ought to be higher than it currently is, whilst moderates prefer greater restraint. Given that we understand from the regression analysis (see Table 2) that Tusk's critics are likely to be socioeconomically worse off than his supporters, it might be the case that these disadvantaged material conditions inform their policy preferences, prompting them to desire a robust social security network as a means to alleviating economic pressures. This is opposed to Tusk’s most extreme advocates, who might be expressing these preferences from a place of ideology rather than necessity.

Education spending is one area where this congruence does not hold. Figure 2 shows that, on average, individuals who approve of Tusk prefer greater education spending commitments than those who disapprove of Tusk. This phenomenon may simply reflect the fact that a large portion of Tusk’s most loyal supporters are highly educated and, therefore, may perceive education spending as more worthwhile than his less-educated critics.

So it seems that on a select few fiscal issues, there is a possibility for agreement between Tusk’s advocates and critics. However, when it comes to social issues, it’s clear that there is much more work to be done. Figure 3 effectively captures the divisiveness of certain social issues, like homosexuality. Views on homosexuality seem to be strongly associated with electoral identity, with a disparity of around 2.5 units between the averages of Tusk’s most zealous supporters and vicious critics. Religious identity probably plays a significant role in determining feelings on this issue, aligning with the data presented in Table 1, suggesting that Protestants are much more likely to approve of Tusk than the average Roman Catholic member of the public. Given the cultural and religious factors involved in producing these cultural disagreements, it’s likely that they will be much harder to reconcile than economic and social policy disagreements.

What’s Next For Tusk?

Upon seizing the reigns of the Polish government, Tusk was confronted with a bitterly divided electorate, an electorate that he must please if he is to guarantee his party’s prospects in future elections. Aside from continuing to legislate for the professional class, Tusk must consider reaching out to the PiS strongholds to connect with rural, traditional Roman Catholic voters. He can do this by leveraging his critics’ surprisingly progressive views on fiscal issues, improving their levels of economic security, and consequently giving them a tangible reason to consider supporting Tusk in future electoral contests. On the other hand, moral issues like religion and homosexuality are unlikely to disappear from public perception. They are likely to form the basis of the PiS campaign for the next election. These issues, therefore, must be treated with sensitivity. The key to future electoral success for Tusk is to reunify the nation through progressive policy measures that aim to promote inclusive growth; only then will he have the chance to sustain his future in the Polish government.


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