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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Poland picks Donald Tusk as its new leader, bucking Europe’s trend to the far right

Berlin – Poland has a new prime minister, and with his clearly pro-European Union, pro-NATO stance, Donald Tusk marks a stark change from the country’s outgoing, right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

With his election victory, Tusk, a 66-year-old former European Commission president, has also become a new bearer of hope for European progressives and centrists at a time when many nations on the continent are showing increasing affinity for far right-wing populism.

Far-right lawmaker douses menorah candles in Poland’s parliament

Political analyst Wojciech Przybylski, who heads the Visegrad Insight think tank, told CBS News that Tusk’s election was “a moment of empowerment and excitement” for Poland.

“It woke up the silent majority that oftentimes allows for slipping into autocracy by being silent,” Przybylski said, attributing Tusk’s win to the politician’s “leadership and stubborn, direct campaigning and coordination with other leaders. That’s a way to win, and rule.”

Tusk wants to improve his country’s relations with the EU, and addressing lawmakers Tuesday ahead of his swearing in, he said anyone who questions Poland’s place in the bloc was damaging its interests.

Tusk said Poland — which has been a vital backer of its neighbor Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022 — would be a strong member of NATO and a strong ally of the U.S. as it seeks to gain a leading position among its European neighbors.

In a clear effort to distinguish himself from his nationalist predecessor, he warned that an isolated Poland would be exposed to greater geopolitical risks.

Below is a look at some of the recent political changes across Europe that show how, with Tusk’s election, Poland appears to be going in another direction.

The Netherlands and Geert Wilders

The most recent example of Europe’s swing to the right is the Netherlands, where right-wing, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders’ party won a sweeping victory in November’s parliamentary elections.

Migration and asylum proved to be decisive issues in the election. Wilders had been a prominent figure on the fringes of Dutch politics for years, but his strident anti-Islam rhetoric — manifested now in plans to have mosques, Islamic schools and even the Quran banned nationally — helped put him in position to lead the next government, assuming he can build a coalition with other parties.

Since his party won and he started looking for coalition partners, Wilders has pledged to lead the country for “all Netherlanders.”

“Sometimes I will have to withdraw proposals and I will do that,” Wilders told Dutch lawmakers this week. “I will show the Netherlands, the legislature… anybody who wants to hear it, that we will adapt our rules to the constitution and bring our proposals in line with it.”

Frans Timmermans, who leads a center-left alliance in the country’s Parliament, made it clear with his reply that he doesn’t trust Wilders to make good on that vow, telling him: “I consider your ideas a threat to the democratic rule of law,” according to The Associated Press.

Italy and Giorgia Meloni

In September 2022, Italians voted in the country’s most right-wing government since World War II. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, is the country’s first female leader.

As CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay reported, given Italy’s disastrous history the last time a hard-right party rose to power — under dictator Benito Mussolini ahead of World War II — it was a stunning victory for the Brothers of Italy, which, only a few years earlier, had existed only as a party on the fringes of the country’s politics.

Meloni heads a coalition government with two equally far-right parties and frames herself as a family-focused Christian battling a left-wing ruling elite, and often points at migration as the root of many socioeconomic challenges facing Italy.

Not leaders, yet, but tail winds for the far right

In Switzerland, the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party was the clear winner in October’s national elections. Switzerland is led by a seven-member Federal Council, the members of which are elected by the Parliament. In the October elections, the People’s Party bounced back from losing seats four years earlier to enhance its position as the biggest party, by seats held, in the Parliament.

In Germany, the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is riding high in the polls, currently trailing only former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party (CDU).

Germany’s national Office for the Protection of the Constitution has classified the AfD as a suspected right-wing extremist organization, after various members made remarks deemed unconstitutional, including antisemitic comments and calls for violence against the current government.

The AfD’s increasing vote share, however, has forced a lively debate within parties like the CDU over how willing they should be to enter future coalitions with the far right.

In April 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron decisively won a second term, beating his far-right-wing opponent Marine Le Pen.

But the ability of Le Pen’s National Rally party to capture 40% of the vote was a wake-up call for French liberals and centrists that her anti-EU, anti-NATO views have gained traction as the continent struggles to emerge from the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic amid a spiraling immigration crisis.

In Austria, where a new Parliament will be elected next year, the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) is ahead in the polls. The populist, anti-EU party has been a part of governments in Austria several times over the last 25 years, but it has yet to win enough seats to lead one.

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