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WARSAW: Donald Tusk, Poland’s main opposition leader in Sunday’s elections, is a football-mad historian with political roots in the anti-communist movement and experience putting out fires both at home and abroad.

The 66-year-old former prime minister plunged back into Polish politics as head of the centrist Civic Platform party after returning from a stint in Brussels.

President of the European Council until 2019, he handled crises including migration, Greece’s economic plight and tough Brexit negotiations.

After learning English from scratch for the post, he went on to win a reputation for plain speaking with a penchant for colourful phrasing.

Of Brexit, he warned “there will be no cakes on the table for anyone, there will be only salt and vinegar”.

Until last year, he served as head of Europe’s top political grouping, the centre-right European People’s Party.

Active on social media, Tusk frequently takes shots at his Polish arch-rival, the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

He has notably criticised Kaczynski and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki over double-digit inflation, the tightening of abortion laws and a visa fraud scandal.

This month, he brought hundreds of thousands of government opponents into the streets in what supporters said was the biggest demonstration ever in the Polish capital Warsaw.

The latest polls indicate support for his party is on the rise, though it is still in second place to PiS.

Bitter enmity

Tusk and Kaczynski are bitter enemies, with Kaczynski accusing Tusk of “moral responsibility” for the death of his twin brother Lech, who was president at the time, in an air crash in Russia in 2010.

Tusk was prime minister when the crash wiped out a large chunk of the Polish establishment on the way to Smolensk to mark the murder of thousands of Poles by Soviet secret police during World War II.

Polish and Russian investigators found that pilot error, bad weather and poor air-traffic control were to blame.

But conservatives have accused Tusk’s government of negligence in preparations for the presidential visit and shortcomings in the investigation.

Poland may expand Ukraine import ban to other products

More recently, amid Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, Poland’s conservatives have gone after Tusk for signing gas deals with Russia while he was premier.

The PiS set up a committee with the stated goal of investigating citizens who may have succumbed to Russian influence.

Critics argued the measure, introduced just before the election, would be used to target Tusk. His party even dubbed it the “Lex Tusk”, or Tusk Law.

Conservatives have also accused him of being soft on Germany, with Kaczynski suggesting that Berlin wanted to interfere in the election campaign and install Tusk as prime minister.

Tusk’s enmity with the PiS spilled onto the international stage when the government tried – but failed – to block his re-election as EU chief in 2017.

Tusk’s roots as a fighter go back to his upbringing in Gdansk on the Baltic Sea.

“As a young man, I was a typical hooligan… We would roam the streets, you know, cruising for a bruising” after football matches, he once told The Financial Times.

Football continues to be an obsession, with Tusk able to rattle off match results from major tournaments decades ago.

Gdansk later became the cradle of the Solidarity movement, and it was here that Tusk forged his credentials as something of a Cold War warrior.

A trade unionist, journalist and historian, he also ran a modest industrial painting business under communism. Private enterprise was rare then, but small ventures were tolerated.

“It’s by painting all sorts of industrial sites, chimneys and bridges that he learned about the market economy,” longtime friend Jerzy Borowczak told AFP.

After communism fell, Tusk and others formed a liberal party, pushing for sweeping privatisation of the state-run economy. In 2001, he co-founded Civic Platform.

He took power in 2007 from the Kaczynski twins and served until leaving for Brussels in 2014.

As premier, Tusk had the distinction of steering Poland through the global financial crisis as the only EU state to maintain growth.

He is married to Malgorzata Tusk, a historian, and has two adult children, including a daughter who is a well-known fashion blogger.

Tusk is a proud Kashubian, a Slav minority from the Gdansk region. He discovered his roots as an adult, prompting him to learn the language.

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