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Tusk: unflappable leader who has steered Poland through crisis

AFP

Polish Prime Minister and EU Council president-elect Donald Tusk attends a press briefing at the European Union summit at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on August 30, 2014Polish Prime Minister and EU Council president-elect Donald Tusk attends a press briefing at the European Union summit at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on August 30, 2014

Polish Prime Minister and EU Council president-elect Donald Tusk attends a press briefing at the European Union summit at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on August 30, 2014Polish Prime Minister and EU Council president-elect Donald Tusk attends a press briefing at the European Union summit at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on August 30, 2014

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk is a pro-European free marketeer who has earned the reputation of being an unflappable leader able to turn even the most difficult situations to his advantage.

With political roots in Poland's anti-communist Solidarity trade union, the football-mad historian named on Saturday as the EU's next president started out as an underground journalist.

Under Communism, he also put his liberal ideals to work running a modest industrial painting business. Private enterprise was rare then, but small ventures were tolerated by the ruling Communist Party.

After a bloodless end to communist rule was negotiated in Poland in 1989, Tusk and a group of friends in his Baltic Sea hometown of Gdansk founded the Liberal Democratic Congress, pushing for sweeping privatisation of the state-run economy.

It won 37 of the 460 seats in parliament in the 1991 general election, only to lose them two years later. It then merged with the larger centrist Freedom Union.

Tusk led a breakaway faction in 2001 and formed the Civic Platform (PO).

While his 2005 presidential bid failed, the PO took power after a 2007 snap election and Tusk was propelled to a second consecutive term as prime minister in the 2011 general election.

He has the distinction of steering Poland though the global financial crisis as the only EU state to maintain growth.

He also steadied the country when in April 2010 an air crash in Smolensk, Russia, wiped out a large chunk of the Polish establishment, killing Poland's then president Lech Kaczynski, the country's top military brass, central bank chief and scores of MPs and other senior state figures.

- A savvy Kashubian -

More recently, the 57-year-old Tusk used his political savvy to survive a high-profile eavesdropping scandal implicating his senior ministers.

But his popularity has waned since his landslide win in 2011 amid slow growth and persistent unemployment. Opinion polls released this month show his PO trailing behind arch-rivals, the right-wing Law and Justice party.

The next general election is due in October, 2015.

Tusk has taken a firm line on Poland's national interests, questioning eurozone bailouts and declining to set a deadline for adopting the euro currency until its problems are solved.

With over 38 million people, Poland is the largest newcomer to the EU and has been eager to punch above its weight, playing a significant role in Eastern European policy since joining in 2004 and again recently in crisis management of the situation in Ukraine.

In line with his free-market thinking, Tusk is an admirer of the late US president Ronald Reagan and Britain's former premier Margaret Thatcher.

He has also been a faithful supporter of Polish freedom icon Lech Walesa, the former Gdansk shipyard electrician who led Solidarity and was elected president in 1990.

Tusk is a proud Kashubian -- a Slav minority from the Gdansk region -- and has been at the forefront of a revival of their culture that has reversed years of decline.

He only discovered his roots as an adult, prompting him to learn the language and later write the first textbook for would-be Kashubian-speakers.

He is married to historian Malgorzata Tusk and has two adult children, one of whom is a well-known fashion blogger.

Date created : 2014-08-31