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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Donald Tusk chosen as Poland’s prime minister after rival is rejected

The leader of Poland’s opposition, Donald Tusk, center, after legislators rejected a new government proposed by the caretaker prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, on Monday. (Michal Dyjuk/Associated Press)

By Andrew Higgins

Poland’s newly elected Parliament torpedoed a long-shot effort by right-wing forces to stay in power and chose opposition leader Donald Tusk as the nation’s new prime minister earlier this week. The decision ushers the biggest and most populous country on the European Union’s formerly communist eastern flank into a new era.

Legislators, as expected, rejected a new government proposed by the caretaker prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, whose party, Law and Justice, lost its parliamentary majority in an October election.

As Parliament shot down Law and Justice’s effort to keep power, opposition legislators taunted Morawiecki and his supporters over their defeat, chanting “Donald Tusk, Donald Tusk.”

Later Monday, Parliament nominated and confirmed Tusk, 66, as Poland’s new leader, drawing cheers and applause from his allies and a sour denunciation of the new prime minister as a “German agent” from Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chair of Law and Justice and Poland’s de facto leader since 2015. Tusk, a veteran centrist politician who led Poland from 2007 to 2014, is expected to be sworn in Wednesday by President Andrzej Duda, an ally of Law and Justice.

“This is a truly wonderful day, not only for me, but for all those who have deeply believed for many years that things will get better, that we will chase away the darkness, that we will chase away evil,” Tusk said after being confirmed as prime minister by the Sejm, the more important lower house of the Polish Parliament.

The return to power of Tusk, endorsed as Poland’s new leader with 248 votes for and 201 against in the Sejm, completed an ill-tempered period of political transition that Law and Justice had sought to prolong as long as possible, despite losing its majority in the October election.

Morawiecki, who led Poland’s previous right-wing government, resigned after the election but was asked by Duda to stay on in a caretaker capacity and to try to form a new government.

Critics of Law and Justice denounced Duda’s move as a last-gasp attempt by the defeated party to prolong its rule and appoint allies to positions in state institutions and companies.

In a final, desperate effort to keep the opposition from taking over, a commission formed by the outgoing government to investigate Russian influence recommended Nov. 29 that Tusk and other leading opposition figures not be allowed to hold positions responsible for state security.

Votes in Parliament on Monday, however, ended the defeated party’s efforts to remain in office and elevated Tusk, the leader of the main opposition party, Civic Coalition, to leadership of a new government. He is expected to announce his Cabinet on Tuesday.

After a day of often raucous debate, 266 legislators voted against the government proposed by Morawiecki and 190 voted for, far short of the majority it needed in the 460-member Sejm to hang on.

By rejecting Morawiecki’s proposed government, doomed to fail because of Law and Justice’s electoral defeat, Parliament delivered a humiliating blow to Kaczynski, a bitter political and personal enemy of Tusk.

Kaczynski warned that the vote against Morawiecki and the return to power of Tusk, whom he has repeatedly reviled as an agent for German and Russian interests, “look like the end of Polish democracy, but we hope this will not be the case.”

Many others, however, cheered the end of the deeply conservative party’s rule, including Lech Walesa, a former Polish president and leader in the 1980s of the anti-communist Solidarity trade union movement. A longtime foe of Kaczynski who has accused him of collaborating with the communist-era secret police, Walesa was so eager to witness the demise of Law and Justice that, despite a recent struggle with COVID, he traveled to Warsaw from his home in the port city of Gdansk to witness the vote. He stood in the spectators’ gallery beaming with delight as Tusk was confirmed as prime minister.

The installation of a new government headed by Tusk could be a drastic shift away from Poland’s direction during eight years of Law and Justice rule, a period marked by close relations between the governing party and the Roman Catholic Church and frequent quarrels with the European Union.

Scope for change, however, will be crimped by the grip of Law and Justice appointees on the judiciary; powerful state bodies like the central bank, the national prosecutor’s office, the national broadcasting system; and large state-controlled corporations like energy giant PKN Orlen. Many of those appointments will be hard to reverse.

The outgoing government made clear it had no intention of cutting Tusk any slack, with former ministers recycling wild election campaign smears of the man now set to govern Poland.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday evening, Mariusz Blaszczak, defense minister in the previous government, responded to Tusk’s nomination as prime minister by denouncing him as a threat to national security who, “completely obedient to Brussels and Berlin,” will “weaken our security and push us to the periphery of Europe.” He also vowed to “defend” public media, drawing jeers from Tusk’s supporters.

The public broadcasting system, a network of national and local radio and television stations, is stacked with Law and Justice loyalists. TVP, the main state television station, has so far clung to its role as a propaganda bullhorn for Law and Justice. Its news coverage is heavily slanted in favor of the former governing party, though it has now curbed somewhat previously incessant denunciations of Tusk as a traitor.

During a debate before the votes in Parliament rejecting Morawiecki and approving Tusk, opponents of Law and Justice reviled the former governing party as sore losers who had needlessly dragged out the transfer of power.

“These entire two months were built on the foundation of bitterness and non-acceptance of the sovereign’s judgment, which removed Law and Justice from power,” said Wladyslaw Kosniak-Kamusz, the leader of a centrist party allied with Tusk. “This is the end of this bad stage for Poland,” he added.

Law and Justice’s defeat came less than a month after a far-right party performed far better than expected in Dutch national elections. Although it fell well short of winning a majority and is having trouble forming a government, the Dutch party’s result sent shock waves across Europe since the Netherlands had long been seen as one of the continent’s most liberal countries.

In Poland, Tusk and his allies are divided on the issue of abortion, which was almost completely banned by the previous government, but they share a desire to restore the independence of the Polish judiciary, which was heavily politicized under Law and Justice, and to repair relations with the European Union.

A long and often-vicious election campaign cast a shadow over Poland’s previously robust support for Ukraine as Law and Justice sought to avoid losing votes to a far-right party strongly opposed to helping Ukraine. A new centrist government headed by Tusk would most likely try to put relations between the two countries back on track, though issues like cheap Ukrainian grain and a blockade of the border by protesting Polish truckers could obstruct a quick return to more harmonious relations.

Law and Justice won more votes than any other single party in the October election and proclaimed victory. But its opponents — Tusk’s Civic Coalition; a leftist grouping, New Left; and a centrist alliance, Third Way — won a clear majority in the Sejm. The opposition also expanded a majority it had in the Senate, the upper house of Parliament.

That simple arithmetic was running against Law and Justice was clear when the new Parliament convened for the first time Nov. 13 and selected Szymon Holownia, a leader of Third Way, as speaker of the Sejm and rejected a candidate put forward by the previous governing party.

The selection of Holownia, a former television celebrity, as speaker quickly boosted public interest in previously dull legislative sessions, with subscribers to the Parliament’s livestream of debates on YouTube rising 10 times to nearly 500,000. “Stock up on popcorn because I suspect there will be a lot of excitement,” Holownia recommended.

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