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Brussels: In a cathartic moment for many in Poland, centrist political veteran Donald Tusk has become the next prime minister, marking the end of eight years of right-wing nationalist rule and a dramatic shift in the European political landscape.
Tusk’s alliance secured a majority in October elections with a promise to restore Polish democracy and the country’s relationship with European allies.
“This is a wonderful day, not for me, but for all those who have deeply believed over these years that things will get even better, that we will chase away the darkness, that we will chase away evil,” Tusk said, addressing the Polish people. “From tomorrow, we will be able to right the wrongs so that everyone, without exception, can feel at home,” he added.
Donald Tusk shows a heart with his hands to lawmakers after he was elected as Poland’s Prime Minister in parliament in Warsaw on Monday.Credit: AP
But with interest and expectations running high, Tusk, a former president of the European Council, faces the daunting task of repairing relations with the European Union, depoliticising the judiciary, restoring the independence of the media, and bolstering the rights of women and minorities – all without alienating the many who sympathise with the old guard.
Prominent among the obstacles is President Andrzej Duda, who has two more years in office and remains loyal to the outgoing Law and Justice Party. Duda sought to delay a political transition by first tapping Law and Justice leader Mateusz Morawiecki to serve another term as prime minister. Although Law and Justice remains the largest party in parliament, it is well short of a majority, and Morawiecki’s proposed cabinet lost a vote of confidence on Monday.
That cleared the way for MPs to vote in favour of Tusk for prime minister. His government is expected to be endorsed in a further parliamentary vote, enabling him to take his place among European leaders at gatherings later this week.
Donald Turks, former president of the European Commission, is Poland’s next prime minister.Credit: AP
Congratulations poured in from across the Continent, as Warsaw’s Palace of Culture was illuminated in the colours of the Polish flag.
There is a sense of “now we can just be back to normal, in the sense of what the state is and that public institutions are respected,” said Malgorzata Bonikowska, president of Centre for International Relations in Warsaw.
But walking back eight years of Law and Justice party rule won’t be quick – or easy.
Restoring judicial independence
Tusk served as Poland’s prime minister before, from 2007 to 2014. He is also known throughout Europe as a former president of the European Council who helped hold the 27 nations of the EU together during the rocky period of Brexit.
That record will make his task somewhat easier as he seeks to get Poland back on good terms with the EU.
“Your experience and strong commitment to our European values will be precious in forging a stronger Europe, for the benefit of the Polish people,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen posted Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter.
One of Tusk’s priority objectives: to unblock billions in grants and loans that were withheld while Poland challenged the primacy of EU laws and allowed politics to influence the selection and disciplining of judges.
People celebrate as they watch a live screening showing the failed vote of confidence on the Prime Minister Morawiecki cabinet during a parliament session at the Kinoteka cinema in Warsaw.Credit: Getty
But making amends isn’t just about championing the EU Poland is supposed to restore the independence of its judiciary.
Duda has threatened to veto legislation aimed at undoing judicial reforms that allowed Law and Justice to stack the courts with loyalists. Even Monday, as Law and Justice was forced to relinquish its hold over the government, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that fines issued against the country by the Court of Justice of the European Union were unconstitutional.
Tusk could cut a deal with Brussels to unblock some of the money while he makes a good-faith effort to restore judicial independence.
But granting the funds as a goodwill gesture could backfire, said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. “Then Law and Justice can just say, ‘All of this milestone stuff was nonsense. They were withholding the money just because they didn’t like us. And now that we’ve gone, they’re giving over the money.’”
Restoring freedom of the press
A similar challenge awaits with the media.
Over eight years, Law and Justice consolidated its hold on the press. The state broadcaster, TVP, became a party-controlled outlet known for propagandistic coverage. Poland dropped from 18th to 57th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.
Tusk has said he would need “24 hours” to transform public television. In reality, changing the media environment will take time.
Jordan Higgins, of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, said the challenge is not just broadcasters and newspapers, but the regulatory bodies that Law and Justice put in place.
For instance, members of the National Media Council – a body created by Law and Justice – serve mandatory six-year terms and therefore won’t be going anywhere until 2028. They are responsible for appointing or dismissing supervisory boards of TVP, Polska Radio and the Polish Press Agency.
What’s more, restoring independence to public media might require legal changes – which Duda could block.
One option that has been floated is liquidating public media bodies and placing them into receivership. But Higgins called that a “dangerous precedent”.
Some conservative Polish journalists are already voicing concern about the possibility of an overhaul.
Tusk seems to understand the need to show Law and Justice supporters – and outside allies – that his reforms are not partisan purges. But it may be tough to convince a polarised electorate, said Jakub Jaraczewski, a research coordinator at Democracy Reporting International.
“They very strongly believe that there’s just one political party that can run Poland properly and that’s going to speak to their values,” he said.
A social revolution
Tusk’s government has promised to unleash a social revolution in Poland, ending an era of state-backed homophobia and restoring women’s rights, particularly when it comes to abortion.
In 2020, a top Polish court outlawed abortion under almost any circumstances, a decision that outraged many citizens, put the country at odds with most of the EU and presaged what was to come in some US states after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
Abortion was one of the most pivotal issues in Poland’s election, according to the main exit poll. Now, for activists and rights groups, Law and Justice’s departure is a major relief.
“After eight years, it’s hard to believe it’s over,” said Natalia Broniarczyk from the support group Abortion without Borders.
While campaigning, Tusk pledged that if his Civic Platform party came to power, it would introduce a law allowing abortion up to 12 weeks.
But the abortion ban is still on the books and Broniarczyk wonders if she can trust Tusk to reverse it. She would like to see an end to the harassment and prosecution of those who help others get abortions.
Without major legal changes, that could be tough, though activists and analysts say there may be ways to loosen restrictions before laws are changed.
“I’m waiting for action,” Broniarczyk said. “Because words aren’t really enough”.
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