WARSAW, Poland — A power transition began Monday in the Polish parliament, where the outgoing national conservative leaders made their farewell statements as a majority of lawmakers prepared to elect a new prime minister, the centrist, pro-EU political veteran Donald Tusk.
The power transition comes two months since Poles turned out in huge numbers to vote for change in a national election. The transition was delayed for weeks by the president, who chose to keep his political allies in office as long as possible.
“READY, STEADY, GO!” tweeted Tusk, who – if all goes as planned – will be chosen as the new prime minister by bedtime.
Szymon Holownia, a former TV showman who leads a party allied with Tusk, became the speaker of parliament last month and has been trying to encourage more dignified behavior in the sometimes raucous assembly. Parliamentary proceedings have ignited widespread curiosity and emotions and led to a spike in the number of subscribers to the Sejm’s YouTube channel.
A Warsaw cinema which livestreamed Monday’s proceedings drew dozens of spectators who munched popcorn and erupted in laughter as the outgoing prime minister spoke.
The change of power in Poland is felt as hugely consequential for the 38 million citizens of the central European nation, where collective anger produced a record-high turnout to replace a government that had been eroding democratic norms.
There is relief for many women who saw reproductive rights eroded and LGBTQ+ people who faced a government hate campaign that drove some to leave the country.
Law and Justice supporters, however, fear the new government will promote more liberal policies that conflict with many of their conservative views on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
The change holds important implications for Ukraine and the EU as well.
Tusk, a past EU leader, is expected to improve Warsaw’s standing in Brussels. His leadership of the EU’s fifth largest member by population will boost centrist, pro-EU forces at a time when euroskeptics, such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, are gaining strength.
Poland’s outgoing nationalist government was initially one of Kyiv’s strongest allies after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, but ties have worsened as economic competition from Ukrainian food producers and truckers has angered Poles who say their livelihoods are threatened.
A blockade by Polish truckers at the border with Ukraine counts among the many problems Tusk will have to tackle immediately. The protest has held up the shipment of some military equipment that charities are importing, and Tusk has accused the outgoing government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of mishandling the situation.
In a speech that traditionally launches a government in power but was in fact a parting speech, outgoing Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described what he viewed as the successes of his government and his desire for reconciliation in a society so divided it seems sometimes at war with itself.
“We must end the Polish-Polish war,” Morawiecki said, to applause from his supporters but laughter from the others “Let’s choose dialogue, let’s look for what unites us.”
Morawiecki’s government will later face a confidence vote he is expected to lose, bringing an end to his premiership exactly six years after he assumed the office on Dec. 11, 2017.
Simple arithmetic indicates he has no chance of surviving the vote. His Law and Justice party won more seats than any other party in the Oct. 15 election but lost its parliamentary majority. A bloc of parties allied with Tusk that range from left-wing to conservative won a majority of 248 seats in the 460-seat body.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice leader who has been the driving force in the country for the past eight years, pledged that no matter what happens his party would pursue its goals until another victory is possible in the future.
The Sejm is scheduled to elect Tusk later Monday. He is to address lawmakers Tuesday and he will face a confidence vote which he seems sure to win given that he is backed by a majority.
It’s a day keenly awaited by former President Lech Walesa, the anti-communist freedom fighter who had despaired at the unraveling of the democracy he fought for under Kaczynski, his bitter foe. Though Walesa was hospitalized last week for COVID-19 and remains weak, he traveled early from his home in Gdansk to attend the parliamentary session.
Walesa arrived wearing a sweatshirt with the word “Constitution” – a slogan against Law and Justice. He sat in a balcony above the lawmakers with other dignitaries. Many stood to applaud him, chanting his name.
Law and Justice lawmakers did not clap and remained seated.
The final act in the transition of power will take place when President Andrzej Duda swears in Tusk and his government, expected on Wednesday.
Tusk plans to fly to Brussels for an EU summit later in the week where discussions critical for Ukraine’s future are expected as the nation fights off the Russian invasion. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russia’s closest ally in the EU, is demanding that Ukraine’s membership in the EU and billions of euros in funding meant for the war-torn country be taken off the agenda.
Morawiecki’s government reacted to an economic dispute with Kyiv during the election campaign by banning Ukraine food imports and saying it had stopped sending military aid to Ukraine. Last week, Tusk said he would seek solutions to the truckers’ protest that take into account their financial needs but also regional security.
Monika Scislowska and Michal Dyjuk contributed reporting from Warsaw.
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