Poland decides; Donald Tusk appointed as Polish PM

Poland's parliament backed Donald Tusk to become prime minister on Monday, ending eight years of nationalist rule and putting the country on track for a thawing of relations with the European Union.

2023 12 11T114031Z 2 LYNXMPEJBA02T RTROPTP 4 POLAND POLITICS
FILE PHOTO: Leader of Civic Platform (PO) Donald Tusk attends the first session of the newly elected Polish parliament in Warsaw, Poland November 13, 2023. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/FILE PHOTO

Poland has seen tens of billions of euros of European Union funds frozen due to a dispute with Brussels over democratic standards, but Tusk, a former European Council president, has vowed to mend relations and unblock the cash.

Tusk got the votes of 248 lawmakers while 201 were against.

“I will be indebted to all those who trusted in this new, wonderful Poland, to all those who trusted us …and decided to make this historic change,” he told the chamber after the vote.

Earlier in the day former Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party lost a vote of confidence.

His party came first in the Oct. 15 election and got the first shot at forming a government, but it lacked the necessary majority and all other parties ruled out working with PiS.

PiS has cast itself as a defender of Poland’s sovereignty and identity that has also improved living standards for millions by boosting social benefits and the minimum wage.

Critics, however, say PiS undermined judicial independence, turned state-owned media into a propaganda outlet and fomented prejudice against minorities such as immigrants and the LGBT community.

In a sign of the deep personal animosity PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski feels towards Tusk, he stormed onto the podium following the vote and told the new prime minister – “I know one thing, you are a German agent!”

During the election campaign PiS regularly painted Tusk as Berlin’s stooge.

Tusk will give a speech to parliament on Tuesday laying out his government’s plans and will then face a vote of confidence.

CHALLENGES

While the mood among Tusk supporters in parliament and beyond was jubilant, events elsewhere in Warsaw highlighted the challenges he will face in unblocking the frozen EU cash.

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Monday that judicial reform legislation which Poland needed to pass in order to access the funds was unconstitutional.

It reached the same conclusion about penalties imposed by the European Union’s top court before it reaches a final ruling, known as interim measures.

While Tusk is seen in Brussels as a leader who can set the bloc’s largest eastern member back on a pro-EU course, officials have said that no funds will be released without judicial reforms.

Analysts say this task could be complicated not only by the presence of judges appointed under an overhaul implemented by PiS which critics say politicised the courts, but also by the veto power of President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally.

Nevertheless, congratulations poured in from abroad, including from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“Your experience and strong commitment to our European values will be precious in forging a stronger Europe, for the benefit of the Polish people,” she wrote on social media platform X.

RECORD TURNOUT

Poland’s October election saw a record turnout of 74% with people in some locations queueing for hours to vote.

“They didn’t give up in these lines, they just stayed there until midnight and they still wanted to be part of this change,” parliament speaker Szymon Holownia told reporters.

There has been huge interest in the parliament’s workings since the election and subscriptions to its YouTube channel have rocketed.

Certain sessions have attracted well over a million viewers on the platform and one Warsaw cinema showed Monday’s session on the big screen, attracting so much interest that around 2,000 people were on a waiting list for tickets.

Some observers have also attributed the surge in interest in part to the appointment of Holownia as speaker. His wise-cracking while running debates has charmed many who first got to know him as a host of a prime-time talent show.

Lech Walesa, Poland’s first democratically elected president after the fall of communism, who led the Solidarity trade union and won the Nobel Peace Prize, was in attendance and received multiple standing ovations from the coalition set to take power.

Dressed in a sweater bearing the word “Constitution”, which opponents of PiS wear to show their condemnation of what they say was democratic backsliding under the party’s rule, Walesa, 80, had just left hospital after a bout of COVID to attend.

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